Religious Festivals and Holy Holidays
Festivals are the backbone of the Jewish faith; they reflect Jewish history and its teaching. They fulfill the purpose of festival remembrance by maintaining and passing on, one generation to the next, the emotions of a heritage carried forward into the present and never lost. They nurture the sense of cohesiveness that has sustained the Jewish people throughout their long and often heartrending history.
In the Jewish calendar, festivals are divided into two segments: major and minor. The five major ones are as laid down in the Torah: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).
Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year usually takes place sometime in September. This holiday is also known as the Day of Judgment or Day of Remembrance. Rosh Hashanah ushers in a ten-day period of self-examination and penitence.
The Day of Atonement, known in Hebrew as Yom Kippur, arrives ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is the most solemn Jewish religious holiday. On this day, Jews seek purification through the forgiveness of others and sincere repentance of their own sins. They abstain from food, drink, and sex.
The days for the Festival of Pesach or Passover usually fall in March or April. Passover celebrates God's deliverance of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. During this weeklong holiday, Jewish people eat unleavened bread known as matzoh in commemoration of the quickly made unleavened bread the Israelites had to subsist on during their escape from Egypt.
Shavuot, translated into Greek as “Pentecost” by the early Christians, takes place seven weeks after Passover and was originally an agricultural festival that marked the beginning of the wheat harvest. Additionally, this holiday also commemorates the anniversary of Moses receiving the Law of God on Mount Sinai.
Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. It is an autumn festival that celebrates the end of the harvest. During this holiday, which lasts a week, people build little huts, known as sukkahs, where they are required to spend some time in meditation.
All other festivals are considered minor, although Hanukkah, officially a minor festival, has become so popular that it is often celebrated more than some of the major festivals.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. This produces the need to add a thirteenth month every now and then so that the major festivals fall in their proper season. It takes a Jewish mathematician to track what is called the lunisolar structure.