Rosh Hashanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the celebration of the Jewish New Year, observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, culminating on the fast day of Yom Kippur. Customs include the sounding of the shofar, using round challah, and eating apples and honey for a sweet new year.

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance, considered to be the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. In three separate passages in the Torah, the Jewish people are told, “the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: You shall practice self-denial.” (Leviticus 23:27). Fasting is seen as fulfilling this biblical commandment.

Sukkot2014Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest, as well as the commemoration of the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert after Sinai. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of Tishrei and is marked by several distinct traditions. One tradition, which takes the commandment to “dwell in booths” literally, is to build a sukkah, a booth or hut. A sukkah is often erected by Jews during this festival, and it is common practice for some to eat and even live in these temporary dwellings during Sukkot.

Simchat Torah, Hebrew for “rejoicing in the Law”, celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah. Simchat Torah is a joyous festival, in which we affirm our view of the Torah as a tree of life and demonstrate a living example of never-ending, lifelong study. Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of Deuteronomy is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B’reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read.

Chanukah, meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, refers to the joyous eight-day celebration during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Macabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “re-dedication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. The modern home celebration of Chanukah centers around the lighting of the chanukiah, a special menorah for Chanukah; unique foods, latkes and jelly doughnuts; and special songs and games. During the holiday, there is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil to commemorate the miracle of a small flask of oil keeping the flame in the Temple alight for eight days.

Purim is celebrated by the reading of the Scroll of Esther, known in Hebrew as the Megillat Esther, which relates the basic story of Purim. Under the rule of King Ahashuerus, Haman, the King’s prime minister, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of the land from destruction. The reading of the megillah is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noise-making when Haman’s name is read aloud. The significance in Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become – a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival against all odds.

Pesach, known as Passover in English, is a major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.The ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning “order”) and a festive meal; the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread). On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, we read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning “telling,” which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach seder. The Pesach seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar year for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name. Listen now: When Do We Eat Lotsa Matzah

Yom Hashoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, occurs on the 27th of Nisan. Shoah, which means catastrophe or utter destruction in Hebrew, refers to the atrocities that were committed against the Jewish people during World War II. This is a memorial day for those who died in the Shoah. The Shoah (also known as the Holocaust, from a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire”) was initiated by the members of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, which seized power in Germany in 1933. The Nazis believed in a doctrine of racial superiority, centering around the idea that that people of Northern European descent were somehow better than members of all other races – especially the Jews, who were “unworthy of life.” Today, many commemorate Yom Hashoah by lighting yellow candles in order to keep the memories of the victims alive. The National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods co-sponsors such a program. Most synagogues and Jewish communities gather together to commemorate the day through worship, music and stories from survivors.

Shavuot is a Hebrew word meaning “weeks” and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot, like so many other Jewish holidays, began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. Special customs on Shavuot are the reading of the Book of Ruth, which reminds us that we too can find a continual source of blessing in our tradition. Another tradition includes staying up all night to study Torah and Mishnah, a custom called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which symbolizes our commitment to the Torah, and that we are always ready and awake to receive the Torah. Traditionally, dairy dishes are served on this holiday to symbolize the sweetness of the Torah, as well as the “land of milk and honey.”

Tu B’shvat, or the “New Year of the Trees,” is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the fifteenth (tu) of Sh’vat. Scholars believe that Tu B’shvat was originally an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.C.E. this holiday was a way for Jews to symbolically bind themselves to their former homeland by eating foods that could be found in Israel. In the seventeenth century Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu’Bishvat similar to the Passover seder. Today, Tu B’shvat has also become a tree planting festival in Israel, in which both Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honor or in memory of a loved one or friend. To plant a tree in honor or in memory of a friend or loved one, please contact The JNF Online Tree Planting Center.