Holidays and High Holy Days
Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of Tishri. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, "head of the year" or "first of the year." Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the Jewish New Year. It bears little relationship to the secular event.  One important similarity between the Jewish New Year and the secular one is it is a time to plan a better life, making "resolutions." The Jewish New Year is a time to begin introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the new year. The name "Rosh Hashanah" is not mentioned in the Bible ,the Bible refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar). The holiday is instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25.
Yom Kippur
"Yom Kippur" means "Day of Atonement,"  It is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," to atone for the sins of the past year. In the days preceding our names are inscribe, by G-d, in the "book of Life and Death". On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is sealed. This day is your last appeal, your last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate your repentance and make amends.
Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. The holiday is instituted in Leviticus 23:26 on.
Sukkot marks drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays (Yom Kippur) to one of the most joyous.
The word "Sukkot" means "booths," and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live in during this holiday. Sukkot is frequently translated as  "The Feast of Tabernacles," which describes the dwelling that were built in the desert during the 40 years of wandering.

This festival is sometimes referred to as Zeman Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing. Sukkot lasts for seven days. There are two holidays following the festival, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, that are commonly thought to be a part of Sukkot.

Hoshana Rabba
Literally  great hosanna. The seventh day of Sukkot, on which seven circuits are made around the synagogue reciting a prayer with the refrain, "Hosha na!" 'please save us'.
Shemini Atzeret
The two holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are mistakenly thought of as part of Sukkot, this is technically incorrect.  They are both holidays in their own right and are not involve the special observances of Sukkot.
Shemini Atzeret literally means "the assembly of the eighth (day)." Atzeret also has the meaning of holding back. ."Rabbinic literature explains it thus: G-d is like a host, who invites us to stay as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He asks us to stay another day, as He has enjoyed himself so much.

On Shmini Atzeret a prayer for rain is invoked in the Synagogue. The prayer itself was composed by Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Kallir, who lived in the Land of Israel probably towards the end of the sixth century, also is the author of the Hoshanot that are said throughout Sukkot.  The theme of the prayers for forgiveness and atonement on Yom Kippur is also the theme of the prayer for rain, ZEKHUT AVOT, "the merit of the fathers." Claiming not their own worthiness but for the righteousness of their saintly ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
During the 11th century, Shemini Atzeret also came to be known as Simchat Torah, "Rejoicing of the Torah."

Simchat Torah
Simchat Torah marks the end of the cycle of weekly Torah readings.  The last Torah portion is read followed immediately to the first chapter of Genesis.  This reminds us that the Torah is a circle, and never ends. This completion of the readings is a time of great celebration. There are seven processions around the synagogue (hakkafot,) carrying all the Torah scrolls, still in the white coverings marking Yom Kippur, together with plenty of high-spirited singing and dancing. As many people as possible are given the honor of carrying a Torah scroll in these processions. 

The custom of hakkafot on Simchat Torah dates from the late16th century, in the city of Safed, the practice of hakkafot goes back much further to the downfall of the walls of Jericho. There were seven circuits around Jericho; once a day for six days, and seven times on the seventh day. It continues today at the very start of Jewish wedding ceremony where the bride is to be seen circling seven times around the bridegroom.

The Midrash describes Solomon as having instigated a special feast after he was granted wisdom.  Rabbi Eleazar said:
"Deduced from this is that we make a feast to mark the conclusion of the Torah; when God told Solomon, 'I have given you a wise and understanding heart like none who came before you or after you.' Solomon immediately made a feast for all his servants to celebrate the event, it is only proper to make a feast and celebrate when finishing the Torah."

The tradition began during the ninth and tenth centuries of the common at the time of the Geonim, the name Simchat Torah came into use even later.

The custom of reading of the last portion of the Torah was Talmudic, but that of reading of the first chapter of Genesis was not introduced until sometime after the 12th century. The reasons given for this additional reading were to indicate that "just as we were privileged to witness its completion, so shall we be privileged to witness its beginning" and to prevent Satan from accusation that Israel were happy to finish the Torah and 'get it over with' and did not consider it important to continue reading it.

Small children are encouraged to follow the procession with decorated flags or miniature scrolls. It also became customary to include them in the Torah reading which follows. A child under Bat or Bar mitzphah  age of thirteen is not generally called to the Torah but on Simhat Torah there developed the custom of 'kol ha-ne'arim' meaning "all the children," where all of the children in the congregation are called up collectively and given a joint aliyah.  A tallit is spread over the heads of the entire group and the blessings are recited.

Hanukah is the Jewish festival of rededication. A nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee succeeded in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government regained control of the Temple was then rededicated. According to tradition, at the time of the rededication, there was only enough oil left one day.  The rest had been defiled by the Greeks. Miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh  supply of oil for the menorah. The eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.
The holiday only commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.

Hanukkah is not a very important religious holiday, its religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. The only religious observance during the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a nine stemmed candelabrum called a hanukiah. One candle is added for each night. An extra candle, the shammus (servant) is added at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed on the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings  are recited: a general prayer over candles, a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time, and the she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year).

Asarah B'Tevet
The Fast of Tevet marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem. It has also been proclaimed a memorial day for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. 
Tu B'Shevat
Tu B'Shevat, is a holiday known as the New Year for Trees. The word "Tu" is not really a word, it is the number 15 in Hebrew, hence the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat.  Tu B'Shevat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. See Leveticus 19:23-25, The fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year's fruit is for G-d, and after that, the fruit may be eaten.  Each tree is considered to have aged one year on Tu B'Shevat, so if you planted a tree on Shevat 14, it is in its second year the next day.  Tu B'Shevat is not mentioned in the Torah.
The Fast of Esther
The Fast of Esther  commemorates the three days that Esther fasted before approaching King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people. The fast is connected with Purim.
If Adar 13 falls on a Friday or Saturday, it is moved to the preceding Thursday, because it cannot be moved forward a day as it would then fall on Purim.
Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.

The story of Purim is told in the book of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia raiserd as the daughter of her cousin Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus took Esther as part of his harem, loved Esther more than his other women and made her his queen, not knowing that Esther was a Jew as Mordecai told her not to reveal her nationality.

The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman.. The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to do as he pleased with them.

Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people, dangerous, because anyone who came into the king's presence without being summoned could be executed. Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into tell the king about Haman's plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.

The word "Purim" means "lots" refering to the lottery Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews.  For a leap year when there are two months of Adar,  Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar, so it is always one month before Passover.

The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the bible that does not contain the name of G-d.  Thus, an important message contained in the story is that G-d often works in ways that are not always apparent, His ways may appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.

Shushan Purim
In cities that were walled in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, because the book of Esther says that in Shushan (a walled city), deliverance from the massacre was not complete until the following day.
Passover (Pesach)
Passover is the first of the three major pilgrim festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the others being Shavuot and Sukkot).  The major observances of Pesach mark the Exodus from Egypt after generations of  slavery. The  story is told in Exodus, Ch. 1-15. The main Pesach observances are detailed in Exodus Chs.12-15.

The name "Pesach" derives from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet meaning to pass through or over, to exempt or to spare, refering to the fact that G-d "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt.   "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as Hag he-Aviv (the Spring Festival), hag ha-Matzoth (the Festival of Matzahs), and Zeman Herutenu (the Time of Our Freedom) Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday.

Pesach lasts for seven days. The first and last days of which no work is permitted. Work is permitted
on the intermediate days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed.

Lag B'Omer
Every night, from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavuot, we recite a blessing and state the count of the omer in both weeks and days. This is a period of partial mourning in memory of a plague during the lifetime of Rabbi Akiba.  Haircuts, weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing are not conducted,   during this time.  The 33rd day of the Omer,Lag b'Omer, (the eighteenth of Iyar) is a minor holiday commemorating a break in the plague. The mourning practices of the Omer period are lifted on that date. The word "Lag" is not really a word; it is the number 33 in Hebrew.
Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is the second of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance, the other two are Passover and Sukkot.  Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at  Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu, the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah. Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple, also known as Hag ha-Bikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits.
Shiva Ascar B'Tamuz
Shiva Ascar B'Tamuz , is the Fast of Tammuz, marking the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached prior to the fall of the first Temple.
Tisha B'Av
Tisha B'Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have fallen upon the Jewish people. Tisha B'Av means, the ninth (day) of Av.

The restrictions on Tisha B'Av are similar to those on Yom Kippur. No  eating and drinking (even water); washing, bathing, shaving or wearing cosmetics, wearing leather shoes, engaging in sexual relations and studying Torah.

Many tragedies that have have occurred on the ninth of Av.  Tisha B'Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, both of which were destroyed on the ninth of Av, the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., the second by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Although this holiday is primarily commemorates the destruction of the Temple, consideration is given to the many other tragedies,  which have occurred on this day, to the Jewish people. Notably the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Tisha B'Av is the culmination of a three week period of increasing mourning, beginning with Shiva Ascar B'Tamuz.


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