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A Gentile's Guide to the Jewish Holidays

Level: Gentile

• Holiday dates vary because the Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar
• Some Jews add an extra day to some holidays because of ancient tradition; some don't
• Jews expect you to know a little about Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Chanukkah
• There are many other holidays, but nobody expects gentiles to know about them
I know Weinstein's parents were upset, Superintendent, but I was sure it was a phony excuse. I mean, it sounds so made up: "Yom Kippur."
     - Principal Skinner, The Simpsons

If you want a general understanding of what your Jewish friends' and colleagues' holidays are, or if you just want to avoid making Principal Skinner's mistake when you schedule Jewish employees, co-workers, colleagues or students, then this is the page for you. Other pages on this site provide more detailed information about the Jewish calendar and the holidays; this page just tells you what you minimally need to know to avoid embarrassing yourself or offending Jews.

Why do Jewish holidays keep changing dates? 

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Congregant 1: When is Chanukkah this year?
Congregant 2: Same as always, 25th of Kislev.
     - Overheard at Congregation Children of Israel, Athens Georgia

Jewish holidays actually occur on the same day every year: the same day on the Jewish calendar! The Jewish calendar has a different number of days than the calendar you use because the Jewish calendar is tied to the moon's cycles instead of the sun's. The Jewish calendar loses about 11 days relative to the solar calendar every year, but makes up for it by adding a month every two or three years. As a result, the holidays don't always fall on the same day, but they always fall within the same month or two. The Chinese calendar (which is also lunar) works the same way, which is why Chinese New Year occurs on different days but is always in late January or early February. The Muslim calendar is lunar but does not add months, which is why Ramadan circles the calendar.

When does a Jewish Holiday Start and End? 

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Attorney 1: Thursday is Rosh Hashanah, but I'm available for trial on Friday
Attorney 2: Thursday and Friday are Rosh Hashanah for me.
Attorney 3: I have to leave early on Wednesday for Rosh Hashanah.
Judge: Is this holiday one day, two or three?
Attorney 1: One day.
Attorney 2: Two days.
Attorney 3: Two days.
     - Inspired by a true story

How long is a Jewish holiday? It depends on who you ask!

In ancient times, because of confusion about the calendar, an extra day was added to some holidays. In modern times, some branches of Judaism have abandoned this custom, returning the holidays to the length specified in the Bible. Other branches continue the ancient tradition of adding a day to certain holidays. Thus for some Jews, Thursday is a holiday but Friday is not, while for others, both Thursday and Friday are holidays.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that a Jewish "day" starts at sunset, and holidays start the evening before the day on your secular calendar. For example, if your calendar says that Passover starts on April 24, families will be getting together for Passover dinner on the night of April 23. A few secular calendars mark the preceding day as "Erev Passover," which basically means Passover Eve. If your calendar says "Erev" or "Eve" before a holiday name, it means the holiday starts the evening of that day and continues into the next day.

Popular Jewish Holidays 

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The holidays discussed below are not necessarily the most important Jewish holidays, but they are the holidays that are most commonly observed by American Jews, and they are the holidays that American Jews will expect you to be familiar with.

Passover 

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This holiday commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. If you've seen Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," then you know the story of Passover, more or less. Passover is celebrated for seven or eight days (depending on your branch of Judaism) starting on the night of a full moon in April. Passover usually overlaps with Easter, though occasionally Passover occurs a month after Easter.

Almost all American Jews observe Passover to some extent, even if only to go to their parents' house for a ritual dinner (called a seder, pronounced SAY-der) on the first and/or second night of the holiday. Most (though not all) American Jews avoid bread and grain products to one extent or another throughout this holiday, in memory of the fact that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry and didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise. You should avoid scheduling events involving food during this holiday, and should avoid scheduling travel for Jews because it may be hard for them to find suitable food away from home.

Strictly observant Jews do not work, go to school or carry out any business on the first two and last two days of Passover (first one day and last one day for some branches). This is a requirement of Jewish law; however, only about 10% of the American Jewish population observes this rule strictly. Most American Jews will work through Passover, although many may want to take time off the day before Passover, to prepare for the big family dinner. To put this in perspective: imagine if you had to work during the day of Thanksgiving, then prepare for Thanksgiving dinner after getting home from work.

Remember that Passover, like all Jewish holidays, begins the evening before the date that it appears on your calendar. If your calendar says that Passover starts on April 24, then Passover really begins with the family dinner on the night of April 23.

Rosh Hashanah 

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Rosh Hashanah is Jewish New Year, the day when the year number on the Jewish calendar increases. It occurs between Labor Day and Columbus Day. It lasts for one or two days, depending on your branch of Judaism.

Rosh Hashanah is a happy, festive holiday, but somewhat more solemn than American New Year. Like American New Year, it is a time to look back at the past year and make resolutions for the following year. It is also a wake-up call, a time to begin mental preparations for the upcoming day of atonement, Yom Kippur.

Many Jews who do not go to synagogue any other time of year will go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. You've heard of "twice-a-year Christians" who go to church only on Christmas and Easter? "Twice-a-year Jews" go to synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Most American Jews expect gentiles to be aware of Rosh Hashanah. It is, after all, listed on most calendars you buy in the store, but remember: the holiday starts at sunset the night before the day shown on your calendar! Many will be offended if you schedule important events, meetings or tests on Rosh Hashanah. Even those who do not go to synagogue and do not observe the holiday may be offended. Imagine how you would feel if someone scheduled such activities on Christmas or Easter, even if you didn't have anything special planned for the day, and you will understand how Jews feel about this holiday.

Yom Kippur 

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Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, a day of fasting and repentance to reconcile ourselves with the Creator for the mistakes we have made in the last year. It occurs on the ninth day after the first day of Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first day of the Jewish month; Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th), so it is usually in late September or early October, sometimes falling on Columbus Day. For obvious reasons, nobody adds an extra day to this 25-hour fast!

Remember that this holiday starts the evening before the day it appears on your secular calendar. Some secular calendars will mark the preceding day as Kol Nidre, which is the name of the first service of the holiday, in the evening.

Most (but not all) Jews take off from work or school on this day, even ones who are not religious at other times. This is the busiest day of the year for synagogues, even though many synagogues charge for tickets to this day's services (to defray the cost of serving so many extra people). Many will also want to leave work early the night before, so they have time for a large, slow meal before this 25-hour fast. Like Rosh Hashanah, most American Jews expect gentiles to be aware of this day, and almost all will be offended if you schedule important activities on it.

How do you pronounce the name of this holiday? "Yom" rhymes with "home" and "Kippur" sounds like "key poor" with emphasis on the "poor." A lot of Americans (even American Jews) pronounce "Kippur" like the smoked fish dish, kipper, but this really isn't correct. Please don't pronounce it that way; there is something fundamentally wrong with naming a fast day after a food item!

Chanukkah 

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Chanukkah is the festival of lights, commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a successful revolt against the Seleucid Greeks. As part of the rededication, the victorious Jews needed to light the Temple's menorah (candelabrum), but they had only enough oil to last one day and it would take eight days to prepare more oil. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil is commemorated with this eight-day candlelighting holiday.

Chanukkah begins between Thanksgiving and Christmas. About half of the time, it overlaps with Christmas, but there are many years when Chanukkah ends long before Christmas. In 2002, for example, Chanukkah began on Thanksgiving and ended in the first week of December, but that is unusual.

Almost all Jews light candles with their families for at least some nights of the holiday, so people like to be at home during this holiday. Although almost nobody takes off from work or school for this holiday, many may not want to work nights or travel during the holiday so they can light candles with the family, and accommodations should be made for this.

The most important thing to remember about Chanukkah is that it is not Jewish Christmas, no matter what the card shops and toy stores want you to believe. Chanukkah is a very minor holiday. It's not about joy to the world and peace on Earth and presents galore for everyone you've ever met; it's about lighting candles and playing games for chocolate coins and eating potato pancakes. Many Jewish parents give their children gifts during Chanukkah because they don't want their children to feel left out of Christmas, but Chanukkah gift-giving rarely extends much beyond one's own children.

Most American Jews feel a sort of ambivalence about Chanukkah. On the one hand, most of them know that Chanukkah is not a big deal, and they don't want to make a big deal about it. On the other hand, Christmas is everywhere, unavoidable and overwhelming, and Jews want something of their own to counterbalance it. This is the primary motivation behind elaborate Chanukkah decorations and enormous Chanukkah menorahs in public areas: Chanukkah is not very important, but asserting our Jewish identity and distinctiveness and existence in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform to a non-Jewish norm is important. Pressuring Jews to conform to that norm or to participate in Christmas events if they don't want to is inconsiderate at best.

Other Jewish Holidays 

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There are many other Jewish holidays, but most American Jews do not celebrate these holidays as strictly or as regularly as the holidays above, and most do not expect gentiles to be aware of them. In fact, there are a surprising number of Jews who don't know about many of these holidays.

Sukkot: This festival of booths commemorates the Biblical period of wandering in the desert, and is commemorated by building a temporary shelter (called a sukkah, usually rhymes with "book a") in the yard and eating meals in it. Some spend considerable time in the sukkah, even sleeping there. Sukkot begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, in late September or October, and lasts for 7 days. From the perspective of the Bible and Jewish law, this holiday is every bit as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but most American Jews don't see it that way. About 10% of Jews do not work on the first two days of this holiday (one day for some branches), in accordance with Jewish law, and will not want to travel during this holiday, because they want to be able to have meals in the sukkah.

Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah: These two holidays fall immediately after Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret is sort of an extra day tacked onto the end of Sukkot; Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Bible readings in sabbath services. About 10% of Jews will take both of these days off from work. Some branches celebrate these two holidays on the same day, which is the first day after Sukkot.

Tu B'Shevat: Jewish Arbor Day, used for calculating the age of trees for certain religious purposes. Occurs in late January or early February. There are no restrictions on this holiday that would require accommodation.

Purim: Jewish Mardi Gras, more or less. This is a partying holiday celebrating the rescue of the Jews from a Hitler-like figure bent on genocide. Occurs in March, a month before Passover, and lasts for one day. Although work is technically not forbidden on this holiday, a small number of Jews prefer not to work on it because of rabbinical dictum that no good will come from work done on this day.

Yom Ha-Shoah: Holocaust Memorial Day. A day to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Occurs in late April or early May. No accommodations are usually needed.

Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Yom Ha-Zikkaron, Yom Yerushalayim: Israeli Independence Day, Israeli Memorial Day and Jerusalem Day. Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, in late April or May, commemorates the day that the British Palestinian mandate expired, and David Ben-Gurion declared the creation of the State of Israel within the lands that the UN had set aside for a Jewish state in Palestine. Yom Ha-Zikkaron in May is a memorial day for Israeli soldiers who died defending the state of Israel in its many wars. Yom Yerushalayim in late May or early June commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem in Israeli hands during the 1967 War. No accommodations are usually needed. Cities with large Jewish populations often have parades on a Sunday for Israeli Independence Day, just as cities with large Italian populations have Columbus Day parades. The other two Israel-related holidays get little acknowledgement in America. If gentiles choose to acknowledge these holidays, they should be sensitive to the feelings of Arabs, who may not think that the creation of the state of Israel or the reunification of Jerusalem in the hands of Jews is a cause for celebration, or that the death of Israeli soldiers is a cause for mourning.

Shavu'ot: Commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Occurs between Memorial Day and Independence Day, and lasts for one or two days, depending on your branch. Like Sukkot, this holiday is every bit as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but most American Jews don't see it that way. About 10% of Jews do not work on this holiday, in accordance with Jewish law.

Tisha B'Av: A fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and other tragedies. Occurs in late July or August. About 10% of Jews observe this fast. Although work is not forbidden on this day, some prefer not to work on this day because it is difficult to fast while working with others who are not fasting.

Minor Fasts: There are five other fast days scheduled at various times of the year, which are observed only from sunrise to sunset. For the 10% or so of Jews who observe these fasts, no accommodations are usually needed, other than sensitivity for the fact that they are not eating.

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