From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: The Jewish Year - Overview

As we go into the New Year, we open with an overview of the Jewish Calendar, the major cycles of Festivals and their significance. The details can be found in subsequent files - and they will be necessary as background for your activities.

These materials were adapted and extended from "New Year and Day of Atonement: Program Material for Youth and Adults", published by the Jewish Center Division, National Jewish Welfare Board, New York, 1952.

The jewish Calendar

The distinctiveness of the Jewish calendar is a potent factor in the survival of the Jewish people. The observance of the Sabbath and the many festivals and holidays that fill it create a definite bond and unifying force among Jews.

The Months

While the ordinary [Gregorian] calendar is solar, based on the movement of the earth around the sun, the Jewish calendar (Luah) is lunar, based on the revolutions of the moon around the earth.

There are twelve months in a normal year-- Nissan (falls some time in April), Iyar (May), Sivan (June), Tammuz (July), Av (August), Elul (September), Tishrei (October), Heshvan (November), Kislev (December), Tevet (January), Shevat (February) and Adar (March). In a leap year, which occurs seven times in a cycle of nineteen years, a thirteenth month, known as Second Adar, is added.

The basis of the lunar calendar was the proclamation of the new moon (Rosh Hodesh) by the SANHEDRIN (governing Sages) in Jerusalem of Temple times until the 2nd Exile. The dates of all holidays were dependent upon this proclamation.

Due to the difficulties involved in notifying the people outside of Jerusalem in time to observe the new moon, it was decided to observe two days whenever the preceding month had thirty days. Thus it came about that the festivals are celebrated for two days in all countries except Israel. Orthodox and Conservative Jews still adhere to this practice.

The Festivals

The day according to the Jewish calendar begins and ends with sunset.

The most important day in the Jewish week throughout the year is the Shabbat (Sabbath).

Outstanding days in the calendar include:

  • the High Holy Days or Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur),
  • the three major festivals (Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot),
  • the minor historic festivals (Hanukah and Purim), and
  • the semi-festivals (Lag Ba-Omer and Hamishah Asar Bi-Shevat).
  • the modern festivals (Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israel's Independence Day, Yom Yerushalayim - Jerusalem Day).

The Fasts

While fasting plays a minor role in Jewish life there are a number of fast days, lasting from sunrise until nightfall and only two from sunset until the following night: Yom Kippur and Tisha BeAv.

The High Holidays

The High Holy Days do not have an agricultural significance, yet their appeal is universal in character. Many of those most indifferent to their responsibilities to Judaism and the Jewish community flock to the synagogue on these Days of Awe. Perhaps an inborn sense of belonging arouses these Jews and Jewesses to participate in the rituals of these great days.

The YAMIM NORAIM (Days of Awe) are an annual period of self-scrutiny. They allow ample time for serious reflection on and consideration of the manner in which we conduct our lives. An opportunity is afforded us to plan constructive change as we engage in deep contemplation at this annual crossroads in time--the close of the old and the beginning of the new year. We become aware of the uncertain and temporary nature of life and so begin to realize our ultimate dependence upon God's mercy. This is also the sense of their historical significance: Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of Creation; Yom Kippur in terms of the End of Days.

Permeating the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the concept of God as King of the entire creation. Furthermore, the acceptance of God's rulership implies the renunciation of such false gods as wealth, racial purity and dictatorship. His love and mercy are bestowed upon the righteous of the world irrespective of economic status and religious beliefs. Both the rich and the poor are obligated to implore aid of the Almighty. The Jew, however, must found his hopes for the future upon a strong devotion to Judaism, just as the Gentile must seek salvation in his own religious beliefs. Divine Providence guides the creation, in its every aspect the work of God.

The most significant lesson of these days is that of sincerity. God does not desire the merely external forms of worship. Mechanical recitation of prayers and perfunctory repentance affects no change in the individual and are denials of the very purpose of these days.

Indeed, the act of fasting itself is to no purpose unless accompanied by sincere remorse as the prophet (Isaiah 58:6-7) explains: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness....and to let the oppressed go free?....Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou (should) bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?...."

The Three Pilgrim Festivals (Shalosh Regalim)

The Three Festivals consist of Passover (Pesach), the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) (Sukkot).

The name Shalosh Regalim derives its origin from the following Biblical verse:

"Three times you shall keep a feast for me in the year"

(Exodus 23,14)

Within the word "regalim" however, is also expressed the idea of a journey on foot or a pilgrimage, an important element in the celebration of these three festivals.

"Three times every year shall your menfolk appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, in the feast of Pesach, in the feast of Shavuot, and in the Feast of Sukkot."

(Deuteronomy 16,16)

The three festivals have the following characteristics in common:

  1. They serve as a means of symbolizing essential religious and ethical ideas,
    • Pesach - The existence of God (to free the Jews from bondage
    • Shavuot - Revelation (God's Law was given to them)
    • Sukkot - Divine Providence (intercepted and helped them to overcome insuperable difficulties)
  2. They refer to important events in Jewish history
  3. They mark and celebrate the various harvests
    • Pesach - the early barley harvest
    • Shavuot - a wheat and fruit harvest
    • Sukkot - the ingathering of grain and fruit harvests



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07 Jun 2005 / 29 Iyar 5765 0