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The Major Jewish Holidays Essay, Research Paper


The Jewish people are a people of celebration. All year long there are many holidays that the Jewish people love to celebrate. Seven of the major Jewish holidays are Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashana, and Shavuot. Each holiday has its own customs, presentations, and services that make it different from the other Jewish holidays. In this essay I will explain in detail each of the seven major holidays.

Shabbat may be the most important holiday observant in Judaism. Shabbat is a weekly day of rest for the Jewish people. This is a day when the Jewish people pause from their normal busy lives so that the soul can rest. The source of Shabbat comes from where God created the earth in six days, and on the seventh he rested. In Exodus 20:11 the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. Shabbat is the only festival required in the ten commandments.

There are certain things that the Jews are forbidden to do on Shabbat. Any work that is creative is restricted in Jewish law. Plowing, baking, weaving, trapping, building, tying, kindling a fire, and hitting with a hammer are all tasks not to be done on Shabbat. Rabbis have also prohibited travel, buying and selling, electricity, and the use of the automobile on Shabbat.

Preparing for the Shabbat begins about 2pm on Friday afternoon. People leave work early to go home and prepare for Shabbat. Shabbat officially begins at sunset. Candles are lit and a blessing is recited. The ritual, performed by the women of the house, officially marks the beginning of the Shabbath. Two candles are lit, representing the two commandments zachor and shamor. Now the family attends evening service. The service is very short at about 45 minutes long. After service, everyone goes home for festive dinner. After dinner the birkat ha-mazon is recited. The birkat ha mazon is recited everyday, but on Shabbat it is done with upbeat music.

Shabbat is observed differently by each Jew. Many Jews spend the day deep in prayer at the synagogues. Some use the Shabbat as a day to gather with friends and family. Family and friends often meet for big meals on Shabbat. At these meals members of the household recite Kiddish over a cup of wine. This is to recount the story of creation. Hamotzi or the breaking of the bread also takes place at these meals. Others attend Friday night services and light candles. Hadlakot Nerot is the lighting of the candles. The Jews light the candles and bless them. “They are placed on a Shabbat table as a source of warmth and illumination” (Jewish.org pg.2). All of these ways symbolize Shabbat as a special day from all the other days of the week.

Purim is the most festive of the Jewish holidays. “Purim, or the Feast of Lots, celebrates the survival of Jews among other cultures.” (Comptons pg.1) The story of Purim is told in the book of Esther. During the reign of King Ahasuerus in the 5th century BC. The king chose Esther to be his wife unknowing she was a Jew. Everything was fine until the king’s chief advisor Haman ordered all subjects to bow to him. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle refused for religious reasons. Haman then convinced the king to let him kill all the Jews. Esther heard of Haman’s plan and arranged a meeting with her husband. She told him she was a Jew and revealed Haman’s plan. The king punished Haman by killing him and his sons instead of the Jews. After this the Jews celebrated a great victory over an enemy.

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, which usually falls sometime in March. the Purim holiday is preceded by a minor fast, the Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther’s three days of fasting in preparation for her meeting with the king. Dramatizations of the Purim story are often performed. This is called Purimspiel, and is most often performed by young Jewish children. It is customary to hold carnival like celebrations and hold beauty pageants on Purim. Americans sometimes refer to Purim as a Jewish version of Mardi Gras.

On Purim Jewish people are also required to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts for charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manos. A common treat for charity is hamentaschen. These are triangular fruit-filled cookies. Jewish people are also required to drink heavily. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai,” though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. This may be the most looked forward to holiday in the Jewish calendar for the Jewish people.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this part of the holiday. The primary observation of Passover are related to the escape of the Jews from Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus, CH, 1-15.

“The most significant observance related to Passover involves the removal of chametz (leaven) from Jewish homes.” (jewholidaya.com pg.3) This commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, and did not have time to let the bread rise. It is also a way for the Jews to remove puffiness from their souls.

Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains; which are wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. Orthodox Jews also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, thus the use of them is prohibited. You may not eat any chametz during Passover. Jews cannot even feed it to their pets and cattle. Even utensils used to cook chametz, must either be disposed of or sold. The process of cleaning the home of chametz in preparation for Passover is an enormous task. Jews often prepare for several weeks and spend several days scrubbing everything down. After everything is clean a search of the house is done for any remaining chametz. If any chametz is uncovered during this final search it is most often burned.

On the first night of Passover Jews have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind them of the significance of the holiday. The meal is called a seder. Passover lasts for seven days. The first and last days of the holiday no work is permitted at all. Work is however permitted on the days in-between. Like other Jewish holidays music is a big part. Singing and playing are done through out the entire week.

“Yom Kippur is a day designed to bring Jews closer to God and encourage them to return to him.” (ou.org pg.1) The name “Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement,” and is set aside to atone for the sins of the past year. Yom Kippur is the last day for Jews to repent and make amends. After this day the book of judgment is sealed. Yom Kippur however is only for sins between man and God, not the sins against another person. If you have sinned against another person you must seek reconciliation with that person before Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath, and no work can be performed on that day. Jewish people are also expected not to eat or drink on Yom Kippur. Jews are to fast 25 hours beginning at sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur, and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Talmud also restricts washing and bathing, anointing one’s body, wearing leather shoes. and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur. For safety reasons children under the age of nine are not aloud to fast. Women in childbirth are also not permitted to fast. Women seven days after childbirth can fast if they feel up to it.

Most of this holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In orthodox synagogues, services begin early in the morning and continues until about 3 PM. Jews than usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 PM for afternoon services, which continue until nightfall. The services end at nightfall, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah. It is customary for Jews to wear white on Yom Kippur, which symbolizes purity. Some Jews even wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

Confession is done throughout most of the synagogue services. There are two basic parts to a confession: Ashamnu, a shorter more general list, and Al Chet, a longer more specific list. Frequent petitions for forgiveness are inserted in these confession prayers. The most common confession prayers are for forgiveness against the mistreatment of other people. Yom Kippur is a chance for Jews to renew themselves.

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of rededication, and is also known as the festival of lights. It is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Hanukkah is probably the most well known of the Jewish holidays, because it happens around the same time as Christmas.

The story of Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. Even after conquering these places Alexander allowed them to continue to observe their own religions. Many Jews assimilated much of the Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and dress of the Greeks. A century later Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews, by massacring them and prohibiting the Jewish religion. Two groups opposed Antiochus: Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasdim. They joined forces in a revolt against Antiochus and won.

After the victory the Jews rededicated their temple. According to the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left. Oil was needed for the menorah in the temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously it burned for eight days. Jews don’t glorify war so Hanukkah is a celebration of the menorah burning for eight days, and not the military victory.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of the candles. “The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah that holds nine candles.” (schoolnet.com pg.1) After the candles have been lit three berakhot blessings are recited.

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidal, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for pennies or candy. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh, and Shin. Most non-Jews know about Hanukkah.

Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of Tishri. In Hebrew Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year.” Rosh Hashanah is most often known as the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is however very different from the American New Year. It is different because there is not a lot of drinking and football games. It is similar in the American New Year in one way. Rosh Hashanah is a time for the Jewish people to look back at the mistakes they made in the past year, and try not to repeat them in the upcoming year.

“One of the most important observances of this holiday is hearing the sound of the shofar in the synagogue.” (Haber pg.1) A shofar is a ram’s horn which is blown like a trumpet. A total of about 100 notes are sounded each day. The Torah gives no specific reason of this practice. Jews suggest that the shofar’s sound is a call to repentance. The shofar is not blown if the holiday falls on the Sabbath.

Another popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of a wish for a sweet new year. Jews also dip bread into honey. Another popular practice during this holiday is Tashlikh. Jews walk to flowing water, such as a creek or river, on the afternoon of the first day and empty their pockets. This symbolizes casting off of their sins. This practice is not discussed in the Torah, but is a long standing tradition.

Judaism has several different “new years,” a concept which may seem strange. Nissan 1 is the new year for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar. Elul 1 is the new year for the tithing of animals. Shevat 15 is the new year for trees. Tishri 1 is Rosh Hashanah the new year for years.

Shavuot “the Festival of Weeks,” is the final major festival of the three major festivals. The other two are Passover and Sukkot. Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the temple. Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, God’s great gift to Israel, the heart of the covenant bond between God and people.

The period from Passover to Savuot is a time of great anticipation for the Jewish people. They count each of the days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot. Shavuot is also known as Pentecost, because it falls on the 50th day. The holiday is called the giving of the Torah. Shavuot is not on a particular calendar date, but is counted from the Passover.

Like most Jewish holidays work is not permitted on Shavot. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Jewish observance of Shavuot has changed. The rabbis have determined that the Torah was given on Shavuot. For this reason it is customary to stay up the entire night of Shavuot and study the Torah, then pray as early as possible in the morning. It is also customary to eat a dairy meal at least once during Shavuot. There are varying opinions as to why this is done. “Many Jews say it is a reminder of the promise regarding the land of Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ludwig pg.379) Another custom comes from the story of the Israelites finding Mount Sinai blooming and lush with greenery and flowers. From this legend grew the custom to decorate the Jewish home and synagogue with tree branches and flowers. Some temples decorate the Torah scrolls with wreaths of roses.

The Jewish people have many holidays and festivals. Judaism has many more holidays than the Christian religion does. the Jewish people celebrate all year long. I don’t see how they get any work done, because every festival usually requires that a person cannot work. From Shabbat to Shavnot their is always something for the Jewish people to celebrate.

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