A Brief Summary of Major Jewish Holidays

A quick guide to talk you through all the major Jewish events.


Rosh Hashanah, a time for good food (Photo credit:Yaffe Phillips)

There are more Jews in New York City than in any city in the world, except for Tel Aviv. Close to half a million of New York’s Jews live in Brooklyn. The Jewish holiday season is approaching, and it can be a confusing time for non-Jews. Members of minority religions tend to know more about the majority religion than vice versa. So we know how to wish someone a Merry Christmas, but non-Jews might wonder: just what do you say at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? What do the Jewish holidays mean, other than that alternate side of the street parking is suspended? Why do they seem to be at different times on different years? And how many are there?

So, as a public service, here’s some information on Jewish holidays that may be useful - or at least interesting - to some. It’s just basic info that might come in handy. As a personal note: I belong to an Egalitarian Conservative synagogue here in Park Slope and provide this information from a point of view that recognizes variety of observance and does not view one particular branch of Judaism as more authentic than others.


Major Jewish holidays in calendar order (the year starts with Rosh Hashanah, even though it’s the first and second day of the seventh month in our calendar – we’re weird that way ):

Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year. Literal translation: Head of the Year. Two days (except that it’s one for Reform Jews worldwide and celebrated for two days in Israel but they are considered one forty-eight hour day - go know). Highlights are family get-togethers and meals, special services in synagogues. Traditional foods include round challah (to symbolize the circularity of the year and life) and apples and honey (for a sweet year). Many Jews who never go to shul/synagogue/services throughout the year go on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (known together as the High Holidays). A ram's horn instrument called a shofar is blown. Some traditional greetings to know: Chag Sameach (gutteral ch like loch, not like church), Gut Yomtov, L'shana tovah, Happy New Year. Jewish holidays go by a lunar calendar and this one always occurs on the first and second days of the new moon of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Occurs in September or October.


Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. A fast day – no food or drink from just before sundown until about an hour after sundown on the following day. An arcane and moving ritual called Kol Nidre in the evening, with services pretty much all day during the next day. Group confessional and atonement - all the confessions are in the "we" form. Traditional to wear white, to not wear animal products, to wear a kittel (burial shroud). No traditional foods, obviously. In many congregations the only time Jews kneel and prostrate themselves, during the part of the service that remembers/reenacts the High Priest’s prayers in the Temple. There's a memorial service that's very moving, called Yizkor. The holiday ends with the blowing of the shofar. "Have an easy fast," "Gut Yomtov" and "Happy New Year" are all good things to say. There are more specific ones in Hebrew, but maybe that's too much. It’s the tenth day of the year, counting the first day of Rosh Hashanah as the first.


Sukkot - lasts 7 days, and is immediately followed by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Sukkot starts on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. So, it’s a big holiday season going from Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. Jews build temporary huts called sukkot (plural of sukkah) and "dwell" in them (usually by having festive meals in them). It’s a harvest holiday of biblical origin. USAmerican Thanksgiving is based on sukkot (them Puritans knew the bible). Palm fronds tied together (called a lulav) and a fruit called an etrog that resembles a lemon are used in a ritual that involves shaking the lulav while holding the etrog.

The last day is called Hoshanah Rabbah. Greeting: Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday in Hebrew), Gut Yomtov (Happy holiday in Yiddish), Happy Sukkot are all fine. Very fun to get invited to a sukkah. I don't have one of my own (because I live in an apartment with no outside space of my own) and love to go to other folks' sukkot.


Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah – For all Jews in Israel and the Reform movement worldwide, these are collapsed into one day, but for the rest of us they are two days, immediately following Sukkot. I sort of view Shemini Atzeret as the eighth day of Sukkot, which is probably not that accurate, but “Shemini” does mean “eight.” Simchat Torah is literally "joy of the torah" and it’s a very fun holiday. The Torah is the scroll version of the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Jewish bible consists of Torah, Nevi'im (writings of the prophets), and K'tuvim (other biblical writings). Simchat Torah is a very joyous holiday. Processions with the Torah, dancing with the torah (and each other). Kind of raucous. Say Chag Sameach.

All of the above are fall holidays (in the northern hemisphere). No major holidays until spring:

Pesach - Passover in English. Festival of Freedom. Commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Main feature is a ritual meal called the seder. Two seders the first two nights (the holiday lasts 8 days) except in Israel and as celebrated by Reform Jews worldwide (they do one seder, officially, and have a seven day holiday although certainly some Reform Jews have a second seder and why shouldn’t they since two seders are twice as fun?). This is the holiday most celebrated by USAmerican Jews. Jews who never set foot in a shul often still go to a seder. The seder has prayers and readings from a book called the Haggadah. There are lots of restrictions on what one can eat. Traditional foods: matzo and assorted foods that meet the food restrictions (too complex for a short summary). Say Chag Sameach or Happy Passover.

Shavuot - another harvest holiday of biblical origin. Holiday of first fruits. Late spring. Lasts two days (one in Israel or if you're Reform). Also celebrates the 10 commandments. The cheesecake holiday! Dairy products are traditional.

Coming soon: the minor holidays (yes, Virginia, Chanukah is a minor holiday).

Dale Rosenberg

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