Jewish Festivals

The Pilgrimage Feasts

The three principal ancient feasts recorded in the Hebrew Bible, which may originally have been associated with the agricultural seasons of spring, summer, and autumn, were in time applied to significant events in Jewish religious history. They are Pesach – the spring festival which came to commemorate the redemption of the children of Israel from bondage and the exodus from Egypt; Shavuot – the summer harvest festival which was transformed during rabbinic times to commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; and Sukkot – the autumn harvest which marked the year’s end and was extended to include the major festival of Yom Kippur.

Pesach (Passover)

The origin of the name is unknown, but it is played on in the story in Exod12 of the destruction of the Egyptian firstborn, where the LORD ‘passes over’ (using the Hebrew verb pasach) the houses of the Israelites.

The celebrations last for seven days, the first and seventh of which are holy days. The festival opens with the seder meal. Seder literally means ‘order’ and is so called because the meal follows a set order. The story of the exodus is recited during the evening, and there is also a set dialogue which brings in awareness of why the night is unique. The youngest asks the question, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ followed by four specific questions designed to elicit explanations of the significance of aspects of the Passover: ‘Why on this night do we eat unleavened bread?’; ‘Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs?’; ‘Why on this night do we dip our food twice?’; ‘Why do we only sit leaning to one side?’

Four cups of wine are drunk by everyone throughout the course of the evening. They are physical symbols of the four promises of Exod 6:6-7, that God will bring out, deliver, redeem, and take to himself the people; but the wine also represents both the mortar used by the slaves to build walls and the slaves’ blood and the blood of the Paschal lamb.

The herbs that are consumed are normally parsley and long lettuce. The leaves are symbols of freedom as they branch out into the open. The bitterness of the stalk is a symbol of the harshness of slavery. The dipping of the herbs in salt water symbolises both the sea which was parted to make way for them and the tears from the time of slavery in Egypt. As well as the herbs a selection of charoset will be eaten. These are fruit, nuts, and spices which again symbolise the sweetness of freedom.

The final two symbols which accompany the foods are not eaten, since they are purely representative. The first of these is a hard-boiled egg which is roasted. This is to give the effect of the burnt sacrifice which would be offered in the Temple. The second is a lamb bone which is the symbol to represent the tradition of slaughtering the Paschal lamb.

Feast of Weeks (Shavuot)

The second pilgrim festival of the year, the Feast of Weeks, is also known as Shavuot (literally ‘weeks’), Pentecost (‘fiftieth [day]’), Harvest Festival, and Day of the First Fruits. It occurs in late spring, fifty days after the beginning of Passover, hence Pentecost. Although the festival was originally associated with agriculture, it now celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19). One custom at this time is to decorate the synagogue with flowers and plants because legend has it that the mountain burst into flower as a way of expressing how important and how beautiful Judaism is.

He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me. (Deut 26:9-10)

The second part of this quotation reflects the other name for the festival, the ‘Festival of the First Fruits’. Giving the first fruits of the land as an offering to God is a sign of appreciation for the gift of land and its produce. The giving of land and the giving of Torah create freedom from slavery but also freedom for service to God, thus Shavuot may be considered as the time when the purpose of the physical freedom granted at Pesach is fulfilled. Receiving the Torah is not just a means of becoming part of God’s covenant people. The Torah is a guide on how to behave and act as well as a form of service.

Sukkot (or Booths — the word sukkot means literally ‘coverings’ or ‘booths’) is the third pilgrim festival of the year, falling on the fifteenth to the twenty-second of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (the end of September and the beginning of October). The booth symbolises two different things: firstly, a memory of how farmers sheltered in booths at harvest time for practical reasons: it meant that the farm workers did not have to travel back and forth each night, and it provided shelter for those who had to guard the crops. Secondly, on the spiritual level it represents and celebrates God’s protection over the the people as they journeyed in the wilderness for over forty years. Therefore the mitzvah for this festival is to dwell in a sukkah. The act of dwelling in a sukkah reminds the people that they are able to put their trust in God, and an important part of the festival is to construct, sometimes in the home, also in the synagogue, a symbolic booth.

At the centre of the festival is rejoicing over the Torah. Four special plants represent the combination of Torah (taste) and good works (scent). These four plants are called arba minim. The first is the etrog – a citrus fruit which looks like a lemon but tastes differently. This plant signifies the heart, which in turn signifies kindness and compassion. Etrog is a person who both knows and practices Torah. Next is the lulav (Palm tree), which signifies the backbone which in turn signifies bravery. The lulav stands for the person who knows Torah but does not practice its guidance. Thirdly the myrtle plant (hadassim) represents leafy trees. Its symbolic meaning is the eye, in the sense that the eye sees good in others. The kind of person which the myrtle signifies is one who does practice good but who does not know any Torah. Finally the willow (aravot) can stand for the mouth as speaking knowingly of Torah. However at the same time this person is both ignorant and selfish. The ambiguities of these symbols indicate that only when taken together can they represent the true Jew.

In the ceremony itself three myrtle twigs and two willow branches are tied to palm leaves. These are held in the right hand. During the recital of the festive psalms, the Psalms of Ascent or the Hallel, people wave their lulav as they walk around the bimah (the podium usually in the centre of the synagogue). One can also just stand with the congregation and wave one’s lulav. Although the waving of something suggests rejoicing in this instance it has another significance. The waving of the lulav in many directions signifies God’s omnipresence.

The seventh day of the festival is called Hoshana Rabbah (the great Hosanna — see Ps 118:25 — the great prayer for salvation). Many prayers are recited on this day, and those who recite the prayers walk around the bimah seven times as they wave their lulav. The theme of deliverance makes this similar to the Day of Atonement (see below).

Other Significant Feasts and Festivals

New Year (Rosh Hashanah)

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for ‘head of the year’ or New Year) is celebrated on the first day of Tisheri / Tishri (the end of September and the beginning of October). The celebration of Rosh Hashanah includes sounding the shofar, a hollow ram’s horn.

Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)

The day for fasting on the 10th of Tishri (September or October), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is designated for individual and communal repentance. Lev 16:31 describes this day as a Sabbath of solemn rest, on which no work is permitted.

Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim)

The period of ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – a particularly significant stage in the annual cycle of feasts.

Simchat Torah

A joyful celebration of the giving of Torah at the end of Sukkot.

Hanukkah has no source in Torah. It commemorates a post-biblical event: the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rules of Judaea, and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE.

The word ‘Purim’ is the plural of the Babylonian or Persian word ‘pur‘ (‘lot’). On the day of Purim (14th of Adar, late February to early March), the synagogue reads the Megillah (scroll) of the book of Esther.

The date on which the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE and 70 CE together with other pogroms against the Jews are remembered. It is now also particularly associated with the horrifying events of the Holocaust (Shoah).

Further reading

Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. A JPS Desk Reference. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004.
Schauss, Hayyim. Guide to Jewish Holy Days. New York: Random Houise, 1938. Repr., The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance. With a New Foreword by Harold S. Kushner. Translated by Samuel Jaffe. New York: Schocken Books, 1962.