You can find upcoming dates for these holidays at www.hebcal.com
Shabbat (the Sabbath) begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown on Saturday. The opening chapters of the Book of Genesis relate that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh day. Since God refrained from labor on the seventh day, we are bidden to do likewise. Observant Jews translate this mandate into practical observance by refraining from any act of creation or destruction on the Sabbath. Shabbat is a day devoted to rest, reflection, prayer and Torah study. More >>
Rosh Hashanah ("Head of the Year") is the New Year as determined by the Jewish lunar calendar, and is also known as the "birthday of the world." It is celebrated on the first and second day of the month of Tishrei, which usually falls in September or October on the Gregorian calendar. Rosh Hashanah is also known as "the Day of Remembrance," which alludes to the central theme of the holy days as a time devoted to memory. We recall our deeds during the past twelve months, even as God scrutinizes our behavior for the past year.
Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is observed on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. In the Bible, Yom Kippur bears three names: the Day of Atonement, the Day of Judgement, and the Sabbath of Sabbaths. On this, the holiest day of the year, Jews gather in the synagogue to engage in prayer, reflection and renewal. The solemnity of the day is reinforced by a complete abstinence from all food and drink. This full fast is designed to focus our energy and attention on spiritual matters.
Sukkot ("Booths"), the Jewish fall harvest holiday, is observed from the fifteenth day to the twenty-first day of the month of Tishrei. Jewish people observe Sukkot by building a sukkah (singular of Sukkot), a temporary dwelling with a roof of natural materials through which you can still see the stars at night from within the sukkah. Traditional Jews eat all their meals in the sukkah and sleep there each night of the festival. This reminds us of the fragile, temporary huts that sheltered our ancestors on their journey from Egypt to Israel, the same huts used by farmers who work their fields during the harvest season.
Shemini Atzeret ("the Eighth Day of Assembly") occurs on the 22nd of Tishrei, immediately after Sukkot, and brings us back to the synagogue for a special service. Yizkor ("memorial") prayers are recited, and a beautiful prayer for rain ("Geshem") is inserted into the liturgy. Shemini Atzeret marks the onset of the rainy season in the land of Israel, a critical time for farmers who are so dependent on the forces of nature.
The busy holiday season concludes on the 23rd day of Tishrei with Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing in the Torah"). This marks the changeover in the regular Torah-reading cycle. On Simhat Torah we conclude the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books of Moses, and begin anew the Book of Genesis. The joyous Simhat Torah celebration features seven hakafot, gala processions with the Torah scrolls. Worshipers are given the honor of carrying a scroll around the synagogue as children and adults sing and dance around them.
Hanukkah ("dedication") celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the outnumbered Jews drove the Greek-Seleucid Empire from their land in the 2nd century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). The contemporary observance of Hanukkah features the lighting of a special Hanukkah menorah with nine branches, commemorating the relighting of the Temple menorah. Popular legend connects this ritual with the tale of the cruse of pure oil that miraculously burned for eight days rather than one. More >>
Tu B'Shvat (the 15th of Shvat) was a minor festival seemingly tailor-made for today's Jewish environmentalists. In ancient times, it was the date Jewish farmers brought their fourth-year produce of fruit to the Temple as first-fruit offerings. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, there was no longer a system of fruit offerings. In the 16th century, however, the kabbalists (mystics) of Tzfat (Safed) in Israel created a new ritual, modeled on the Passover seder, to celebrate Tu B'Shvat called the Feast of Fruits. More >>
Purim ("lots") takes us back to the Biblical Book of Esther. The evil Haman, deputy to King Ahasheurus, sought to kill the Jews of Persia. He drew lots to decide the date on which he would enact his decree. Mordechai, and his niece, Queen Esther, turned the tables on Haman, and convinced the king to hang Haman on the gallows instead. The Jews of Persia celebrated their deliverance on the fourteenth day of Adar, as Jews do today. Purim is a colorful, fun-filled holiday for the young and the young at heart. Children (and some adults) dress up in costume both for synagogue services and special Purim carnivals held throughout the community. More >>
Pesach ("Passover"), the Feast of Freedom, is one of the most important and widely observed holidays on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the historical Exodus story -- the liberation of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Jewish tradition calls for the removal of all leavened products (hametz) from the home for the duration of the Passover holiday. Traditional Jews are scrupulous about this precept, and thoroughly clean their homes for days and weeks in preparation for the onset of Pesah. The highlight of the Passover observance is the seder, a colorful ceremony celebrated in homes on the first two nights of Pesah. Family and friends gather to read and chant the haggadah, a book of prayers, songs and stories about the Exodus from Egyptian bondage.
The full name of the day commemorating the victims of the Holocaust (or Shoah) is "Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah"--literally the "Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism." It is marked on the 27th day in the month of Nisan--a week after the seventh day of Passover, and a week before Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers). The date was selected by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in 1951. Jews in North America observe Yom Hashoah within the synagogue as well as in the broader Jewish community. Rituals associated with Yom Hashoah are still being created and vary widely. Commemorations range from synagogue services to communal vigils and educational programs. Many Yom Hashoah programs feature a talk by a Holocaust survivor. More >>
Some content reprinted from MyJewishLearning.com