Chag Sameach: What you need to know about popular Jewish Holidays

Happy Hanukkah! Shabbat Shalom! Chag Sameach! If you were lost after Happy Hanukkah, you are not alone. Although Hanukkah may be the most familiar holiday to non-Jews, Judaism has many more holidays rich with traditions, food, and even wine. Whether you practice religion or not, there are many compelling concepts and inspiration found in the Jewish holiday practices.

Shabbat


Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest that celebrates God’s completion of the universe that is observed weekly. Shabbat is a reminder of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, so celebrating it is an occasion to rejoice in God’s promises. Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday at sunset. Shabbat can be observed at synagogue or at home. Shabbat is a time of stillness where people do not work and spend time with family. Sabbath candles are lit at sunset on Friday followed by wine from  a special goblet called the Kiddush cup. Drinking wine symbolizes joy and celebration. At every Shabbat meal you will find challah bread, which is an egg bread shaped like a braid. 

Greetings: Shabbat Shalom which translates as Peaceful Sabbath, Gut Shabbas which translates as Good Sabbath.

Rosh Hashanah


Literally translated as “head of the year,” this is celebrated as the Jewish New Year and begins the high holidays. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated with hearing the shofar or ram’s horn, lighting candles, services,and eating festive meals. It is the day that god created Adam and Eve. However, this is holiday is much different than the American New Year. Many will ask for forgiveness and apologize for indiscretions made the year before in preparation for Yom Kippur. In Judaism, repentance is not just based on one’s relationship with God, but also between other people, requiring Jews to apologize to people in their life. There are many traditional foods on the table for Rosh Hashanah: apples dipped in  honey (symbolizing the wish to have a sweet new year), round challah (symbolizing the cyclical nature of the year), a fish head (to symbolizing diving into the year with strength and not with weakness), and pomegranates (symbolizing that the wish for our merits be many like the pomegranate’s many seeds – 613 – mirroring the 613 commandments in the Torah).

Greeting: Chag Sameach which translates to Happy Holidays and is an appropriate greeting for most holidays, particularly Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Passover. Other Rosh Hashanah specific greetings include Happy New Year, Shanah Tovah which translates to “good year,”  May you be inscribed for a good year (in the book of life), L’shana tova tikatevu

Yom Kippur


Yom Kippur falls ten days after Rosh Hashanah and concludes the High Holidays. This is the Day of Atonement for sins committed the previous year and is considered the holiest day of the year. This day is observed by a 25 hour fast, prayer, and is a day of introspection. Most people are aware that Judaism calls for fasting on Yom Kippur, but other rituals include abstaining from wearing leather, bathing, wearing perfume, and sex. Although it is a solemn holiday, by the end, you are at peace with others and god, and therefore some consider it a happy holiday.

Greeting: It is not appropriate to wish people a Happy Yom Kippur, instead wish someone an easy fast or Shanah Tovah.

Sukkot


Immediately following solemn Yom Kippur, is a weeklong holiday known as Sukkot. Sukkot is a joyous holiday that gives thanks for the fall harvest and encourages people to rejoice. The day is observed by building a sukkah, a small, temporary booth or hut, symbolizing the hut-like structures that the Jews lived in during the 40 years of travel after the exodus from Egypt. The Sukkah is used during the festival for eating, entertaining, and sleeping.

Greeting: Happy Sukkot or Chag Sameach which translates to Happy Holiday.

Hanukkah


Put on your yalmulka, here comes Hannukkah – the festival of lights! This is an 8 day holiday that celebrates the miracle of a small amount of oil that miraculously burned for 8 days. This festival celebrates the Jewish Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian Greek army by recapturing the Temple. This holiday is observed by lighting the menorah each night commemorating the miracle with the oil. It is customary to eat foods fried in oil such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, but it is a beloved festive holiday. At any Hanukkah celebration, you will find traditional songs, children with gelt (chocolate coins), and spinning tops (dreidel) being played.

Greeting: Happy Hanukkah

Purim


A famous Jewish comedian once said “Purim has everything . . . singing, dancing, masquerades and a chance to drink lots of wine and enjoy some fabulous food.” Purim, affectionately referred to as Jewish Mardi Gras, celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from a massacre by Hanan. Hanan’s plan to destroy the Jews was thwarted by Mordecai and his daughter Esther. The festival encourages Jews to drink wine and feast; both children and adults may attend synagogue in costume. The custom is to recite the Meguila (the book of Esther which tells the story of Purm). Whenever Hanan’s name is mentioned, it is the tradition to scream, hiss, and make noise with a Grager (noise maker).  The traditional food is Hamantaschen, which is a triangular cookie filled with fruit symbolizing Hanan’s three-cornered hat. Other traditional ways to celebrate giving friends gifts and donating to charity.

Greeting: Purim Sameach which translates as Happy Purim.

Passover


Passover celebrates freedom. It commemorates the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt. Passover refers to the notion that god passed over the Jews’ houses during the 10th plague on the Egyptians which called for the slaying of the first born. Passover is celebrated with a seder (festive meal). During the seder, the story of the exodus is retold. There are many symbolic foods consumed during seder including gelfite fish, matzah ball soup, and brisket. Matzah, is a central feature of the seder, symbolizing when the Jews left in haste from Egypt and had no time to wait for their bread to rise and instead ate Matzah (unleavened bread). Other symbolic foods include: charoset (sweet paste symbolizing the mortar slaves used to build the Egyptian pyramids), maror (bitter herbs symbolizing slavery’s bitterness), shank bone (symbolizing the sacrifice made), salt water (symbolizing the slaves’ tears), and a leafy vegetable (symbolizing hope).

Greeting: Happy Pesach, Happy Passover.

Tu B’shevat


This is the Jewish new year for  trees. The day originated based on the date for calculating the agricultural cycle of taking tithes from the trees. The day is celebrated by planting trees, purchasing trees to be planted in Israel, and a seder similar to the Passover seder.

Greeting: No official greeting but Chag Sameach is appropriate.

Tu B’Av


The Jewish day of Love. In ancient times, it served as a matchmaking day for single women. Today, it is celebrated similar to Valentine’s Day, the festival is romantically celebrated with wine, roses, and chocolate. This is a popular wedding date.

Greeting: Chag Sameach is appropriate.

Yom Hashoah


Holocaust Memorial Day – this is a day to remember and mourn the six million people that died during the Holocaust. As this is a relatively new tradition, rituals are still being created to observe this day for remembrance.

Greeting: Similar to Yom Kippur, it is not appropriate to wish people a Happy Yom Hashoah. It is not a religious day so no greeting is necessary but you could wish someone a peaceful day.

To read more on holidays, check out 5 Religious Celebrations In December.

Photo Credit: Dana Snyder Suggs

Sources: How Is Rosh Hashanah Celebrated, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet, Tu B’shevat, What is Passover, Sabbath

 

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Jeri Delgado

Jeri is a wife, lawyer, and stay at home mom with a weakness for yoga pants and reality TV. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and three dogs. All through law school she aspired to be a great lawyer. Now, she aspires to be a great lawyer and great mom. She is still figuring out how to manage both but she’s enjoying the journey. In her free time, you can find Jeri hanging with family, on the tennis court, or at the movies.

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