Jewish Religious Year

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JEWISH RELIGIOUS YEAR . The Hebrew word odesh, used in the Bible for "month," means "that which is renewed" and refers to the renewal of the moon. Hence the Jewish calendar is lunar, the first day of each month being Roʾsh odesh ("head of the month"). Some months have twenty-nine days, others thirty. When the previous month has twenty-nine days, Roʾsh odesh is celebrated as a minor festival for two days; when the previous month has thirty days, it is celebrated for one day. In the Pentateuch (Ex. 12:2), the month on which the Israelites went out of Egypt is counted as the first month of the year, so when the Bible speaks of the third month, the seventh month, and so on, these are counted from the month of the Exodus. But the festival of Passover, celebrating the Exodus, is said in Deuteronomy 16:1 to fall in the month Aviv ("ripening"). This is understood to mean that Passover must always fall in spring, and thus the Jewish lunar calendar presupposes a natural solar calendar like that used in most ancient societies. A process of intercalation was consequently introduced to enable the lunar year to keep pace with the solar. The method is to add an extra month to seven out of nineteen lunar years. During the Babylonian captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, the Babylonian names of the months were adopted and are still used. These are Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammuz (its origin in the name of a Babylonian deity was either unknown or ignored), Av, Elul, Tishri, Mareshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Sheva, Adar. When, in a leap year, an extra month is introduced at the end of the year, there is an Adar Sheni, or "second Adar."

The Development of the Calendar

There was no uniform method of dating years until the Middle Ages, when the current practice was adopted of reckoning from the (biblical) creation of the world. The French commentaries to the Talmud (tosafot to B. T., Giin 80b) observe that in twelfth-century France it was already an established practice to date documents from the creation. In the Talmudic literature it is debated whether the creation took place in Nisan (the first month) or in Tishri (the seventh month), but for dating purposes the latter view is followed, so that the new year begins on the first day of Tishri. This day is the date of the festival Roʾsh ha-Shanah (New Year). Thus the year 1240 ce is the year 5000 from the creation. Thus 1986 ce from January 1 to October 3 is the year 5746 from the creation; from October 4 (the date of Roʾsh ha-Shanah) it is 5747. This method of dating is used in legal documents, letters, and newspapers but has no doctrinal significance, so that it does not normally disturb traditionalists who prefer to interpret the biblical record nonliterally to allow for a belief in the vast age of the earth implied by science.

It is generally accepted in the critical study of the Bible that the recurring refrain in the first chapter of Genesis "and it was evening and it was morning"means that when daylight had passed into evening and then night had passed into morning, a complete day had elapsed. But the Talmudic tradition understands the verses to mean that night precedes the day. For this reason the day, for religious purposes, begins at nightfall and lasts until the next nightfall. The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and goes out at nightfall on Saturday. The same applies to the festivals. The twilight period is a legally doubtful one, and there is also an obligation to extend the Sabbaths and festivals at beginning and end. Jewish calendars, consequently, give the time of the Sabbath as beginning just before sunset and as ending when it is fully dark. Pious Jews, in the absence of a calendar, will keep the Sabbath until it is sufficiently dark to see three average-sized stars in close proximity in the night sky.

Before the present fixed calendar was instituted (in the middle of the fourth century ce), the date of the new moon was arrived at by observation. If witnesses saw the new moon on the twenty-ninth day of the month, they would present their testimony to the high court and that day would be declared Roʾsh odesh, the beginning of the next month. If the new moon had not been observed on the twenty-ninth day, the thirtieth day automatically became Roʾsh odesh. Since the festivals falling in the month are counted from Roʾsh odesh, there was always some doubt as to which of two days would be the date of the festival. Except on Roʾsh ha-Shanah, which falls on the actual day of the new moon, special messengers could always inform the Jews of Palestine of the correct date of the festival. But for the Jews of the Diaspora, who resided in lands too distant for them to be informed in time, it became the practice to keep both days as the festival and thus avoid any possibility of error. Even after the calendar was fixed, the Talmudic sources state, the Jews of the Diaspora were advised by the Palestinian authorities to continue to hold fast to the custom of their ancestors and keep the "two days of the Diaspora." A post-Talmudic rationale for the two days of the Diaspora is that outside the Holy Land the extra festival day compensates for the absence of sanctity in the land. The practice in the state of Israel is thus to keep only one day (with the exception of Roʾsh ha-Shanah), whereas Jews living elsewhere keep two days. There is much discussion in the legal sources on the practice to be adopted by a Jew living outside Israel who visits Israel for the festival or vice versa. Reform Jews prefer to follow the biblical injunctions only, and they do not keep the two days of the Diaspora. Some Conservative Jews, too, have argued for the abolition of the second day because of the anomaly of treating as a holy day a day that is not observed as sacred in Israel.

The Holy Days

Similar festivals in the ancient Near East suggest that the biblical festivals were originally agricultural feasts transformed into celebrations of historical events. The most striking aspect of the Jewish religious calendar is this transfer from the round of the seasons to the affirmation of God's work in human historythe transfer, as it were, from space to time.

The holy days of the Jewish year can be divided into two categories: the biblical and the postbiblical, or the major and the minor. (Purim, though based on Esther, a book from the biblical period, is held to be a post-biblical festival from this point of view and hence a minor festival.) The first and last days of Passover and Sukkot, Shavuʿot, Roʾsh ha-Shanah, and Yom Kippur are major festivals in that all labor (except that required for the preparation of food and even this on Yom Kippur) is forbidden. On the days between the first and last days of Passover and Sukkot, necessary labor is permitted. All labor is permitted on minor festivals such as Purim and anukkah.

Each of the festivals has its own rituals and its own special liturgy. On all of them the Hallel ("praise"), consisting of Psalms 113118, is recited in the synagogue, except on Roʾsh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, and Purim. Only part of Hallel is said on Roʾsh odesh, when labor is permitted, and the last six days of Passover, it being held unseemly to rejoice by singing the full praises of God since the Egyptians, who were also God's creatures, were destroyed. Festive meals are the order of the day on the festivals (except, of course, on Yom Kippur), and the day is marked by the donning of one's best clothes. It is considered meritorious to study on each festival the relevant passages in the classical sources of Judaism. On the fast days neither food nor drink is taken from sunrise to nightfall (on Yom Kippur and Tishʿah be-Av, from sunset on the previous night).

Following are major dates of the religious year, month by month.

  • 1522 Nisan (1523 in the Diaspora): Passover, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt.
  • 6 Sivan (67 in the Diaspora): Shavuʿot, anniversary of the theophany at Sinai.
  • 17 Tammuz: Fast of Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the First Temple (587/6 bce) and the Second Temple (70 ce).
  • 9 Av: Tishʿah be-Av (Ninth of Av), fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other national calamities.
  • 12 Tishri: Roʾsh ha-Shanah, the New Year festival.
  • 3 Tishri: Tsom Gedalyah (Fast of Gedaliah), commemorating the slaying of Gedaliah as told in Jeremiah 41:12 and 2 Kings 25:25, an event that marked the end of the First Commonwealth.
  • 10 Tishri: Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the great fast day.
  • 1523 Tishri (1524 in the Diaspora): Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), celebrating the dwelling in booths by the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness after the Exodus.
  • 25 Kislev: first day of anukkah (Feast of Rededication), celebrating the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple. anukkah lasts for eight days.
  • 10 Tevet: ʿAsarah be-evet (Fast of the Tenth of evet), commemorating the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar before the destruction of the First Temple in 587/6 bce.
  • 15 Sheva: Roʾsh ha-Shanah le-Ilanot (New Year for Trees), a minor festival reminiscent of the laws of tithing in ancient times. Nowadays, this is a celebration of God's bounty, of thanksgiving for the fruit of the ground.
  • 13 Adar: Taʿanit Ester (Fast of Esther), based on the account in Esther (4:16).
  • 14 Adar: Purim (Lots), the festival celebrating the victory over Haman, who cast lots to destroy the Jews, as told in Esther.
  • 15 Adar: Shushan Purim (Purim of Shushan), based on the account in Esther (9:18) that the Jews in the capital city of Shushan celebrated their deliverance on this day.

Major Festivals and Fast Days

The three festivals of Passover, Shavuʿot, and Sukkot form a unit in that, in Temple times, they were pilgrim festivals, when the people came to worship and offer sacrifices in the Temple. The connection between these three festivals is preserved in the liturgy in which there are references to the place of each festival in the yearly cycle. Thus, on Passover the reference is to "the season of our freedom," on Shavuʿot to "the season of the giving of our Torah," and on Sukkot to "the season of our rejoicing," since Sukkot, as the culmination of the cycle, is the special season of joy. The three major festivals of the month of Tishri have been seen as a unit of a different kind. Roʾsh ha-Shanah, the first of the three, is seen as the festival of the mind, when people reflect on their destiny and resolve to lead a better life in the coming year. Yom Kippur, the day when the emotions are stirred, is seen as the festival of the heart, because it is the day of pardon and reconciliation with God. Sukkot, the third in this triad, involves active participation in the building of the booth and eating meals there, and is seen therefore as the festival of the hand. Thus, head, heart, and hand are demanded in the service of God.

The days between Roʾsh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, inclusive, are known as the Ten Days of Penitence. This is a solemn season of reflection on life's meaning and sincere repentance. Similarly, the whole month of Elul, the last month of the old year, is a penitential season in preparation for the solemn period at the beginning of the new year. Roʾsh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur are consequently known as Yamim Noraʾim, the Days of Awe.

Minor Festivals and Fast Days

In the annual cycle there are two periods of mourning during which marriages are not celebrated and tokens of mourning are observed. The first of these is the three-week period from the seventeenth of Tammuz to Tishʿah be-Av, the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the sufferings of the people in subsequent ages. In many places the period becomes more intense from the first of Av in that the consumption of meat and wine is proscribed. The other, lesser, period of mourning is known as the ʿOmer period, forty-nine days from the second day of Passover to the festival of Shavuʿot (though, of course, there is no mourning during Passover itself). The ʿomer was a measure of meal brought as an offering in Temple times, and there is a biblical injunction to count these forty-nine days (Lv. 23:916; known as "counting the ʿOmer"). It has been suggested that the custom of mourning during the ʿOmer has its origin in the ancient belief, held by many peoples, that it is bad luck to marry during the month of May. The traditional sources state that the mourning is over the death by plague of many of the disciples of ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef in the second century ce. The mystics introduce a different note. There are seven lower potencies or powers in the godhead, the sefirot, that become flawed as a result of human sin. Each one of these contains the others as well, so that each of the forty-nine days of the ʿOmer calls for repentance for the purpose of putting right these flaws. The mystics of Safad in the sixteenth century held that the eighteenth of Iyyar, the thirty-third day of the ʿOmerLag ba-ʿOmeris the anniversary of the death of the great mystic Shimʿon bar Yoʾai, a disciple of ʿAqivʾa and the alleged author of the Zohar. The belief that at the saint's death his soul became united with its source on high is referred to as "the marriage of Shimʿon bar Yoʾai." This day, then, became a minor festival, and marriages are celebrated on the day.

The day of the new moon, Roʾsh odesh, is also a minor festival. From the juxtaposition of Roʾsh odesh with the Sabbath in a number of biblical passages, many biblical scholars conclude that in ancient times Roʾsh odesh was a major festival on a par with the Sabbath. Nowadays, however, the day is marked only by festivities in a minor key and by liturgical additions. An old custom frees women from the obligation to work on Roʾsh odesh, and this might be a vestige of the ancient sanctity the day enjoyed. The official reason given is that women refused to participate in the making of the golden calf and were, therefore, given an extra holiday. In the mystical tradition the moon symbolizes the Shekhinah, the female element in the godhead, the counterpart on high of the community of Israel, awaiting the redemption of the Jewish people and of all humankind with harmony restored throughout all creation. The waxing and the waning of the moon is thus a powerful mythological symbol. The Safad mystics consequently introduced a new ritual for the eve of Roʾsh odesh. This day is known as Yom Kippur Qatan (Minor Yom Kippur). As the name implies, it is a time of repentance and, for some, fasting.

There are a number of other lesser feasts and fast days. The Fast of the Firstborn has its origins in the early Middle Ages. In Exodus (13:116) it is related that the firstborn of the Israelites have a special sanctity because God spared them when he killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Thus the custom of fasting on the eve of Passover, 14 Nisan, developed. Generally, nowadays, the firstborn, instead of fasting, attend a study session during which a tractate of the Talmud is completed. To partake of a festive meal on this occasion is held to be a religious obligation that overrides the obligation to fast.

Some pious Jews fast on the Monday, Thursday, and following Monday after the festivals of Passover and SukkotBeit Heʾ Beit ("Two, Five, Two," referring to the days of the week). The reason given is that it is to atone for any untoward frivolity during the lengthy festival period.

In many Jewish communities the burial of the dead is attended to by a voluntary organization, whose membership is granted only to the most distinguished applicants. This organization is known as the evrahʾ qaddishaʾ ("holy brotherhood"). The members of the evrahʾ qaddishaʾ observe a fast on the seventh of Adar, the anniversary of the death of Moses, to atone for any disrespect they may have shown to the dead. But on the night following the fast they celebrate their privileged position by holding a special banquet.

There are also minor festivals observed by particular groups. For instance, on the analogy of Purim, many communities delivered miraculously from destruction celebrate ever after their day of deliverance as a "Purim." For example, the Hasidic master Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady (17451813), founder of the Habad school of Hasidism, was released from prison in Russia on the nineteenth of Kislev, after his arrest on a charge of treason, and his followers observe this day as a festival.

Two modern institutions are Yom ha-Shoʾah (Holocaust Day) on 27 Nisan, marking the destruction of six million Jews during the Nazi period, and Yom ha-Atsmaʿut (Independence Day) on 5 Iyyar, the celebration, especially in the state of Israel, of the Israeli declaration of independence on that date. In many religious circles this day is treated as a full yom tov, and the Hallel is recited.

See Also

anukkah; Judaism, articles on Judaism in Asia, Judaism in Northeast Africa; Passover; Purim; Roʾsh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur; Shabbat; Shavuʿot; Sukkot.


The articles "Calendar, History of" and "Calendar" in the Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1906) are still the best general accounts. The article "Calendar" in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971) contains more detail but is so technical as to be incomprehensible to all but the experts, who will have no need for it. Hayyim Schauss's Guide to the Jewish Holy Days, translated by Samuel Jaffe (New York, 1962), is a survey, from the rationalistic standpoint, with critical and historical notes. More traditional are Abraham P. Bloch's The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days (New York, 1978) and Abraham Chill's The Minhagim: The Customs and Ceremonies of Judaism, Their Origins and Rationale (New York, 1979). A useful introduction to the traditionalist mood of thought on the significance of the festivals is Seasons of the Soul: Religious, Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Jewish Year and Its Milestones (New York, 1981), edited by Nisson Walpin. Similar meditations on the Jewish calendar year by a famous nineteenth-century Orthodox theologian are to be found in Judaism Eternal: Selected Essays from the Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 1, translated from the German original by Isidor Grunfeld (London, 1956), pp. 3152. Ha-moʿadim ba-halakhah (Jerusalem, 1980) by Shlomo Y. Zevin is a particularly fine and popular treatment of the legal principles behind the observances of the festivals and fast days. Part of this work has been published in English translation: The Festivals in Ha-lachah, translated by Meir Fox-Ashrei and edited by Uri Kaploon (New York, 1981). Solomon Ganzfield's Code of Jewish Law (Qitsur Shulhan ʿarukh): A Compilation of Jewish Laws and Customs, vol. 3, annot. & rev. ed., translated by Hyman E. Goldin (New York, 1961), is a comprehensive and clearly written but very pedestrian account.

Louis Jacobs (1987)

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Jewish Religious Year

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Jewish Religious Year