Festival days are known in Hebrew as Yamim Tovim.
The Main Festivals Include:
This one-day festival occurs four weeks prior to Passover and usually falls in February or early March. It recalls the story of Esther, a Queen who foiled a plot by one of her advisors, Haman, to kill all the Jews in Persia. The story is read in synagogue in a book called the Megillah and it is a day for parties and celebrations. Fancy dress is traditional and pastries called Hamentaschen are also eaten. These are triangular (the same shape as Haman’s hat) and mostly filled with poppy seeds, jam or fruit. They are delicious!
A highlight of our lunar calendar approximately falling during March/April, we commemorate Moses freeing the Israelites from their enslavement under the Pharaoh in Egypt. The festival lasts for eight days and during that time no ‘leavened’ food (i.e. anything containing wheat or any type of grain) may be consumed. That includes bread, cereals, whisky and beer. –Many Sephardic Jews, originating from the Middle East eat rice and pulses. Abstaining from leavened food reminds us that when the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry, they did not have time to prepare proper food – their bread did not rise in time and so was considered ‘unleavened’ and tasted more like crackers. This is symbolised on Pesach by eating Matzah.
On the first two nights, a service known as a Seder is held. Here, the story of the Passover and the dramatic Jewish exodus from Egypt is told, chronicled in a book called the Haggadah. It is customary for those attending to lean to their left to show that they are no longer bound by the restrictions of slavery imposed by the Pharaoh of Egypt. Four cups of wine are imbibed during the service, and a celebratory meal is eaten.
After the first two days, a four day period follows when normal work activities may be resumed, although leavened food is still forbidden. The final two days of the festival, like the first, are Yamim Tovim. The festival finishes at sundown on the eighth day.
A great deal of preparation is required for Passover as Jews are not allowed to eat leavened food (chametz) nor own it. Everyone must clear their houses of it before the festival commences. Nowadays, many will ask a rabbi to sell on their chametz for a token sum of money to a non-Jew, which can be redeemed after the festival is over. It is also customary to use different crockery, cutlery and cookware, which has not been used to cook foods containing chametz, for the duration of the festival.
Shavuot takes places seven weeks after Passover and commemorates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments by G-d following the Exodus from Egypt. It is traditional to eat dairy products. Why? When the Jewish People waited for the arrival of their commandments, they were unsure as to the nature of the new dietary laws. So as a precaution, they only ate dairy products and vegetables, thus avoiding consuming the meat of any animals which might be forbidden. Cheesecake and blintzes are particular favourites at this time of year. Our synagogue is decorated with flowers for the festival’s duration in celebration of the giving of the commandments.
Some Jews often stay up all night on the first night to study, this is known as the Tikkun Leil.
The Jewish New Year falls during the Australian spring months of September/October. This heralds the beginning of our High Holy Days. It is a time for celebration and reflection. We repent for sins committed in the previous year. In synagogue, we pray to G-d for forgiveness and fervently request a good year. During the service, a Shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown, alert congregants to the seriousness of the festival. G-d is deciding our fate for the coming year – a fate sealed on the Day Of Atonement. This period is known as The Ten Days Of Repentance and is traditionally a solemn time.
Rosh Hashanah is also a time for celebration and there are many traditions surrounding it, including eating apple dipped in honey in the hope that this will lead to a sweet year ahead.
The Ten Days Of Repentance conclude with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day Of Atonement. On this holiest of days, the fates of all Jews is sealed for the coming year. This is the most solemn and serious day in the Jewish calendar and involves praying for forgiveness for sins and fasting from sundown to sundown the next night – often approximately a 25 hour fast. We are not allowed to work, bathe or wear leather shoes. The fast begins with Kol Nidre, a unique evening service, and continues early the next morning with meaningful synagogue services throughout the whole day until the fast ends.
Although it is solemn, Yom Kippur is also a powerful and happy day because Jews have the opportunity to cleanse themselves of wrongdoings and reach a spiritual high. Fasting ensures there are no distractions from prayers.
And on it goes! This festival begins five days after the end of Yom Kippur and commemorates the temporary booths the Israelites constructed in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. During this eight-day festival, Jews are encouraged to live in a similar booth, known as a Succah. The walls are often made of wood and the ceiling of greenery, leaving stars visible. In countries such as Israel, weather permitting, many people sleep in the Succah, but elsewhere it is used mainly for meals..
In synagogue, congregants says a blessing over four different plant species: a palm branch (lulav); citron (etrog); myrtle branch (hadass) and willow twig (aravah) – symbolically representing the four different types of Jewish people..
The middle four days, known as Chol Hamoed, are regular working days – although the fourth of these, Hoshana Raba is treated as one final chance to purge the soul of sins committed in the previous year. The eighth day of the festival is Shemini Atzeret, on this daya prayer for rain is said during the synagogue service.
Following immediately on from Succot is Simchat Torah, celebrating the end of the Torah reading and rejoicing that it can now be read from the beginning again. This is one of the happiest festivals and is celebrated by making seven circuits around the Bima of the synagogue, punctuated with dancing and singing of traditional Hebrew songs. Children are often given flags to wave and many synagogues hold parties after the service.
Another eight-day festival takes place usually in December. The story of Chanukah hails back to a period in history when Jews were forbidden to follow their faith and many were forcibly converted or killed. . A band of Jews, known as the Maccabees, gathered an army and revolted against the Greeks. They were victorious, although the temple and way of life was desecrated. The Macabees sought to restore the faith, but in order to light the special seven-branch candelabra, or Menorah, oil was needed for the following seven days, as oil could only be found for the first day. However, a miracle occurred and the Menorah continued to remain alight for the seven remaining days.
Traditions of Chanukah include lighting candles on a Menorah every night for eight nights in the home (by a window), eating fried food cooked in oil such as doughnuts or latkes, potato pancakes, giving presents, holding parties and celebrations, and playing games with a dreidel, a traditional spinning top. And we can’t forget Chanukah gelt!