BackStory

The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Listen
Connect
Newsletter

A Look At Jewish Holidays

A photo of the eighth night of Chanukkah in Meah Shearim. (Submitted by Rabbi Tuvia Genuth)

The eighth night of Chanukkah in Meah Shearim. (Submitted by Rabbi Tuvia Genuth)

Editor’s note: Rabbi Tuvia Genuth is a sofer stam (writer of holy scrolls). He received rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Holidays in Judaism can be subdivided into two main categories. The first category includes holidays of biblical origin, explicitly mentioned in the “Torah” – the first 5 books of Moses that were received by the Jews on Mount Sinai 3500 years ago.

The second category are holidays with rabbinical origins and date back to the period after the receiving of the Torah. There are two major holidays that are still celebrated today: “Hanukah”, which dates back to the Hellenistic era (2200 years ago), and the Purim, fated to the Persian era (2500 years ago).

Although they are of rabbinic nature, both holidays play a significant role in Jewish faith. First and foremost, the keeping of these festivals shows faith in our Rabbis and their halachic rulings, which is a cornerstone to the strength of our tradition throughout the generations.   On Hanukah, we celebrate victory over the Greeks who tried to assimilate the Jewish people during a time when many Jews wanted to “give in.” However, the Jews prevailed and proved the steadfast faith in our traditions can outlast any enemy. This belief means that we can find the light, even in times of darkness. Every Jew must keep this holiday, but it is considered of lesser importance in comparison with the Torah based holidays.

 

In Purim, we celebrate our victory over anti-Semitism in the Persian Empire. This is of great significance to our faith. During Purim, we celebrate that God will always protect His people, even in the diaspora. It is stated in the book of Esther that the day of Purim will never cease to be celebrated by the Jewish people, giving this holiday the significance of the eternity of God’s providence and our traditions. Despite its meaning, it is also considered of lesser significance than a Torah based holiday.

According to Judaism, holidays mentioned in the Torah are holy. They also have stricter rules than holidays that aren’t mentioned in the Torah, but were invented by the rabbinate of the era.

Holidays mentioned in the Torah start with the New Year, also known as the Day of Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These holidays are spread throughout the first month of the year, and each bares its own significance. Some are celebrated with happiness, which may include fasting and praying. This is significant to the Jewish faith as it celebrates accountability and the mercifulness of God. Jews are taught that the fate of the entire year is decided on these days.

There are three more holidays mentioned in the Torah:

  • The holiday of Sukkot (or Succoth), in memory of the Israelites going into the Sinai desert when they went out from Egypt. It comes after the holidays of the New Year in the same month. It represents the protection God provides the people of Israel.
  • Passover, in which we celebrate the Israelites going out from Egypt. It can be considered the emergence of the Jewish nation.
  • Seven weeks after Pesach we celebrate the memorial of getting the Torah when the Israelites got out from Egypt.

According to our Sages the correct order of these holidays is Passover, Shavuot and then Succoth. In this regard Pesach holds special significance, as the beginning of the salvation of the Jewish people.

Hanukkah and Passover may seem to be more important from a non-Jewish perspective. This might be because they occur close to Christian holidays. However, according to Judaism, the holidays are not ranked and Each holiday has its own significance.


Learn more about “Judaism in America.”