Jewish Calendar Primer

The keeping of the calendar is essential to Jewish life. The Jewish calendar remains one of the oldest calendar systems still in use today, predating by more than 3700 years the standard Gregorian calendar now used throughout the world. Judaism is based on a lunar calendar, marking the months by the appearance of the moon rather than using a fixed number of days each month. Each Jewish month begins with the occurrence of the new moon and has four weeks of seven days.


Just as a “leap year” is used in the standard calendar to keep the months occurring in their appropriate seasons, the Jewish calendar adjusts certain years with a thirteenth month, a second month of Adar. The Jewish “day” begins at sundown and the Jewish “week” begins on Sunday, ending on Saturday, the Sabbath. In accordance with the fourth commandment, the Sabbath, from sun down Friday until sundown Saturday, is a special day reserved for prayer, rest and attention to spiritual needs. The first of each month is known as Rosh Chodesh (the head of the month), an occasion for special prayers and celebration.


Special prayers for the month to come are given on the preceding Sabbath. Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) marks the beginning of the new Jewish year and has special significance as a day of reflection and hope. Rosh Hashanah usually falls in September, depending on the lunar cycle’s conjunction with the Gregorian calendar.


SHABBOS – The Sabbath

The Sabbath is the oldest of all Jewish holy days and the most honored. The Sabbath is first cited in the second chapter of the Torah, which corresponds with the first five books of the Old Testament [Genesis 2:3]. The fourth commandment [Exodus 20:7] requires that this day be observed and kept holy. During Shabbos, from sun down Friday until sundown Saturday. no work is performed; no fires are kindled, and no money is carried.


Traditional synagogue services are held Friday evening and Saturday morning. In observance, the house is cleaned prior to the Sabbath, and the table is set with the best linen, china, silver, and glassware. A special meal is prepared, the family dresses for dinner, and two Sabbath candles are lighted. Traditional Foods The fine Sabbath meal includes kosher wine and two loaves of twisted Challah bread. Roasted, boiled or broiled chicken is a favorite main course. Traditional Jewish dishes, such as gefilte fish, chicken soup with rice, noodles or matzo balls, chopped liver, potato kugel (pudding), and borscht are popular additions to the weekly Sabbath feast.



Rosh Hashanah, or “head of the year,” is celebrated as a two-day holiday, a time for reflection on the thoughts and deeds of the passing year and a time for hope for the year to come. The shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded on both days of Rosh Hashanah. The oldest and most soulful of wind instruments, the shofar awakens observers to repent for their sins. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a body of water- lake, pond, river, or sea-that contains live fish is visited.


Special prayers are given to “cast away” sins. Traditional Foods A festive meal for Rosh Hashanah is prepared as for the Sabbath, with roast chicken or turkey, challah bread, chopped liver, wine, and chicken soup with kreplach or matzo. It is also customary on Rosh Hashanah to eat foods that symbolize sweetness, blessings and abundance for the coming year. A plate of sliced apples is added, and a slice of apple and challah bread are dipped in honey with hopes of a sweet year. Other customs include eating the head of a fish, pomegranates and carrots.


YOM KIPPUR – The Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, when judgment is rendered on life, death, health and disease. In observance, a complete fast from sunset until sundown the following day is held, special prayers are recited. Five activities, in addition to the prohibition of work, are forbidden on Yom Kippur: eating and drinking; anointing oneself with perfume or lotion; marital relations; washing for pleasure; and wearing shoes made of leather. Traditional Foods The afternoon prior to Yom Kippur, a table is set for a meal before the fast.


Like Rosh Hashanah , the meal usually includes roast chicken or turkey, challah bread and chopped liver. Kreplach, filled noodle dough, is a customary dish. No wine is served at this meal, and highly seasoned foods are avoided to prevent intensifying thirst during the coming fast. To break the fast after the sunset following Yom Kippur, a dairy meal is usually served. Traditional foods include eggs, cheeses, blintzes, sour cream, gefilte fish, lox, bagels and pickled herring.


SUKKOT – Festival of Tabernacles

The eight days of Sukkot commemorate the flight of the Jews from Egypt and thanksgiving for the harvest. It is commanded in Leviticus 23:42, “During seven days you must live in thatched huts (Sukkoth),” to symbolize the temporary quarters in which the Jews lived during their exodus. A Sukkah, or temporary hut with a roof of branches, is constructed outside the home and the synagogue. All meals are eaten in the Sukkah during the festival, which is celebrated with special prayers and beautiful ceremonies. The beginning and last days of the festival are established as holy days (Leviticus 42:39) and no work is performed. Eating meals and spending time outdoors provide a unique religious experience.


Traditional Foods The foods prepared for the festival are the same as for the other festive holidays. Because Sukkot occurs at the time of the grain harvest, many fresh fruits and vegetables are served with the meals. Foods are also used to decorate the Sukkah, with autumn fruits, vegetable and gourds adorning the roof. Clusters of grapes, red apples, eggplants, squashes and peppers embellish the hut, and strings of cranberries and fresh flowers add a festive touch.


CHANUKAH – Festival of Lights

The eight days of Chanukah celebrate religious freedom. This convivial holiday commemorates the victory of the Jews over Assyrians and the rededication of the temple of Jerusalem. Under the totalitarian ruler Antiochus, the Assyrians raided the temple and tried to force the Jews to bow to Greek idols. The Maccabean army led the Jews to defeat the enemy. The dedication, or Chanukah, of the temple lasted eight days.


Chanukah is celebrated with a feast of lights and a feast of dedication. Each evening, the family gathers for a benediction and a beautiful ceremony. One candle of the menorah, an eight branched candlestick, is lighted each night until all candles are burning. The merry evenings are filled with games of dreidel, an ancient ancestor to today’s spinning top, and Chanukah gifts are given.


Traditional Foods The feasts of Chanukah are abundant with Jewish specialties such as gefilte fish. Roasted turkey, duckling or chicken are popular entrees at the family gatherings. To commemorate the oil that burned in the menorah of the temple, foods cooked in oil are eaten. Potato latkes, pancakes of minced potatoes and onions fried in oil, are especially prized additions to Chanukah meals.


PURIM – The Carnival

Purim, the most mirthful of Jewish holidays, celebrates the rescue by Mordechai and Esther of the Jews of ancient Persia from massacre by the evil ruler Haman. In observance, there is a Fast of Esther followed by the reading of the Megillah , the scroll of Esther, in the synagogue. The Feast of Purim is celebrated with feasts, plays, carnivals and gift giving. When Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading of the Megillah, it is customary to twirl noisemakers and stamp one’s feet to “drown out” his evil name. Although merriment is accented, Purim is also a time for charity to at least two needy individuals. Gift-giving among friends, employing children as “messengers” emphasizes friendship and unity among Jews during this festive holiday. Traditional Foods The Purim feast is a family get-together. Roasted duck, chick en or turkey is usually selected as a main course. Hamantashen, cakes filled with poppy seeds or fruit, and kreplach, dough filled with meat, are characteristically eaten at the Purim feast be cause their triangular shape serves as a reminder of Haman’s three-cornered hat.


PASSOVER – Festival of Freedom

Passover, or Pesach, is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish year. It commemorates the birth of the Jewish nation, their liberation from Egyptian slavery, and their exodus from Egypt. The name Passover refers to the last of the ten plagues on Egypt described in the book of Exodus. All first-born males were slain; but the Jewish homes were “passed over.” As the Jews fled from Egypt through the desert, they had no time to bake bread, so they took with them unleavened bread known as matzo.


In observance, all leavened products (chometz) are forbidden during the week of Passover, as commanded in Exodus 12:15, “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you should remove leaven from your houses.” All chometz, which includes grains, legumes and yeast, is removed from the home. Before Passover, the entire house is cleaned and the stove and oven are cleaned and koshered. Special pots and dishes are reserved for use during this holiday.


The night before Passover, a formal search for chometz is made, and all products containing chometz are removed or destroyed by fire. Many beverages, canned goods, candies, meat products, processed foods, shortenings, vinegars and wines are specially produced with chometz-free recipes under strict Rabbinical approval by food manufacturers at this time. Packaged food that does not have the Kosher for Passover (KP) marking cannot be brought into the home.


In addition to the removal of chometz, Passover is also marked by a fast of the first-born, to show gratitude for the sparing of the first-born of Israel during the last plague, and by two Seders, family meals with special foods and prayers. Five obligations are performed by each Jew during the Seder: eating matzo; drinking four cups of wine; eating bitter herbs; relating the story of the exodus; and reciting Psalms of praise.

The ritual Seder is performed in accordance with a special book known as a Hagaddah . Traditional Foods The highlight of the Passover holiday is the Seder, the most impressive family meal of the year. A Seder plate with six symbolic foods is prepared. Matzo symbolizes the unleavened bread used during the exodus.


Maror, or bitter herbs such as horseradish and romaine lettuce, signify the cruel suffering of the Jews in ancient Egypt. Beitzo, a hard-boiled egg, commemorates the festival sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. Charoseth, a paste of walnuts and apples with wine, represents the clay used by Jews to make bricks under Pharaoh’s enslavement. Karpas, a vegetable such as celery or parsley dipped in salt water, suggests the tears of the ancient Jews during their captivity.


Zeroah , a piece of roast meat or chicken neck, symbolizes the Paschal sacrifice on the night of freedom from Egypt. Traditional foods for the Passover feast include gefilte fish, chopped liver, chicken soup with matzo balls, turkey, chicken, kugels (puddings usually made with potatoes), and Passover spongecake. Prohibited foods include barley, biscuits, cakes, crackers, dried peas, hops, leavened bread, cereals, oats, rice, rye, wheat, and all liquids that contain ingredients or flavoring made with grain alcohol.


SHAVUOT – Feast of Weeks

Shavuot, also known as the Festival of the First Fruits, marks the beginning of the wheat harvest and commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Jews at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24). These two themes are closely inter woven on this festive holiday. The Feast of Weeks marks the end of the barley harvest. Community offerings of two loaves made from new corn (Leviticus 23:17) are made. The Book of Ruth, chronicling Israel’s grain harvest, is customarily read. In ancient times, pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem to bring offerings of barley, wheat, olives, dates and fruits for the festival at the Temple. Today, synagogues and homes are decorated with flowers and leafy branches, and the festival is marked with pageants, songs, music and dancing.


The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai marked Israel’s birth as a nation. Because it is said that the Israelites fell asleep during the night and had to be awakened, it is customary to stay awake all night to study and discuss Torah. Traditional Foods Fruits and dairy products are usually eaten at Shavuot. Traditional foods include fruit and cheese blintzes, cheeses, sour cream, fish, gefilte fish, noodle puddings, and cheesecake.


TISHA B’AV – The Three Weeks

Tammuz 17 marks the date that Moses descended from Mount Sinai with two stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31-32). While Moses was receiving the Commandments, the people had grown impatient and had begun worshipping a golden calf and drinking. When Moses returned, he became so angry that he smashed the tablets on the ground. In observance, Tammuz 17 is a public fast day. It begins the “Three Weeks,” a period of national mourning for the destruction of the two temples of Jerusalem.


Jewish people celebrate no weddings and schedule no festivities. Av 1 through Av 9 (Tisha B’Av) are known as the “Nine Days” at the end of the Three Weeks. For the Nine Days, mourning is intensified for the destruction of the temples and subsequent persecution of Jews.


Tisha B’Av marks the anniversary of the Divine decree that the Jewish people remain in the desert for 40 years (Numbers 13-14). The saddest date in the Jewish calendar, it is commemorated by a 25-hour fast from the sunset of the previous evening. Traditional Foods During the Nine Days, meat is prohibited and all meals are of dairy nature. Traditional foods include fish, cheeses, yegetables and vegetarian meals, bread products and pasta.


Courtesy of Toronto Kosher