Explanation of Major Jewish Holidays

Rosh Hashanah*
(Jewish New Year)

Traditions include eating apples dipped in honey and blowing the shofar (ram’s horn). Most Jews attend synagogue on these two days and the preceding evening.


Yom Kippur*
(Day of Atonement)

Considered by Jews to be the holiest and most solemn day of the year. Fasting begins at sundown and ends after nightfall the following day. Most Jews attend synagogue on this day and the preceding evening.


(Feast of Tabernacles or Booths)

A seven-day festival. One of the three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Bible. Celebrated by the building of a sukkah, or temporary dwelling, outdoors. Work is traditionally prohibited on the first and second days.


Shemini Atzeret*
(Eighth day of Sukkot)

Immediately follows the conclusion of Sukkot.


Simchat Torah*
(Rejoicing of the Law)

Concludes and begins anew the annual reading cycle of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses that make up the Jewish Bible. Immediately follows Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret


(Festival of Lights)

An eight-day festival marked by the lighting of candles—one on the first night, two on the second, and so on—using a special candle holder called a menorah or chanukiah. Traditions include a game involving spinning dreidels (tops), eating potato latkes (pancakes), and giving gifts.


Tu B'Shevat
(New Year of the Trees)

Celebrated as an ecological awareness day. Trees are often planted.



Commemorates the events in the Book of Esther. One of the most joyous Jewish holidays. Traditions include masquerading in costumes and giving care packages to those in need.



Commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. A feast called a seder is held on the first two nights and sometimes on the final two nights of the eight-day holiday. No food that is leavened (e.g., bread, cake) or contains wheat is eaten. Matzah (unleavened bread) is often consumed instead. Work is traditionally prohibited on the first, second, seventh, and eighth days.


(Feast of Weeks, Pentecost)

According to Rabbinic tradition, the Ten Commandments were given on this day. It is traditional to eat meals containing dairy.


Tisha B'Av

Annual fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Jews from the land of Israel.

*Commonly observed by synagogue attendance or family gatherings. On these days and on the Sabbath (Friday evening through Saturday evening), work is traditionally prohibited; individuals may be absent from school or work.

Holidays begin the evening before the date indicated because a Jewish "day" begins and ends at sunset, rather than at midnight.