Jewish and National Holidays
All holidays in Israel begin at sundown on the previous day and their precise dates on the Gregorian calendar change from year to year. The High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) will take place in mid to late September. Sukkot follows in the beginning of October. Other main Jewish holidays include Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot. There are also a number national civil holidays celebrated in Israel including Holocaust Memorial Day, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, and Independence Day. More details about these special days are provided below. Both Hillel and the Buddy System provide holiday-related programming throughout the academic year, and international students will be notified of all.
The holiday represents the beginning of the Jewish year and civil calendar; its name in Hebrew means “The Head (beginning) of the Year.” The holiday is a time when people look back at the occurrences of the past year and think about how they plan to make changes in the upcoming year. Families gather to share a large festive holiday meal.
The most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur occurs 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. This “Day of Atonement” is a fast day, and is usually observed by attending synagogue to repent and ask forgiveness. It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, God writes the judgment of every person in the “Book of Life" and on Yom Kippur, the book is signed and sealed. Thus, the ten days between the two holidays is a time to ask forgiveness from others. Please note that most of the country literally closes down during Yom Kippur, including transportation.
Translated as “The Feast of the Tabernacles,” Sukkot is both a religious and agricultural holiday. The holiday commemorates the forty years that the people of Israel wandered the desert after the exodus from Egypt. The holiday is also a celebration of the harvest season in the region. During the holiday, families erect huts (sukkot) outside their homes, in which they sit to eat their meals and even sleep at night. In order for a hut to be 'kosher', its occupants must be able to see stars through the roof of the structure.
Known as “The Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah tells the story of assimilation, suppression, and the fight to maintain the Jewish faith in the face of secularizing Hellenism. During the holiday Jewish people light an eight-pronged candelabrum to symbolize the eight days that the oil burned in the Temple after it was reclaimed from the Hellenists. The connection with oil extends also to the food that is customary to eat during the holiday - jelly-filled donuts and latkes (potato pancakes).
The “New Year for the Trees” is celebrated by planting trees in Israel and eating different kinds of dried fruit and nuts. The holiday is another agricultural holiday that has its roots in the "Mishna" (rabbinical commentary on Jewish law).
Purim or “Lots” commemorates the time in which Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination at the hands of Haman, the king‟s advisor. On this holiday, the Scroll of Esther is read twice, small gift packages of goodies are sent to friends, and people dress up in costume and celebrate.
Commemorating the exodus from Egypt, this holiday is observed in a number of ways. During the first night (or two, depending on location), the story of the flight from Egypt is recited around the dinner table. Throughout the weeklong holiday, there is a very rigid dietary requirement of not eating bread or any other leavened food. In fact, Israeli law prohibits the sale of these items during Passover, so you may choose to stock up in advance.
Holocaust Memorial Day
Starting at sundown, TV broadcasts and radio programs are dedicated to the subject of the Shoah (Holocaust in Hebrew). A two-minute air siren goes off at 10:00 the following morning. During the siren people drop whatever they are doing in order to stand in silence and contemplation. Memorial ceremonies are held at the University and main city squares (Rabin Square in Tel Aviv).
Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism
One week after Holocaust Memorial Day, Israel commemorates its soldiers who have fallen in battle and the victims of terrorism. A siren is sounded at 8:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 a.m. the following morning. It is customary to stop and stand in silence during the sirens. Local radio and television channels will also broadcast programs commemorating the fallen, as well as events leading to the creation of Israel and its subsequent wars. Ceremonies are held both on campus and at Rabin Square. Immediately at the conclusion of Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Zikaron), Israel‟s Independence Day begins.
Israel Independence Day
At the precise moment that Memorial Day ends, Independence Day (Yom Ha-Atzma'ut) begins - drawing an inseparable link between fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism and the country's independence. The mood instantly changes as people celebrate Israel‟s independence. Ceremonies are held at night in Rabin Square, and the next day many people celebrate by getting together with friends and family for a barbeque (mangal or al ha'esh in Hebrew).
This holiday is otherwise known as Chag Matan Torah, the holiday to commemorate when the Jewish people received the Torah (first five books of the Bible) at Mount Sinai. Shavuot comes 49 days after Passover, and illustrates that while the children of Israel were physically released from bondage on Passover, they were redeemed from idolatry and immorality by receiving the Torah on Shavuot. On this holiday, it is customary to eat dairy products, particularly cheesecake, and study Torah through the night.
Occurring on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, this is a day of fasting and mourning in commemoration of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. According to tradition, both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on this date.
If you would like to find out more about the Jewish holidays, a great resource is the Jewish Virtual Library.