The Jewish Year in a Nutshell

Dear Josep,

One of my very first “letters to Josep” style e-mails to you was an attempt at explaining the Jewish year and all its holidays. The e-mail was about the length of your living room table, and all it accomplished was to profoundly confuse you. I realized I would probably have to break it down and explain each component to you separately… and the rest is history!

Well, now that I’ve written a comprehensive post for each of the holidays, I can finally make some sense of the Jewish year! And what better time than Gregorian New Year’s Eve, which… has… absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish calendar?


Let’s break this down by category first, in descending order of significance:

The Sabbath

It may surprise you to learn that the holiest day in the Jewish year is actually the one that happens every week (with the possible exception of Yom Kippur–but even Yom Kippur is called the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”!). Here is the post about Shabbat and how it is celebrated.

Biblical Holidays

These are holidays that are mentioned in the first five books of the Bible. They are the most important of Jewish holidays, and what they have in common is that they are all yamim tovim, literally “good days,” which are celebrated very similarly to the Sabbath. These are the differences between Yom Tov and Shabbat:

  • On Yom Tov, certain creative activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath are permitted–ones related to the preparation of food. For example, we are not allowed to light fires, but we may transfer them, and use the fire to heat and cook food. On the Sabbath those things are prohibited.
  • There is no requirement to eat a “third meal” on Yom Tov.
  • The prayers are different, depending on the holiday. The kiddush is different, and the havdala service is recited only with wine (no spices or candle).
  • With the exception of Rosh Hashana, the yamim tovim of a holiday last one day in Israel, and two outside of Israel. Explanation for that here.
  • When the Temple still stood, Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays three times a year (the three “regalim”).

These holidays include:

The High Holidays (Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur)

The Three “Regalim”: Passover, Shavuot, and Succot & Shmini Atzeret. (“Regel” literally means “foot,” and in this context it refers to the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)

Rosh Ḥodesh

This is the first day of the new month, or if the month has 30 days, day 30 of that month and day 1 of the next. The first commandment God gave the Israelites, while they were still in Egypt, was to observe this as a festive day. In the days of the Temple, it was celebrated by special offerings listed in the book of Exodus. In our days, it is noted mostly by festive prayers. There are no other special commandments or restrictions.

Rabbinic Holidays

These are holidays instituted by the Sages to commemorate important events in Jewish history. They are of lesser importance in the Jewish calendar. These are Chanukah and Purim. They are not yamim tovim, so work and creative actions are permitted, but each of them have their own requirements (lighting the candles on Chanukah, and hearing the Scroll of Esther read, having a festive meal, exchanging edible gifts with friends and neighbors, and giving to the poor for Purim).

Fast Days

Here is a post about the Jewish fast days. There are two major fast days–Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av–and four minor fast days: 17 B’Tamuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, the 10th of Tevet, and the Fast of Esther.

Other Notable Days

Tu B’Shvat: The “birthday” for the trees, or more accurately, the Jewish agricultural New Year. See this post on the four New Years.

The Omer and Lag B’Omer: explained here

Holidays and Remembrance Days of Modern Israel: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, otherwise known as Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week; and Jerusalem Day. Religious Zionist Jews consider Independence Day and Jerusalem Day religious holidays in that we have festive prayers in their honor, but there are no commandments or requirements.

Let’s Just Sort That out Chronologically for Ya

For the visually inclined:

Jewish Calendar holidays

Starting with Nisan, which is the beginning of the year for months (see this post about the New Years if you’re confused as to why we’re not starting with Rosh Hashana!):

Nisan (March-April)

  • Passover (15th – 21st of Nissan, or until 22nd outside of Israel)
  • The Omer (period of counting that begins on the 16th of Nissan and ends on the 5th of Sivan)
  • Holocaust Remembrance Day (27th of Nissan)

Iyar (April-May)

Sivan (May-June)

  • Shavuot (6th of Sivan, and 7th outside of Israel)

Tamuz (June-July)

Av (July-August)

Elul (August-September)

Tishrei (September-October)

Heshvan (October-November)

Kislev (November-December)

  • Chanukah (25th of Kislev – 2nd or 3rd of Tevet, depending on how many days Kislev has that year)

Tevet (December-January)

Shvat (January-February)

Adar (February-March)

  • Purim (14th of Adar; 15th if in Jerusalem or another city that was walled in 423 B.C.E., when the Purim story took place. Note that on leap years, we add another Adar! In that case, Purim is celebrated during Adar II.)

Are we clear now?! 😉

Feliç Any Nou!



4 thoughts on “The Jewish Year in a Nutshell

    1. It doesn’t really feel that way because practically speaking we don’t do anything differently on Rosh Chodesh. But sure, it’s a commandment from the Torah. Chanukah and Purim are rabbinic.

    1. Excellent question!!! We wonder how you don’t get bored and depressed with so few! 😛 In the USA they had to invent dumb things like President’s Day to get a little breather in between your sparse Christian holidays!

      Anyway, depends what you are expecting us to get done. 😉 The really important things in life–bonding with friends and family, focusing on our spirituality and relationship with God, enjoying the good life has to offer–are things we do with particular intensity on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

      But in terms of productivity: the Yamim Tovim are the only days on which work is prohibited, and that comes to a total of 8 days in the year. Work is discouraged during Succot and Passover, but not prohibited if it is necessary to make a livelihood. (As a tour guide, Eitan almost always works during the holidays, ’cause that’s when the tourists are here!) On the other days there’s no problem at all with working. With the exception of Purim and most days of Chanukah, they are regular (or half-day) school days, too.

      Also, remember, we have six-day work weeks. 😉 Your Mondays are our Sundays!

      Overall, though, I think Judaism makes a statement here about the importance of rest and breaking out of your routine in order to restore yourself and “fill the well,” as they say, to improve your productivity the rest of the time. The Romans ridiculed us for taking a day off of work every week. Who has the last laugh, eh Romans?! 😛

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.