Jewish Festivals

The Jewish year is rich in many festivals, of which five are considered to be of major importance. On these occasions Jews are not allowed to work, just as on the Sabbath, with the exception that they are allowed to cook from an existing flame. The exception to this is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is considered to be the Sabbaths of Sabbaths, when all the restrictions of the Sabbath apply with the addition that Jews fast for 25 hours.

The English dates on which the festivals falls varies from year to year. Please see the calendar on the website which shows dates up to 2016, to see calendar click here.

Like the Sabbath, the Festivals begin at sunset, and end at night when the stars appear

The Major Festivals are:

Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year):
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is considered to be the birthday of the human race. Jews believe that on this day God judges all people for their deeds of the previous year, and decides what will be their lot for the coming year. For this reason Rosh Hashanah is also called the Day of Judgement. It is usually associated with Yom Kippur, in that Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah decisions are written down, and on Yom Kippur they are sealed. It is celebrated over two days. The highlight of the Rosh Hashanah observances is the blowing of the ram’s horn (the Shofar).

Observant Jews may want to hear the sounding of the Shofar. Therefore a small room should be set aside for Jewish patients who wish to hear the Shofar, and arrangements should be made for a Rabbi or a suitably qualified person who will come to the hospital to blow the Shofar.

Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement):
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is the most solemn day in the Jewish Calendar. It is spent in fasting (abstaining from all food and drink) and prayer, to repent and seek forgiveness for one’s sins over the last year.

The fast is strictly observed by the overwhelming majority of Jews. However, if there is a risk to life resulting from the fast, it is permitted – and indeed obligatory – to eat. In such cases, it is advisable to consult a Rabbi where possible.

Succot (The Festival of Ingathering):
Five days after Yom Kippur, the festival of Succot is celebrated. It lasts for nine days in total, the first two and last two days being full Festival days on which all the restrictions of a festival apply. The middle five days are treated as weekdays. Succot celebrates God’s care of the Jewish people in the wilderness after the Exodus, and the ingathering of the harvest. During Succot a blessing is said over four species of plants mentioned in the Bible. The collective name for these species is “Lulav” (after the Palm leaf, which is the most conspicuous). For the first seven days observant Jews eat all their meals in a tabernacle (flimsy hut) which only has leaves or bamboo for a roof and is called a Succah.

Apart from the Festival regulations for the first two and last two days, observant Jews may wish to have the opportunity to say a blessing over the Lulav. This can easily be facilitated by asking a member of the family or friend to bring one in to the hospital.

The last three days have special names:

  • Hoshannah Rabbah
  • Shemini Atzeret (a full Festival Day)
  • Simchat Torah (a full Festival Day)

Pesach (Passover):
Passover celebrates the redemption of the Children of Israel from Egypt. It lasts for eight days, of which the first two and last two days are observed as full Festival days. On the first two evenings a special ceremony is held in the home, at which the family re-enacts the story of the coming out of Egypt. This ceremony is called “Seder”, and a special book which relates the story called the “Hagadah” is used. During Pesach it is not permitted to eat anything which has or may have leaven. In addition Jews will eat Matzah, which is unleavened bread. Only foods which have been specially produced for Passover are permitted, except for fresh fruit and raw vegetables. The hospital kosher meals provides special Passover meals, and only these which have special labels should be given to observant Jewish patients.

  • The restriction of eating any foods which contain leaven also applies to medicines. However, again when it comes to saving life everything is permitted. Where possible a rabbi should consulted where medication is needed which may contain leaven.

Shavuot (Pentecost):
Shavuot celebrates the giving of all the laws, including the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Apart from the normal Festival day restrictions there are no special observances

Minor Festivals:
In addition to the Major Festivals listed above there are also a number of minor Festivals. They are considered as ordinary weekdays, apart from some special observances. Requests may be made to observe the special practices which are associated with some of these Festivals.

Tu Bishevat (New Year for Trees):
Tu Bishevat (which literally means the 15th Shevat, the Hebrew Date on which it is observed) takes place in January or February, and celebrates the beginning of spring when the green shoots on the trees are just beginning to show. It is customary to eat many different fruits and nuts, although there is no obligation to do so.

Purim is possibly the happiest and most joyful of all the Jewish Festivals. It celebrates the Jewish people’s escape from threatened destruction under Persian rule. It is celebrated by reading the story of Purim from a special scroll called the “Megilla”, having a festive meal, giving charity to the poor, and exchanging gifts of food with family and friends. Children (and sometimes adults) dress up in fancy costumes.

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Jewish Maccabeans against the Greek rulers, who enforced religious persecution and forced conversion on the Jews in Judea. The Festival lasts for eight days, and on each evening a special eight branched candelabra is lit (starting with one candle on the first night and ending with eight on the last night).


Apart from Yom Kippur, there are 5 other fasts in the Jewish calendar. All these fasts, except for Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) start at sunrise and end at nightfall. They do not have the same severity as Yom Kippur. Therefore patients, being in hospital are exempt from all these fasts, with the exception of Tisha B’Av. However, even for this fast, a patient whose condition might be aggravated by fasting should not do so.

The Fast of Gedaliah (Tzom Gedalya):
This fast occurs on the day after Rosh Hashanah, and commemorates the assassination of a leading governor of Judea.

The Tenth of Tevet (Asarah b’Tevet):
This marks the beginning of the Siege of Jerusalem in the Babylonian era.

The Fast of Esther (Taanit Esther):
This fast always occurs just before Purim. It commemorates the fast undertaken by the Jewish people when they learned of the decree of annihilation planned against them.

The Seventeenth of Tammuz (Shiva Asar b’Tammuz):
This marks the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans. It also marks the beginning of a three week period of ‘semi-mourning’ until Tisha B’Av.

The Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av):
This is a major fast in that it lasts for 25 hours. It commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In addition there are some modern commemorative days for example Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. There are no special celebrations or observances connected with these days.

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