Israel’s official calendar of public holidays corresponds with the hebrew calendar and changes annually. Below is a comprehensive of the major public holidays and their meanings.
Purim commemorates the events that took place in the Book of Esther. It is celebrated by reading or acting out the story of Queen Esther and by making noises to drown out every mention of Haman’s name. In Purim it is a tradition to masquerade around in costumes and to give Mishloach Manot (care packages, i.e. gifts of food and drink) to the poor and the needy. In Israel it is also a tradition to arrange festive parades, known as Ad-D’lo-Yada in the town’s main street.
Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has established four new Jewish holidays.
Passover, the first and probably best known feast, comes in the spring, in the Jewish month of Nisan, also called Abib. Passover commemorates the redemption of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. On the first Passover each Hebrew household sacrificed a perfect yearling lamb and sprinkled the blood on the crosspiece and side posts of the door. The “Angel of Death” passed over the houses which were protected by the blood of the lamb, but where there was no blood, the first born was slain. In Christian teaching all persons are seen as slaves, in bondage to sin, and all are redeemed and set free by the blood of the Messiah, the pure and spotless Lamb of God (I Peter 1:18,19). See Exo 12, 34, Lev. 23, Deut. 16.
Modern Jewish observance of Passover or Pesach, in Hebrew, no longer includes the eating of the Paschal lamb but the Seder meal is a great visual aid and the menu items have lovely symbolic meanings. The season begins with a thorough house-cleaning to remove all traces of leaven, The Haggadah, the guidebook used at the meal, contains narratives from the Bible and history, songs prayers and proper blessings. The food items are the wine, matzah- unleavened bread, karpas- parsley or celery dipped in salt water to represent tears, maror- bitter herb (usually horseradish), haroset – chopped apples and nuts, symbolizing the mortar of the bricks in Egypt. The Passover holiday continues for seven days and during this period Jewish people put away all leavened bread or matzah. Leaven in Scripture is usually a symbol of sin. In Christian symbolism the unleavened matzah portrays the sinless Messiah. It is pierced, even as Jesus was pierced by the nails in His hands and feet and the Roman spear in His side; and it is striped in the baking, reminding us that Isaiah said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities and with his stripes, we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5. However, and this is a big however, the piercing and striping (of matzah) is a much more modern phenomena, caused by modern baking methods and should not be assumed to have existed in biblical times.
Shavuot, known by Christians as the Feast of Weeks or Pentacost, is calculated from the first feast, Passover. It comes 50 days after the Passover Sabbath, thus the name Pentecost which means “fifty.” This is a Greek name, but the Jewish people call it “Shavuot,” which is the Hebrew word for weeks. Shavuot is also a harvest festival, thanking God for the wheat harvest. In Israel today it is customary to adorn the synagogues with plants and flowers, symbolic of the first-fruits. In the synagogue it is usual to read from the book of Ruth, and also the Ten Commandments and the account of Mt. Sinai. According to oral, tradition, this day is the day that Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai. On Shavuot, the priests offered two loaves of bread made from the newly harvested grain. Unlike other offerings, these loaves were baked with leaven. These two loaves are seen bye some as a type of God’s people, both Jews and gentiles, given eternal life and made one. The proper scripture references are: Ex. 19 & 20; Num. 28:28; Deut. 15. Traditions include eating dairy foods and staying up all night studying Torah. The Hebrew date is Sivan 6-7.
In the month of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar comes the Feast of Trumpets, more commonly known as Rosh Hashanah. This marks the beginning of the civil year and is the Jewish New Year’s Day. In Leviticus 23:24 God commanded the blowing of trumpets on the first day of the seventh month to call the congregation of Israel together for a very solemn assembly. According to Jewish teachings, Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of ten days of judgment when all the children of men pass before the Creator. The righteous are written into the Book of Life, the wicked are condemned and those who are not wholly righteous nor wholly wicked are given ten days to repent and thus escape judgment. Many Christians believe that those who are written in the Lamb’s book of Life need not fear final judgment, but look forward to Messiah’s return with the trumpet sound and the voice of the Archangel to bring us into His Sabbath rest.
The ten days of repentance and introspection lead into the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It has become a time of fasting and prayer. It was the only time in Bible days when the high priest could enter the Hold of Holies. He went in before the Lord with the blood of a sacrificed animal to beg forgiveness for the sins of the people (Lev. 16,23 25: Num.29). Today there are no animal sacrifices because there is no Temple. The Jewish people rely on repentance and God’s mercy for forgiveness of sins. Lev. 17:11 teaches that atonement is in the blood and Christians see the crucifixion of Jesus as a fulfillment of this atonement or covering. The Christian scriptures speak of the veil of the Temple being torn in two, signifying that the way had been opened into the Holy of Holies. Both Jews and Christians expect a great and final Day of Atonement prophesied in Zechariah 12:11 and 13:1 when all people will see the Messiah.
Sukkot is known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, known in Hebrew as Sukkot. In Bible days this was the final fall harvest festival, a time of ingathering at Jerusalem. The Jewish people built booth-like structures and lived in them during the feast as a reminder of the temporary dwellings the Israelites had in the wilderness. Even today many Jewish people build open-roofed, three-sided huts for this festival. They decorate them with tree boughs and autumn fruits to remind them of harvest. Everyone in Israel, who was able, came up to Jerusalem for this harvest festival every year. The Temple worship for the holiday included the ritual pouring of the prayers for the winter rains. It was at this time that Jesus cried out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” (John 7:37 -38) After Israel’s final Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths will be celebrated again in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:16) Booths speak of the final rest, as well as the final harvest. In Christian understanding, John wrote in Revelation 21:3, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Christians see this as the fulfillment of His promise, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” (Revelation 21.6)
Simhat Torah (rejoicing in the Torah) is the last day of the Sukkot festival, or the eighth. On this day the annual cycle of reading from the Torah in the synagogue is completed and a new cycle begun. Lest Satan should tempt one to rejoice because the last words of Deuteronomy are finished, they begin reading Genesis immediately. On Simhat Torah eve, and again during the day, all the scrolls are taken from the ark and carried in procession around the synagogue, while songs of praise are chanted.
Hanukah, is known as the Feast of Lights, is not commanded in the Bible but it celebrates an important event. According to tradition, this festival was begun by Judah Maccabee and his followers after the successful rebellion against the Greeks of Syria. During the eight days of this festival, one additional light is lit for each day, until on the eighth day eight lights are burning. This is said to commemorate the miracle of the oil which took place after the Maccabees recovered the Temple from the Greeks. It was discovered that the Greeks had defiled all the oil used in the Temple menorah, except for one cruse, which contained only enough to keep the menorah burning for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted eight days, until new supplies could be consecrated. In remembrance, the festival of Hanuka was instituted. Had not the Maccabees or Hasmoneans, as they are sometimes called, taken a stand against the inroads of pagan Greek culture, there might have been no Jewish community for Miriam and Yosef to bring Yeshua/Jesus into.
Other holidays in Israel
Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day
Nisan 27, day of the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, day to remember the 6 million who died in the Holocaust
Yom Hazikaron- Memorial Day
4th of Iyar. Day to remember the fallen soldiers
Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Independence Day
Occurred May 14, 1948. Celebrated in Israel with dancing in the streets, hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers. In Israel, the previous day is called Yom Hazikaron, remembrance day for soldiers who have died in Israel’s wars
Thirty-third day between Passover and Shavuot. The day when celebrations may occur during a normally solemn time. Three year old boys have first haircuts.
Nineth day of the month of Av. Date of the destruction of both First and Second Temples as well as many other Jewish historical tragedies. A fast day.
New Year for the trees, similar to Arbor day, this is a day to plant trees.
Reprinted with permission from Israel Study Manual By: JoAnn G. Magnuson
Approximately 30% of Israel’s population is Arab, much of which is Moslem. Accordingly there is a significant population that celebrates the Moslem holidays, which can primarily be experienced in the eastern sections of Jerusalem as well as within the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and the famous Dome of the Rock. Other areas of the country including Haifa, Akko, Nazareth and Jaffa, also have large Muslim populations and the traditional celebrations can be experienced in these communities as well.
Most people are familiar with the month-long fast of Ramadan, during which Muslims refrain from eating from sunup to sundown. The fast of Ramadan culminates in a three-day celebration, Eid ul-Fitr. Read more about other exciting Muslim holidays to experience in Jerusalem: Laylat al-Miraj, Eid Al-Adha, Ashura and the Islamic New Year.