The JCC Indy is proud of its Jewish heritage and seeks to create a community space driven by these values. We will be closed in observance of the listed holidays. Please note: All Jewish holidays begin at sundown the day before.
And for a quick primer on Hebrew, click here for 6-second Hebrew videos by JCCA.
Why do Jewish holidays keep changing dates?
Jewish holidays actually occur on the same day every year: the same day on the Jewish calendar! The Jewish calendar has a different number of days than the calendar you use because the Jewish calendar is tied to the moon’s cycles instead of the sun’s.
- Holiday dates vary because the Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar
- Some Jews add an extra day to some holidays because of ancient tradition; some don’t
When does a Jewish Holiday start and end?
How long is a Jewish holiday? It depends on who you ask!
In ancient times, because of confusion about the calendar, an extra day was added to some holidays. In modern times, some branches of Judaism have abandoned this custom, returning the holidays to the length specified in the Bible. Other branches continue the ancient tradition of adding a day to certain holidays. Thus, for some Jews, Thursday is a holiday but Friday is not, while for others both Thursday and Friday are holidays.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that a Jewish “day” starts at sunset, and holidays start the evening before the day on your secular calendar. For example, if your calendar says that Passover starts on April 24, families will be getting together for Passover dinner on the night of April 23. A few secular calendars mark the preceding day as “Erev Passover,” which basically means Passover Eve. If the calendar says “Erev” or “Eve” before a holiday name, it means the holiday starts the evening of that day and continues into the next day.
Shabbat – Occurs every Saturday
The Sabbath is the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaism. Shabbat is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until a few minutes after the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. The exact times, therefore, differ from week to week and from place to place, depending on the time of sunset at each location.
Shabbat is considered a festive day, when a person is freed from the regular labors of everyday life and can contemplate the spiritual aspects of life and spend time with family.
Words to Know
- Shabbat – Sabbath, day of rest
- Kiddush cup – wine cup used to bless the Shabbat meal
- Havdallah – ceremony that ends Shabbat; the word means “separation”
Tu B’Shevat – Occurs in late January or early February
Tu B’Shevat or the “New Year of the Trees” is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the 15th (tu) of the Hebrew month of Shevat.
Tu B’Shevat is not mentioned in the Torah. According to scholars, the holiday was originally an agricultural festival, corresponding to the beginning of spring in Israel. As in the case with many Jewish observances, a critical historical event served as a catalyst. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the exile that followed, many Jews felt a need to bind themselves symbolically to their former homeland. Tu B’Shevat served in part to fill that spiritual need. As it was no longer possible to bring tithes to the Temple, Jews used this time each year to eat a variety of fruits and nuts that could be obtained from Palestine. The practice, a sort of physical association with the land, continued for many centuries.
The sixteenth and seventeenth century kabbalists (mystics) of Palestine elaborated on the exilic customs, creating a ritual for Tu B’Shevat somewhat similar to the Passover seder. On Erev Tu B’Shevat, they would gather in their homes for a fifteen-course meal, each course being one of the foods associated with the land. Between courses, they would read from an anthology called P’ri Eitz Hadar (Citrus Fruit), a compilation of passages on trees drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the mystical Zohar.
Today in modern Israel, Tu B’Shevat has become a national holiday, a tree planting festival for both Israelis and Jews throughout the world.
Tu B’Shevat may be observed in a variety of ways, including hosting a seder to celebrate the many wonderful fruits and nuts of Israel. Many recipes include these foods. Entree to Judaism for Families: Jewish Cooking and Kitchen Conversations with Children by Tina Wasserman includes many recipes for families to enjoy cooking together.
Purim – Occurs in March
This is a partying holiday celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from destruction in the wake of a plot by Haman, a story recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Esther). It’s customary to celebrate by dressing in costumes, eating, drinking and listening to the Megillah.
Words to Know
- Megillah – a scroll of the story of Queen Esther
- Grogger – a noisemaker
- Hamantaschen – filled cookie in the shape of a triangle which represents Haman’s hat; Haman is the villain of the Purim story
- Queen Esther – Jewish heroine
- Mordecai – Queen Esther’s cousin
- King Ahashuerus – ruler of Persia
Passover – Occurs in March or April
Commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and represents freedom for all people. Passover is celebrated for seven or eight days (depending on the branch of Judaism) starting on the night of a full moon in April. Passover often overlaps with Easter.
Almost all American Jews observe Passover by participating in a ritual dinner (called a seder, pronounced SAY-der) on the first and/or second night of the holiday. Most American Jews avoid bread and grain products to one extent or another throughout this holiday, in memory of the fact that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise.
Strictly observant Jews do not work, go to school or carry out any business on the first two and last two days of Passover (first one day and last one day for some branches).
Yom Ha-Shoah – Occurs in late April or early May
Holocaust Memorial Day. A day to remember the victims of the Holocaust.
Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Yom Ha-Zikkaron & Yom Yerushalayim
– Occur in late April or May
Israeli Independence Day, Israeli Memorial Day and Jerusalem Day. Yom Ha-Atzma’ut commemorates the day that the British Palestinian mandate expired and David Ben-Gurion declared the creation of the State of Israel within the lands that the UN had set aside for a Jewish state in Palestine. Yom Ha-Zikkaron is a memorial day for Israeli soldiers who died defending the state of Israel in its many wars. Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem in Israeli hands during the 1967 War.
Words to Know
- Israel – homeland of the Jewish people
- Hora – Israeli folk dance
- Hatikvah – Israel’s national anthem
Shavu’ot – Occurs in May or June
Commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Occurs between Memorial Day and Independence Day and lasts for one or two days, depending on the branch. Like Sukkot, this holiday is every bit as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Words to Know
- Torah – the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
- Confirmation – graduation from religious school, which typically takes place on Shavu’ot
- Ten Commandments – the ten most important laws in the Torah
Tisha B’Av – Occurs in August
A fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and other tragedies.
Rosh Hashana – Occurs in September or October
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, the day when the year number on the Jewish calendar increases. It occurs between Labor Day and Columbus Day and lasts for one or two days, depending on the branch of Judaism.
Rosh Hashana is a happy, festive holiday but more solemn than the American New Year. It is a time to look back at the past year and make resolutions for the following year. It is also a wake-up call, a time to begin mental preparations for the upcoming day of atonement, Yom Kippur.
Words to Know
- Shana Tovah – a greeting for a good year
Yom Kippur – Occurs in September or October
Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, a day of fasting and repentance to reconcile ourselves with the Creator for the mistakes we made in the last year. It occurs on the ninth day after the first day of Rosh Hashanah, so it is usually in late September or early October. Most (but not all) Jews take off from work or school on this day, even ones who are not religious at other times.
How do you pronounce the name of this holiday? “Yom” rhymes with “home” and “Kippur” sounds like “key poor” with emphasis on the “poor.”
Sukkot – Occurs in September or October
This festival of booths commemorates the Biblical period of wandering in the desert by building a temporary shelter (called a sukkah, (rhymes with “book a”) in the yard and eating meals in it. Some spend considerable time in the sukkah, even sleeping there. Sukkot begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, in late September or October, and lasts for seven days. From the perspective of the Bible and Jewish law, this holiday is every bit as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah – Occur in September or October
These two holidays fall immediately after Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret is sort of an extra day tacked onto the end of Sukkot; Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Bible readings in sabbath services. Some branches celebrate these two holidays on the same day, which is the first day after Sukkot.
Chanukah – Occurs in December
Chanukah (sometimes spelled Hanukkah) is the festival of lights, commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a successful revolt against the Greeks. As part of the rededication, the victorious Jews needed to light the Temple’s menorah (candelabrum), but they had only enough oil to last one day, and it would take eight days to prepare more oil. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil is commemorated with this eight-day candle-lighting holiday.
Chanukah begins between Thanksgiving and Christmas. About half of the time, it overlaps with Christmas, but there are many years when Chanukah ends long before Christmas.
Almost all Jews light candles with their families for at least some nights of the holiday, so people like to be at home during this holiday.
The most important thing to remember about Chanukah is that it is not Jewish Christmas. Chanukah is a very minor holiday. It’s about lighting candles and playing games for chocolate coins and eating potato pancakes. Chanukah gift-giving rarely extends much beyond one’s own children.
Words to Know
- Menorah – eight-branch candleholder; each night of Hanukkah we light an additional candle until the final night, when all eight candles are lit
- Dreidel – spinning top with four Hebrew letters (nun, Gimmel, hey, shin) which stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (“A Great Miracle Happened There”)
- Latkes – potato pancakes, a traditional Hanukkah food
Other Traditions and Symbols
- Birth – For boys, the bris or circumcision takes place when the child is eight days old.
- Bar/bat mitzvah – At the age of 13 (12 for girls), children become obligated to observe the commandments. The bar mitzvah ceremony formally, publicly marks the assumption of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading religious services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to perform certain parts of religious services).
- Kippah – Also known as a yarmulke, it is usually a cloth, hemispherical or platter-shaped skullcap often worn by Orthodox Jewish men to fulfill the customary requirement that their head be covered at all times and sometimes worn by men and, less frequently, women in Conservative and Reform communities at times of prayer.
- Tallit – A tallit (or tallis) is a prayer shawl worn at the synagogue. The tallit has special twined and knotted fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners.
- Challah – A special braided bread eaten on the Sabbath and holidays.
- Matzah – A cracker-like, unleavened bread made of plain white flour and water. The dough is pricked in several places and not allowed to rise before or during baking, thereby producing a hard flatbread. Matzah is the substitute for bread during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
- Mezuzah – A mezuzah is a sacred parchment inscribed with two portions of Torah. Both of these Torah portions include the verse, “And you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” It is stored in a protective case and hung on the doorposts of Jewish homes.
- Tzedakah – Contributions to charity, an act of kindness; the word means “justice.”
- Kashrut – Jewish dietary laws. This word is from the same root as the more commonly known word, kosher. There are extensive laws of kashrut. The most widely understood are prohibitions against certain foods, such as pork and shellfish. Meat and dairy foods cannot be eaten at the same meal.