Last week, on the 20th of September, we celebrated Rosh Hashana, which is the Jewish New Year. In Israel, we have many holidays throughout the year. Not only Jewish, but also Christian, Muslim and public holidays, all changing the atmosphere in the country for a day or two or sometimes even more. In Israel, holidays are about people, families, food. In many of the holidays you can see families gathering together and if possible, going out to see and explore the wonderful sites of our country, in the cities and outside them. So… what are the major holidays in Israel?
I’ll start from what I know best: Jewish holidays. The Jewish holidays are celebrated every year according to the Hebrew calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which most of us know and use on a daily basis, the Hebrew calendar is based on the moon. To make sure that the Jewish holidays are celebrated in the same season every year, intercalary months are added. But, it is important to remember that the Jewish holidays are not celebrated every year on the same Gregorian date. They are celebrated every year on the same Hebrew date, so the Gregorian date will be different. The Hebrew date begins every day with sunset, which means the holidays begin with sunset (for example, if you see that on a specific year Rosh Hashana begins on the 20th of September, it means that the holiday will only start in the evening of that day).
Rosh Hashana – As I’ve mentioned above, Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. It is celebrated every year on the first day of the Jewish month, Tishrei. It takes place when summer ends. During the holiday, we eat apples with honey so that the upcoming year will be sweet. You can get a bit more understanding of the holiday by reading my post from a year ago – My Rosh Hashana.
Rosh Hashana lasts two days, during which there is no public transportation in Israel. In some places you might be able to get a shared taxi (sherut) or use a private bus line to get around places. But my recommendation is to try and stay in a place where you won’t need to use transportation during the holiday.
Yom Kippur – This is the holiest of the Jewish holidays and is known as the day of atonement. Yom Kippur takes place every year on the tenth day of the Hebrew month, Tishrei, about a week after Rosh Hashana. During the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Kippur, the Jewish people believe that God writes down a person’s fate for the upcoming year on Rosh Hashana and waits until Yom Kippur to seal his decision. During those ten days, the person can pray and try to change God’s mind by changing his or her behavior and seeking forgiveness for his or her actions during the last year.
“Yom” means “day” and “Kippur” comes from the root meaning “to atone”. On Yom Kippur, most Jewish people fast for 25 hours, don’t use electronical devices, don’t drive or ride transportation. That is their way to atone their behavior during the passing year. But in Israel not all Jewish people act alike and some do eat during the holiday, use their electronical devices and such. Most won’t use their cars, to respect others.
During Yom Kippur you can expect to see a lot of people in the streets, especially children, walking on foot. In cities with mixed population, you might see cars driving now and then. Some Jewish people might not like that other people are driving on this holy day and so you might hear them or see them get upset. If you’re travelling on Yom Kippur, don’t count on public transportation at all, because it doesn’t work on Yom Kippur.
Sukkot – A biblical holiday, celebrated on the 15th day of the Jewish month, Tishrei. When the Holy Temple was still standing, Sukkot was one the the three pilgrimage festivals, during which the Jewish people had to perform a pilgrimage to the Temple on Sukkot. Nowadays, the holiday lasts seven days and Jewish people in Israel build a Sukkah, which is a kind of booth covered with leaves or wood. Sukkah is the name of the temporary dwelling, in which the farmers dwelled during the harvesting season back in the biblical days. When going around Israel on the days before Sukkot and during the holiday, you might see a lot of those sukkah structures in the streets, inside people’s yards and on public squares.
During the first day of Sukkot there is no public transportation in Israel, but afterwards, during the days of “Chol Hamoed”, which last about 5 days, there is public transportation like any other day. At the end of the holiday, on the last day, there is another day with limited transportation.
Chanukah – This holiday is meant to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple during the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Chanukah takes place on the 25th day of the Hebrew month, Kislev, and is celebrated for 8 nights and days. It is usually celebrated in the beginning of the Winter. Every evening, families and friends gather together to sing and light another candle on the Chanukkiah (small menorah), until there are 8 candles lightened (not including the Shamash, which is the candle used to light all the others). During the holiday, people eat foods that are fried or baked in oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil, that was able to keep the Holy Temple’s Menorah alight for 8 days. In the stores you’ll find many jam-filled doghnuts called “suf-ga-nee-ah”. You might also see many kids playing with driedals, which have Hebrew letters printed on every side of the driedal. The letters are the first letters of the words, that make up the sentence: “A great miracle happened here.” Outside of Israel, you’ll find driedals saying: “A great miracle happened there.”
There is no public transportation limitation on Chanukah, because it isn’t a holiday from the Torah.
Purim – This fun holiday is meant to commemorate the saving of the Jews from the evil Haman, who was planning to kill all the Jews in the ancient Persian Empire. The story of Haman and the Jews can be found in the Biblical Book of Esther. The Jews were very happy when Haman was sentenced to death, so they celebrated with a great feast, drank a lot of wine and had a party. So, that’s also what the Jewish people in Israel do to celebrate Purim: they get dressed in funny costumes and get drunk. There is also a tradition of giving sweets to one another on Purim. The holiday is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month, Adar. In cities with ancient walls (like Jerusalem), it is celebrated on the 15th day.
You might be able to find a wild party to join on Purim while in Israel. You will see people with costumes on the streets for sure, even a couple of days before Purim starts. In the stores, you’ll find a lot of “Haman Ears” (oznei haman), a triangular shaped pastry filled with chocolate or poppy seed.
There is no public transportation limitation on Purim, because it isn’t a holiday from the Torah.
Pesach (Passover) – One of the three pilgrimage festivals, whcih is meant to commemorate how God freed the Hebrew people from slavery in ancient Egypt. The holiday is begins on 15th day of the Hebrew month, Nisan, and lasts seven days. It is called “Pesach” because in Hebrew, “pesach” means “passed over”. God passed over the houses of the Jews during the final of the Ten Plagues, because they painted with blood of a lamb over thier doorposts. On the eve of the holiday (called “Leil Ha-Seder”), families and friends gather together around the table and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, as described in the Bible. During the reading, there are some songs, some prayers and some moments when all the people need to eat something from the table. At some point, there is a feast, including many types of food. During the seven days of Pesach, Jewish people do not eat bread or anything made from chametz, which are leavened foods made from specific grains. Instead of bread, we eat Matzot, which are unleavened breads made from flour and water. You might be able to find bread in areas that aren’t all Jewish.
On the first day of Pesach you won’t have public transportation, but afterwards there will be limited transportation.
Shavuot – The last of the three pilgrimage festivals, this holiday is all about cheese products and argicultural products. There is also a tradition of throwing water on one another during Shavuot, so don’t be surprised if you see people spraying other people on the street. Shavuot is celebrated on the sixth day of the Hebrew month, Sivan.
There is no public transportation during Shavuot.
Lag BaOmer – If you start seeing children walking around with hands and carts full of wood, it’s probably because you’re close to Lag BaOmer, which is celebrated every year on the 18th day of the Hebrew month, Iyar. On Lag BaOmer people light bonfires all around the country to mark the anniversary of death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is traditionally connected to light and fire. This isn’t a great day for the environment, because of all the smoke, but at least we have fun around the bonfire, with marshmallows and everything. There’s also public transportation, so that’s great.
Shabbat – Although it comes every end of the week, the Shabbat is considered by some as an holiday. Shabbat is a time to rest and be with the family, there’s no public transportation in most cities and most of the stores, restaurants and attractions are closed. For more info about the Shabbat, visit my post – The Shabbat is…
Unlike the Hebrew calendar, the Muslim calendar, which is based on the moon, does not add intercalary months, which means the holidays aren’t celebrated during the same season every year. They change every year.
Ramadan – A whole month, during which the Muslims fast from dawn to sunset every day. It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which makes it a very holy month to the Muslims. Aside from not eating, during the Ramadan the Muslims need to refrain from drinking, smoking, insluting, cursing and engaging in sexual relations. The Muslims work as usual during the Ramadan month, so you won’t see anything too unusual.
The end of the Ramadan is celebrated by Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fasting during the whole month. The Eid al-Fitr holiday is celebrated throughout three days and during those days most Muslims won’t work, so you might find that Muslim stores or facilities aren’t open on those days.
Eid al-Adha – This is the second of the two Muslim holidays, along with Eid al-Fitr. The holiday lasts four days and is meant to honor the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God. During the holiday, the Muslims sacrifice goats, to cemmemorate the goat given by God. Also, many Muslims do the Hajj during this time. This is a very holy holiday for the Muslims, so some might not open their stores on this day.
The Christian holidays are less prominent in Israel, but you will be able to spot some lights and Christmas trees during Christmas, for example, especially in the big cities.
Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) – The national memorial day takes place on the 27th day of the Hebrew month, Nisan, around April-May. It is a day in which we remember approximately six million Jews, who were perished in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their allies. In the morning of the memorial day there is a two-minute long siren, during which people stop whatever they are doing and stand to show their respect to the Holocaust victims.
Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) – On this day we remember the many fallen soldiers, who protected our country, and the civilian victims of terrorism. It takes place a day before Independence day, on the fourth day of the Hebrew month, Iyar. On the eve before the Memorial day, there is a siren that goes on for one minute. A day afterwards, in the morning, there is another siren, that goes on for two minutes.
Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) – After we remember our soldiers, who fell for our country, we celebrate our Independence! Getting independence wasn’t easy. We had to fight for it (literally). In the evening before the day, there’s the grand ceremony in Mount Herzl, with songs and fireworks and lighting of the 12 torches. On the day itself, people usually go out to the parks and enjoy some barbecue together.
For more about Independence and Memorial Day, read my post – From Down Below: 69 Years of Independence.
Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) – This day is meant to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967. After this war, Israel had control over the Old City, after it was captured by Jordanian forces during the Independence War. The day is celebrated on the 28th day of the Hebrew month, Iyar. There are many ceremonies in Jerusalem and many Jewish people celebrating in the streets of the Old City. It is a day that not all people in Israel like.
That’s all for today, my friends.
May we all have many wonderful holidays!
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