A Tourist’s Guide to the Major Jewish Festivals in Israel

Major Jewish Festivals in Israel

Just like in many other countries Israel has many different holidays scattered throughout the year. In Israel these holidays (or Jewish Festivals or Chagim) are based on the Hebrew Calendar. For many visitors the holidays come as a surprise (as they are often not coordinated with holidays that the visitors are familiar with from home) and an element of mystery as it isn’t clear what impact the Jewish Festivals in Israel will have on the trip and what are the expected norms of behavior.


There are two groups of festivals – the Major Festivals & Minor Festivals. This article will cover the major ones and please consult our companion guide – A Guide to the Minor Festivals.for more information on the minor festivals. Many of the effects of the Festivals from a tourist’s perspective are similar to those caused by the Sabbath. Please read our Guide to the Shabbat for more information.


The Basics of the Hebrew Calendar

The Hebrew Calendar is lunar – that is that it is based on months determined by the cycle of the moon (which is 29.53 days long). Generally, there are 12 months each with 29 or 30 days with a total of 354 days in a given year. So the lunar year is 11 days shorter than a standard solar (Gregorian) year.


If this were uncorrected over time the lunar months would cycle through the solar year and through the seasons and hence the festivals that each have an exact lunar date would occur in different seasons. However, there is a Divine command to ensure that the festival of Passover always occurs in the spring. Hence the Hebrew Calendar includes leap years – these occur 7 times in every 19 years and an extra month is added. Over the course of the 19 year cycle this ensures synchronization with the solar year and that all the festivals fall out in a very precise range of dates and in the correct season. Further explanation of the calculation and the tradition behind determining the calendar are beyond the scope of this article. For reasons beyond the scope of this guide Pesach, Shavuot & Succot are one day shorter in Israel than outside Israel.


The Hebrew Day

Please note that in the Hebrew Calendar the day runs from a few minutes before sunset through to dark on the following day. Generally, the Sabbath and Festivals are marked with candle lighting just before the start followed shortly after by festive family meals.


The Impact of the Jewish Festivals in Israel

Each festival has its own unique method of celebration. There are some general principles that apply to the festivals. The festivals are considered Holy Days that should be dedicated to religious observance and to celebration in the home and with the family. In general they have similar sets of laws to the Sabbath (Shabbat). So religious Jews perform no work, use time switches to control their electricity, and do not travel (apart from walking.) The major difference to the Shabbat is that the laws regarding cooking are a little more relaxed although in a hotel this will not be immediately obvious.


Not all Israelis are observant – so in many contexts the impact of the festival will not be immediately obvious to the tourist. Businesses are closed, some aspects of the hotels are changed, many Israelis will celebrate with family events, but you will see many people travelling to their families and many travelling to popular locations to spend the day enjoying Israel.


Pesach – Passover

When – Falls in mid March – Mid April

WhyPesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the redemption of the Children of Israel to become a nation. (Exodus 1 – 17)

Major Celebration – A special diet avoiding bread and leavened products is observed for all 7 days. A major family celebration is held on the first night recalling the Exodus from Egypt (as told in the book of Exodus)

Length – Seven Days

Day 1 and Day 7 are full festival days and will feel a lot like the Sabbath to the visitor.

Days 2-6 are festival days in a religious sense; but with a reduced impact. So there is a holiday atmosphere, lots of families are on vacation and travelling, but many shops and businesses are open for at least part of the day.


Shavuot – Pentecost

WhenShavuot falls May-June (always 7 weeks after Passover starts)

Why – Commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20)

Major Celebration – Traditionally associated with dairy foods – you should expect to be served lots of cheese and cheese cakes.

Length – One Day.

A full festival day and will feel a lot like the Sabbath to the visitor.


Rosh HaShana

When – Falls September – October

WhyRosh HaShana is associated with the creation of the world. It is also the time of reflection and repentance as this is the time that G-d determines individual and national destiny for the coming year.

Major Celebration – Honey and sweet foods to symbolize a happy new year. Rosh HaShana is also associated in tradition with the period of reflection as it the time that the Divine Decrees are made for the coming year.

Length – Two Days

Two full festival days and will feel a lot like the Sabbath to the visitor.


Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement

When – Falls September-October (always 10 days after Rosh HaShana)

WhyYom Kippur concludes the period of reflection and repentance as this is the time that G-d determines individual and national destiny for the coming year. Traditionally, over the past 10 days we have completed our repentance and favorably changed our destiny.

Major Celebration – 25 hours of fasting. Much of the day is spent in prayer and reflection as each person’s and each nation’s fate is determined. We all hope to be sealed in the book of life.

Length – One Day

In contrast to all other festivals Yom Kippur is universally observed in public. There is no traffic (apart from emergency services) at all, and most spend the time at home or in synagogue (according to their tradition.) The only traffic is often children on bikes who take advantage of the lack of traffic. The country is effectively shut down from a few minutes before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur until a few minutes after dark – the contrasts are amazing to watch.


Succot – Festival of Tabernacles

When – Falls September-October (always 5 days after Yom Kippur)

WhySuccot (or Sukkot) has many different aspects – it is seen as the definitive religious joyous experience. Succot celebrates the conclusion of the harvest and it also has some aspects of the repentance period that concluded a few days earlier. It is an opportunity to perform further repentance especially through joy and happiness and on Succot there is Divine Judgment on the amount of rain that will fall during the coming winter.

Major Celebration – The use of temporary dwellings (the Succa or booth or hut) with natural roofs and the symbolism of the Four Species (mainly in prayer)

Succot is a time of happiness (after the hopefully successful repentance) and marks the harvest and preparation for a hopefully wet winter. The last day has a unique significance and there is often dancing in the synagogues with the Torah – this occasionally spills into the streets. In many towns there are public events with bands on the night after the last day.

Each week a section of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) is read publicly during various prayers and the entire Torah is read over the course of the year. On the last day of Succot (Simchat Torah – Rejoicing of the Torah) the annual cycle of reading is concluded and immediately restarted.

The last day de facto marks the end of the Autumn Festival season and the start of the new “regular” year.

Length – Eight Days

Day 1 and Day 8 are full festival days and will feel a lot like the Sabbath to the visitor.

Days 2-6 are festival days in a religious sense; but with a reduced impact. So there is a holiday atmosphere, lots of families are on vacation and travelling, but many shops and businesses are open for at least part of the day.


What do the Festivals mean for the tourist? Do Tourists have to Keep the Festivals?

You will find it helpful to browse the companion article on the Sabbath. In Israel there is a strong tradition of freedom of expression and different people mark the festivals in different ways – from the very observant to the traditional to the non observant but it is a good excuse for a holiday.


This means that many tourist attractions are open; although frequently very busy and the traffic can be quite busy in some of the popular areas. The evenings at the start of the festivals can include some of the worst traffic jams of the year.


The major hotels mark the festivals and try to cater to all their guests. So the menu will reflect the holiday and many of the changes that are made for the Sabbath are also made on Festivals. As on the Sabbath the impact on guests is minimal unless they actively choose to participate.


The only exception is Yom Kippur; where there is no public transport and no public food service.


Things to Do on the Jewish Festivals in Israel

For tourists who are interested in the meanings of the festivals then we recommend that you observe some of the services in a synagogue or better at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem or in Zefat (Safed). It is also interesting to take part in the traditional meals – much of the celebration takes place in the context of the home and the family. Your hotel will have traditional meals in the main dining room and maybe able to help with home hospitality.


Chag Sameach

Chag Sameach is the traditional greeting on most of the festivals – it means have a Happy Festival!

So if you are lucky enough to be in Israel for a festival (chag) – have a great time – have a Chag Sameach!!

As noted above there is no expectation that visitors will take part and many tourist sites are open.

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