Cycle of the Jewish year
The Jewish years are counted from the creation of the world (according to calculations in the Bible), and the current year (2011/12) is 5772. The Jewish day begins at sunset, so that both Shabbat and the holidays begin the evening before the secular date given on this calendar.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar calendar, meaning that the months are tied to the phases of the moon, but that the year is linked to the solar year. Since lunar months do not fit evenly into the solar year (and the Jewish holidays are tied to particular seasons of the year), there is a need to make them fit – thus every two or three years an extra “leap-month” is added in the spring. This is why the Jewish holidays appear to fluctuate within about a three-week span in relation to the secular year. The names of the Hebrew months are ancient ones, adapted from the names of the months used in Babylonia.
Jewish New Year
The Jewish year actually has four “New Years,” two of which are the more important. The first month for counting the festivals of the Hebrew calendar is Nisan, in the (northern hemisphere) spring, which marks the agricultural New Year, just before Passover. The New Year for judgment of the world occurs in the (northern hemisphere) autumn, at Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”). Rosh Hashanah is also called “Yom ha-Din” – the Day of Judgment, when the whole world is judged for its actions and sentence is meted out for the coming year. The other “new years” are Tu b’Shevat (New Year of the trees) and the first of Elul (for tithing of cattle).
The entire Torah (five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy) is read over the year, a portion of the book being read every Shabbat morning. The reading begins in the autumn (Southern Hemisphere Spring), on Simchat Torah (“rejoicing of the Torah”) when the last chapters of Deuteronomy are finished and Genesis is begun. Therefore, each Shabbat has its own special character imparted by the Torah reading for that day. In addition to the Torah reading, there is always a reading from the Prophets (called the “Haftarah,” meaning “completion”) to accompany it, which the rabbis chose in accordance with an important theme from the Torah reading.
14-21 Pesach / Passover – celebration of the Exodus from Egypt; there is a Seder meal on the first two days according to the Haggadah (the “telling” – which recounts the Exodus and gives the order of the Seder ritual). The word “seder” means “order” and is applied to the meal itself. During all of Passover no leavened bread is eaten, because when the Israelites left Egypt they did not have enough time for their bread to rise.
15 Beginning of the period of counting the Omer – a harvest offering that was formerly brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover; the counting lasts until Shavuot. The entire period has become a time of semi-mourning – weddings do not occur and people do not cut their hair.
27 Yom HaShoah – day of remembrance of the Holocaust, marked by memorial services. This date was chosen in the 1950’s by the Israeli Parliament (Knesset).
4 Yom HaZikaron – Israeli day of remembrance of those who have fallen in war.
5 Yom Ha’Atzmaut / Israel Independence Day, celebrating the day Israel was founded in 1948.
18 Lag b’Omer (33rd day of counting the Omer—a day of celebration when weddings may occur and when people in Israel have bonfires)
6-7 Shavuot – celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai. Also the Festival of the First Fruits.
17 Fast day in commemoration of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.
9 Tisha b’Av – Fast day and commemoration of the destruction of the first and second Temples (in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and in 70 C.E. by the Romans).
This is a month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim (“Days of Awe”, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), involving introspection, considering of one’s sins, and preparing for teshuvah (“repentance” or “returning” to God); the slichot prayers (penitential prayers) are recited.
1-2 Rosh Hashanah – the “birthday of the world”, Day of Remembrance and Day of Judgment, when Jews ask God to remember them for good and the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown to awaken people to repentance and transformation of their lives.
10 Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement – fast day, day of confessing one’s sins and asking forgiveness from other people and from God.
15-21 Sukkot – holiday of the fall harvest, in which people build sukkot (open-roofed booths), in which they live (if the weather cooperates) and eat their meals. This is both an agricultural holiday, celebrating the fall harvest, and commemorating the Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
22 Shemini Azeret – “Eighth day of assembly” – holiday marking the end of Sukkot.
23 Simchat Torah – “rejoicing with the Torah” – celebrating the end of one cycle of Torah reading and the beginning of the next.
Cheshvan (no holidays)
24 – Tevet 2 Chanukah (“rededication of the Temple”). This eight-day holiday commemorates the Maccabee Revolt of 164 B.C.E. At this time, Judea and Jerusalem were ruled by a Greek dynasty based in Syria, and under King Antiochus IV, practice of Judaism was forbidden and Jews were forced to offer sacrifices to Zeus. The Maccabees, a family of priests, led the revolt against Antiochus, took Jerusalem from the Greeks, and rededicated the Temple. Throughout the holiday, the menorah is lit, each day with one more lamp or candle
1-2 Chanukah (see above)
10 Fast day in commemoration of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.
15 Tu b’Shevat / New Year of the trees – often marked by a seder modelled on the Pesach seder.
(I & II – in a leap-year, there are two Adars, and Purim is celebrated in the second Adar)
13 Fast of Esther – commemorating the three day fast observed by the Jewish people in the story of Purim.
14 Purim – celebrating the rescue of the Jews in Persia from Haman’s plot to exterminate them (usually dated to sometime in the 400s B.C.E.).
15 Shushan Purim – the day after Purim, commemorating the day when the Jews of Shushan, the Persian capital, finally rested after defeating their enemies.Acknowledgements – Rebecca Lesses, Ithaca College, Rabbi Paul Jacobson, Sydney, and Cantor David Bentley, Brisbane. Reviewed October 2011