Jewish Festivals

The Jewish year is marked by a series of festivals and holy days, celebrated at home and in the synagogue.

The festival of Purim in early spring commemorates how the Jews of Persia were saved from destruction during the reign of King Ahasuerus, who ruled from 481--465 B.C.E. The festival is a joyous one, celebrated with music, fancy dress and play-acting.

Passover commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It is a spring festival, and lasts for eight days. The highlight of the festival is the Seder, the meal that takes place in the home on the first two nights of Passover. During the Seder, Jews eat special symbolic foods and the story of the Exodus from Egypt is read from a book called the Haggadah.

Shavuot commemorates the day when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The festival also marks the wheat harvest and the gathering of the first fruits.

The Jewish New Year begins in the autumn, with the festival of Rosh Hashanah. During the New Year service in synagogue, the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram's horn, is blown. At home, the festive meal begins with apple and honey, and a request to God to 'renew unto us a good and sweet New Year'.

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is straight after Rosh Hashanah. It is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar - a time to remember responsibilities, and a chance to make up for harmful actions. On Yom Kippur adults cannot eat or drink for 25 hours, and synagogue services continue all day.

Sukkot begins two weeks after the New Year, and lasts for seven days. It takes its name from the temporary hut, or sukkah, where meals are eaten during the festival, as a reminder of how God protected the Israelites during their 40-year journey through the desert. The huts are decorated with fruit, and have roofs made of leaves.

Simhat Torah, at the end of Sukkot, is a two-day festival that marks the point when the weekly reading of the Torah is completed, and the cycle begins again with the first portion of Genesis. The Torah scrolls are carried round the synagogue seven times in procession and the day is celebrated with song, dance and festivities.

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days in the winter. It commemorates the victory of a small group of Jews over the Greek army in 165 B.C.E. The Jews' first task was to re-dedicate their temple, which the Greeks had desecrated. There was only enough oil to keep the temple light burning for one day, but, miraculously, it lasted for eight days. To celebrate this, a lamp with eight candles or wicks is lit, beginning with one light on the first night and increasing the number each night.

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