Many people are familiar with Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah, three major Jewish holidays, but there are a number of other important holidays in the Hebrew calendar to commemorate various events in Jewish history and to celebrate the Jewish faith. In communities with a large Jewish population, they may be designated as official holidays, although for devout Jews, the holiday actually starts the night before, which is something important to keep in mind when scheduling events which coincide with these days.
The Hebrew calendar starts with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which falls in late September or early October. Ten days after the New Year, Jews around the world observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, people fast for 25 hours and attend special religious services. Yom Kippur is a day of reflection, and a chance for Jewish people to have a private conversation with God about their deeds in the past year.
Five days after Yom Kippur falls the holiday of Sukkot, which usually occurs in October. On Sukkot, Jewish people commemorate the 40 years their ancestors spent wandering in the desert. Some families build a small shelter, called a sukkah, and spend time in the shelter during this holiday. After Sukkot ends, people celebrate Simchat Torah, the date when the annual cycle of reading the Torah is over, and the cycle begins again for the year. Typically, the Torah scrolls are carried in a parade on Simchat Torah.
In December, people of the Jewish faith celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorating the miracle at the Temple in Jerusalem. This eight day holiday is accompanied with gift-giving, as many gentiles are aware, but people also eat traditional foods during Hanukkah, and light candles on a special candelabra called a hanukiah each evening to celebrate. While many non-Jews know this holiday as a primary Jewish holiday, it is in fact not traditionally considered to be one of the most important. Its importance may have been raised simply because of the proximity to a very important holiday in the Christian religion — Christmas.
One month before Passover, also known as Pesach, people celebrate Purim, a festive holiday based on the story of Esther. Children dress up in costumes and act out Biblical stories in some Jewish communities on this holiday, and everyone celebrates with parties and food. Over the eight-day festival of Pesach, people remember the Exodus from Egypt. This is one of the Jewish holidays which coincides with holidays in other religions, as Easter usually falls on the same dates.
Some Jewish communities also observe Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, in late April or early May. The next major Jewish holiday is Shavu'ot, which commemorates the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Jewish families also celebrate a major holiday every Friday night and Saturday, when they observe Shabbat.
The changeable dates of these days can be confusing for outsiders. Holidays move around because they are not linked with the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world, but rather with the Hebrew calendar. Dates on the Hebrew calendar are calculated slightly differently, and, as a result, holidays appear to skip around when they are mapped onto the Gregorian calendar.