The Jewish holidays and festivals, according to Jewish tradition, are celebrated on fixed dates in the Hebrew calendar. The holidays and festivals in the Jewish calendar include days of joy and days of fasting whose purpose is to commemorate events, miracles and disasters in the history of the Jewish people. Some of the holidays originated in the Torah and others were established by the Jewish sages. National holidays and days of remembrance were added after the establishment of the State of Israel. Additionally, many Israeli citizens mark different ethnic, Muslim and Christian holidays.
The holidays have a deep spiritual meaning in the annual Jewish cycle, which begins with the festivals of Tishrei, the first Hebrew month of the year. This is how Hayim Nahman Bialik described it in a lecture he gave in 1926: “The festivals rise over the weekday plain, just as the mountains rise over the earth’s plain, and every high mountain… attests to deep shocks, some of them volcanic, that took place beneath the ground of the nation.”
For thousands of years, Jews fiercely kept the commandments of the festivals out of a deep affinity for the Jewish people. Over the generations, the cultural-national significance of these holidays intensified, and they became an important element in the Jewish experience, and later in Jewish-Israeli culture. The holidays also serve as a point of connection and dialogue among secular, traditional and religious people in Israel and the Diaspora.
The Festivals and Their Origins
The festivals mentioned in the Torah are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot. Each of these holidays is known as a Mikra Kodesh ("Declaration of Sanctity") and Yom Tov (lit. "Good Day"), and each is characterized by its own unique meaning and laws, in addition to a prohibition of work, like the one that is customary on the Sabbath. Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are the "Three Pilgrimage Festivals" (Shalosh HaRegalim) during which, in the days of the First and Second Temple, Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The day after each of the pilgrimage festivals is called Isru Chag, and it is also customary to celebrate on that day.
The sages added Hanukkah, Purim and Tu b’Av (the 15th of Av) as days of celebration, as well as days of fasting—the Fast of Gedaliah, the 10th of Tevet, Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther), 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av (9th of Av). Prominent among the national holidays set after the establishment of the state are Independence Day, Jerusalem Day, Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism.
The dates around some of the festivals are defined as periods of special significance. For example, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the “Ten Days of Repentance” (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah); Sefirat Ha’omer ("The Counting of the Omer") designates the seven weeks between the first day of Passover and the festival of Shavuot; and "The Three Weeks" between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av are called Bein HaMetzarim [lit. "Between the (Dire) Straits"] and considered a period of mourning.
The National Library has collected many items that illuminate various aspects of the Jewish holidays. The archival material, much of which is unique or rare, tells us a great deal about various fascinating customs, special festival and holiday piyyutim (liturgical poems), and rare prayer books and prayer formulas. In addition, the Library’s collections include impressive photographed, written and recorded documentation that reveals how the holidays were celebrated in communities in Israel and around the world, including holiday songs, New Year’s and holiday greeting cards produced in different periods and an array of remarkable posters.