It’s Not the Jewish Christmas: An Introduction to Jewish Holidays and Their Observance in North America, Part I

On October 2, 1911, readers of the Annapolis Evening Capital opened their papers to find the following announcement: “Jew Stores Closed. Today all the Jew stores in town were closed, this being the Day of Atonement, one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar.[1]” It is doubtful that most non-Jewish residents of Annapolis in 1911 really understood what observing the Day of Atonement required. But they did know that it was an important holiday for Jews.

Postcard intended for use as a greeting card for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. National Library of Israel’s collections and the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Day of Atonement—in Hebrew, Yom Kippur—is one of the most important days in the Jewish liturgical calendar.  But for many non-Jews, this holiday, like most of the holidays in the Jewish calendar, remains little more than words on the calendar page or the subject of feature articles in the local newspaper. However, an understanding of the Jewish liturgical year and its holidays can help museums and historic sites better serve their visitors by enabling them to more comprehensively interpret the people and communities that are their focus and also avoid scheduling conflicts that might prevent Jewish participation in a particular activity or event.

Praying on the Brooklyn Bridge, New Year’s Day, 1909. Library of Congress

First, a few basics about the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is basically a lunar calendar of twelve months of either 29 or 30 days to which a full month is added in some years, according to a complex formula, so that agricultural holidays come in their correct season. This is why the Jewish holidays, unlike most Christian holidays, have no fixed date according to the Gregorian calendar (they have fixed dates in the Jewish calendar!) but do come in their correct seasons[2]. This variability can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the Jewish calendar but is important to understand. 

 All Jewish holidays begin the evening before the date marked on the calendar because of the verses in Genesis that describe the creation of the world: “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day (Genesis 1:5).[3]” Thus, all Jewish holidays are observed from sundown to sundown. In addition, outside the land of Israel, many Jews observe certain holidays for two days rather than one day, a tradition dating from the time when calculating the correct day was difficult.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: The High Holy Days

…According to the custom of this Season I Shall End my Letter with my prayers that the Allmighty Disposer may write you in the book off Life Happyness and Every Other Felicity You wish or want I am My Dear Child Your Affectionate Mother Abigaill Franks.[4]

The Jewish liturgical year begins in the fall, with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (“the head of the year”). It marks the beginning of a ten-day period of reflection and penitence, commonly referred to as “the High Holy Days,” which ends on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Rosh Hashanah is regarded as a day of judgment for the entire world, on which each person’s fate is inscribed in the Book of Life. The prayers said during the holiday emphasize these themes and also invite Jews to examine their own conduct during the past year and inspire them to do better in the coming year. During the Rosh Hashanah service, the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown, reminding Jews that this is the time to “wake up” and think about one’s life, its meaning and purpose. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is a day of fasting and prayer. The liturgy focuses on confession of sins, both against God and fellow human beings, and asking of forgiveness from God and from family and friends.  Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are observed primarily in the synagogue.

Sukkot:  The Festival of Booths (Tabernacles)

In one congregation in which he entered upon his duties on the first day of the New Year there were but four or five members who kept a kosher house, and upon the festival of Sukkot there was not a Sukkah in the whole membership. A year later there were over forty Sukkot in the congregation, and almost every house strictly kosher….[5]

Only five days after Yom Kippur comes the first of the three agricultural festivals of the Jewish year. Sukkot (“booths”), also known as “Tabernacles” (the latter name is used primarily by non-Jews) is now also celebrated as a commemoration of the wanderings of the Israelites through the desert and their living in temporary shelters (sukkot) on the way to the Promised Land. Although services are held in the synagogue, the primary observance of the holiday is at home, where, traditionally, a temporary structure, called a “sukkah” (booth) is built and vegetables, fruit and other decorations (paper chains, electric lights, etc.) are hung from the branches and leaves that form the roof.  Following the biblical commandment to “live in booths seven days…in order in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…,” (Leviticus 23:42-43)[6], many people not only eat their meals in the sukkah but also spend as much time as possible in it and even sleep in it. Many families enjoy building a sukkah, making decorations for it with their children, and then hosting guests on each night of the holiday.


[1]Annapolis Evening Capital, 2 October 1911, quoted in  Karen Falk and Avi Y. Decter, eds., We Call This Place Home:  Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns (Baltimore: The Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2002), 48.  

[2] A basic explanation of the Jewish calendar is at https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-calendar-solar-and-lunar/ (September 1, 2020). A very detailed explanation can be found at Wikipedia, “Hebrew Calendar,” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_calendar&gt; (September 1, 2020).

[3] Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York:  The Rabbinical Assembly, produced by The Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 5 et seq.

[4] Abigail Franks to Naphtaly Franks, September 6, 1741, in Letters of the Franks Family (1733-1748) (Waltham, MA: American Jewish Historical Society, 1968), 91.

[5] Sefer Milchamot Elokim…of the Late Rabbi Issachar Ber Illowy…with a Short History of His Life and Activities by His Son Henry Illowy M.D. (Berlin, 1914), found on <http://www.jewish-history.com/Illoway/biography.html&gt; (September 1, 2020).

[6] Etz Hayim, 730.

This is a revision of an article that appeared in the Fall 2005 ALHFAM Bulletin (vol. XXXV, no. 3), pp. 20-25.

Martha Katz-Hyman is currently ALHFAM’s Communications Manager and also served as an ALHFAM board member as well as program chair for the 2001 and 2015 Annual Meetings in Williamsburg, VA. She has worked for many historical organizations, including Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and is now an independent curator working with historic sites on the East Coast. She is the co-editor of The World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States.

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