Jews: Holidays And Festivals
The Jewish calendar is based on a combination of solar and lunar measurements. This combination gives the average Jewish year 354 days, and each month is 29 or 30 days long. During any 19-year period, extra months may be inserted in year 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19 to make up the difference between a solar year and the Jewish calendar year.
Because months are based on the lunar cycle, the precise timing of holidays and festivals can vary greatly from one year to the next. It is important to check the date of festivals each year. Many organisations produce multi-cultural calendars displaying the changing dates of the Jewish festival schedule.
It is important to know when a particular festival or holiday falls because many of the major holidays carry specific rules for behaviour. They may also impose restrictions on work that are similar to those seen on the Sabbath. These rules and restrictions might have implications for healthcare staff and their interactions with Jewish patients.
There are three categories of holiday in the Jewish calendar. There are two festivals called 'The Days of Awe' or Yamim Noraim, which are major events intended to remind the Jewish nation of its obligations to G-d and allow Jews to focus on the spiritual needs and crises facing them in the next year.
The second category is the Shalosh Regalim (Three Foot Festivals). These three festivals are ancient, and celebrate important agricultural and historical events from the days when the Jewish nation was still a wandering tribe. They are called 'Foot' festivals both because of their origin in the nomadic past of the Jewish nation and because traditionally people would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate them.
Lastly, several minor festivals and days are set aside for fasting. These festivals do not carry any working restrictions, unlike the first two groups.
the Jewish year
Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Year(September/October)
This festival involves two days of judgement and penitence as Jews reflect on the events of the past year and devote themselves anew to G-d. The creation of the world is celebrated, sins are repented of and many Jews engage in private contemplation of their relationship with others and with G-d.
The festival lasts for two days, and there are many rituals both at home and in the synagogue to wash away old sins and welcome the New Year. During this period, no work may be done, as though it were a Sabbath. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of what is known as the Ten Days of Penitence.
Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement(September/October)
The Ten Days of Penitence is culminated on the tenth day by Yom Kippur. Not only do Sabbath restrictions apply on this day, but it is also a day of fasting and self-discipline.
The day is devoted to repentance, forgiveness and contemplation, and involves five services at the synagogue and a special meal to break the fast at home. Staff and patients are likely to be quiet and reserved on this day. Everyone who can manage to will fast for 25 hours (those who are very ill are exempt), and will otherwise observe the usual Sabbath rules on working.
Sukkot or Tabernacles(September/October)
Five days after the intensity of the Days of Awe festivals, the year turns to a celebration of the history of the Jewish people. The festival of Tabernacles was originally the final harvest festival of the year, and even now has reminders of the farming past of the nation. Huts called sukkot are built at synagogues to remind the people of how their ancestors lived, and there are processions around the synagogue by people carrying palms, citrus fruits, myrtle and willow to symbolise the fruits of the harvest.
The first and last days of this nine-day period are set aside as days of rest, and so the usual Sabbath work restrictions apply. There are also services to attend at the synagogue, so any patients in hospital over this period might have a stream of visitors attend them to form a minyan for prayer and celebration.
Simchat Torah or the Rejoicing in the Torah(September/October)
This festival marks the end of the period of Tabernacles. It is a day of great celebration as the annual cycle of reading the Torah in the synagogue is completed and can be started again. The scrolls of the Torah are taken out of the Ark and paraded through the synagogue before being returned to their home.
As part of the festival of Sukkot, this day carries the same restriction on working as the Sabbath.
Hanukah or Festival of Lights(December)
This is a minor festival that carries no restrictions on working, and should not affect healthcare.
Hanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish tribe, over the people who desecrated the Temple. Over the course of eight days and nights, the Temple was rededicated to G-d by burning oil lamps to symbolise the flame of faith. A miracle occurred when a small flask of oil contained enough fuel to keep the lamps alight for eight entire days. This has given the festival its alternative name: the festival of lights.
Children will often receive a present on each morning of the festival, and there are ceremonies involving the lighting of candles at home and in the synagogue in celebration of the miracle of the lamp.
Purim or the festival of Lots(February/March)
This is another minor festival with no restrictions on work, although some Jews will fast for a day before Purim starts (this is known as the Fast of Esther).
Purim celebrates the victory of Esther over the wicked Persian King or Government minister Haman. There is a carnival air to Purim; as the Book of Esther is read in the synagogue, the congregation boo and hiss at every mention of Haman's name. Children often dress up and act out the story later for their families, and there are many feasts to go to.
Pesach or Passover(March/April)
This is one of the oldest and best-loved festivals in the Jewish calendar. It celebrates the miracle of Passover, where the Angel of Death walked through Egypt, killing all of the first-born sons in the land except those of the Jews, which he passed over. This miracle allowed the Jewish people to leave their slavery in Egypt and in a sense marks the start of their status as a free nation.
Today, it is often celebrated as a reminder of the rich history of the Jews, both ancient and modern. Part of the celebration is a recounting of the story of the Exodus by the eldest male family member. He is prompted to tell his story by the youngest family member in a ritual dialogue following the Seder meal.
Pesach is an eight-day period, and its first and last days carry Sabbath work restrictions. In addition, some special dietary restrictions apply on the first day, such as no leavened bread (bread that is made with yeast and allowed to rise).
Yom Hashoa or Holocaust Remembrance Day(April/May)
This is a day of mourning and remembrance for the entire Jewish nation, as they pay tribute to the six million Jews and others who were killed in the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War. Candles are lit and communal memorial services held. As one of the minor festivals, there are no working restrictions, but Jewish staff might prefer to take the day off and spend it quietly with family.
Shavuot or Pentecost(May/June)
Seven weeks after Pesach comes Shavuot. This is another celebratory festival; originally a harvest festival, it is now a time to rejoice for the gift of the Torah and the strengthening of the bond between Jews and G-d. Children are a large part of the festival; traditionally, this was the time of year when they ended their Torah studies for the year. Nowadays, those who have finished their formal lessons are recognised by being allowed to read services and passages from the Torah in the synagogue, and even hosting meals at home for family and friends.
Shavuot is a two-day celebratory festival, and although no work restrictions are associated with it, many Jews may wish to spend their time at home with family and friends.
This day (which is also known as Tisha b'Ab) is a day of solemn fasting from sunset on one day to sunset the next, and so may have implications for healthcare staff and patients. It is one of only two major fast days (the other is Yom Kippur).
This fast is in remembrance of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other calamities that the Jewish people have gone through during their history.
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