The Jewish calender takes as its starting point the creation of the world, as calculated from the biblical record. The secular year 2007-8 is thus the Jewish year 5768.

The Jewish year comprises twelve lunar months, each of 29 or 30 days, and each commencing on the date of the new moon. As the lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year, leap months are added at pre-determined intervals to preserve the seasons. (Interestingly, just as some of the English days of the week are named after Nordic gods, so some of the Hebrew months are named after Babylonian gods.)

The result is that although the Jewish date of a festival is constant, the date in the standard calendar changes each year, as set out below. Although the Jewish years are counted from Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, on 1st Tishrei, the Jewish secular year begins in the northern spring on 1st Nissan, as below, much as the Australian financial year begins on 1st July.

The Months of the Jewish Year




Gregorian Equivalent

Nissan 1 30 Days March – April
Iyar 2 29 Days April – May
Sivan 3 30 Days May – June
Tammuz 4 29 Days June – July
Av 5 30 Days July – August
Elul 6 29 Days August – September
Tishrei 7 30 Days September – October
Cheshvan 8 29 or 30 Days October – November
Kislev 9 30 or 29 Days November – December
Tevet 10 29 Days December – January
Shevat 11 30 Days January – February
Adar 12 29 or 30 Days February – March
Adar II
(leap year only)
13 29 Days March – April

Jewish Festivals and Fasts, by Date and Month

Festival or Fast


Hebrew Date


Gregorian Month


Rosh Hashana 2 days 1-2 Tishrei September – October
Yom Kippur 1 day 10 Tishrei September – October
Sukkot 8 days 15-22 Tishrei September – October
Simchat Torah 1 day 23 Tishrei September – October
Chanukah 8 days 25 Kislev December
Tu Bishvat 1 day 15 Shvat January – February
Purim 1 day 15 Adar March
Pesach (Passover) 8 days 15-22 Nissan March – April
Holocaust Remembrance Day 1 day 27 Nissan March – April
Remembrance Day 1 day 4 Iyar May
Israel Independence Day 1 day 5 Iyar May
Jerusalem Day 1 day 28 Iyar May
Fast of Tammuz
Fast of Av
2 days
1 day
1 day
5-6 Sivan
17 Tammuz
9 Av
May – June
June – July

The most solemn days in the Jewish calendar are Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, on 1st Tishrei and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement on 10th Tishri.

Rosh Hashanah (New Year)

The origin of Rosh Hashana is biblical (Lev. 23:23-25): “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (of the shofar, the ram’s horn).” The Bible refers to the holiday as ‘Yom Teruah’ (the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar) and ‘Yom Zikaron Teruah’ (the Day of Remembering the Sounding of the Shofar).

In Talmudic times, Rosh Hashana became a celebration of the anniversary of the world’s creation and a day of communal self-examination, repentance and judgment. While the day was called ‘Yom HaZikaron’ (Day of Remembrance) and ‘Yom HaDin’ (Judgment Day), the name ‘Rosh Hashana’ (Head of the Year), which was first used in the Mishnah, has become the most prevalent.

Rosh Hashana is both a solemn and happy day. It is a time for introspection, asking for forgiveness, giving forgiveness, resolving to do better, remembering G-d is our King and Judge, and praying for a healthy and happy year to come. We are solemn in our repentance, but happy in our confidence that G-d is merciful and good. It is therefore a day of joy when the entire community comes to the synagogue and hears the ancient sound of the shofar.

In biblical times the shofar was sounded:

As an instrument of proclamation, announcing the presence or coming of the Lord: “And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by voice.” (Exodus 19:19).

To praise G-d: “With trumpets and the sound of a horn; shout joyfully before the Lord, the King.” (Psalm 98:6)

As an early warning siren: “When you go to war in your land against the enemy who oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, and you will be remembered before the Lord you G-d, and you will be saved from your enemies.” (Numbers 10:9)

To assemble the people and to call people to worship.

The 10 days of repentance

The ten-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is known as ‘the ten days of repentance’. During this time Jews continue their process of reflection and ask family, friends and colleagues for forgiveness. On Yom Kippur the Book of Life is sealed for the year. It is the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)

Yom Kippur is ordained as a day of fasting and atonement in Leviticus 23.26. It is a reflective and introspective day – a time when Jews as individuals and as a community devote themselves to self-examination. To help in this process Jewish people fast from nightfall on the eve of Yom Kippur to nightfall the following day. They practise total abstinence from food and drink for 25 hours in order to focus on the spiritual and not be distracted by material needs.

Most of Yom Kippur is spent in the synagogue and is devoted to prayer. During the day there are five services: Kol Nidre (‘All My Vows’) on the eve of the fast, Shacharit (morning service), Musaf (additional service), Minchah (afternoon service) and Neilah (the closing service).

As the end of the fast draws near, the last opportunity comes to plead and pray to G-d for forgiveness and ask Him to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. The Ark containing the scrolls of the law remains open throughout this part of the service. The shofar is blown at the termination of the fast.


In Exodus 23:14 we read, “Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto Me in the year”. These three times are:

1. Pesach “The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep” (Exodus 23:14-15)
2. Shavuot “and the feast of harvest, the first fruits of thy labours, which thou sowest in the fields” (Exodus 23:16)
3. Sukkot “and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year” (Exodus 23:16)

Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are known as the Three Pilgrim Festivals, since during the period of the Temple, each festival was the occasion for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There the pilgrims joined in the sacrifices at the Temple and gave a tenth of their produce as an offering to the poor.

Pesach (Passover)

Pesach commemorates the end of the slavery of the people of Israel, and their exodus from Egypt. The word ‘pesach’ means ‘passing over’ and refers to the Angel of Death passing over the Jewish homes during the Ten Plagues that G-d sent to persuade Pharaoh to let the Jews leave Egypt.

Exodus describes how the Israelites left Egypt in such a hurry that there was no time to let their dough rise, so they strapped it to their backs and it baked into flat unleavened biscuits. Since that time, Jewish people eat only unleavened bread at Pesach – this is called matzah and looks like a flat cracker.

On the 1st and 2nd nights of Pesach, families and friends gather for the Seder ceremony and meal. Before the meal Jews tell the story of Exodus from Egypt which is read from a book called the Haggadah (Telling).’Seder’ means ‘order’ and refers to the order in which the story of the Exodus is recounted, and the symbolic foods on the table are eaten or described.

The story is introduced by the ‘Ma Nishtana’ – the four questions asked (usually sung to a traditional melody) by the youngest person at the table. They begin, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The parents (and all others at the table) then answer by recounting the story of the Exodus from the Haggadah.

Once the story has been told and the festive meal eaten, the evening ends with prayers and special songs.

A Seder Plate – with places for foods symbolising slavery and freedom

Shavuot (Pentecost)

The name ‘Shavuot’ means ‘weeks’, and the festival occurs seven weeks after Pesach. It commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The period of seven weeks between these two festivals is known as the Omer, which means a sheaf of barley, and refers to the offering taken each day to the Temple. Each day of the Omer is counted until the festival of Shavuot begins, and music and celebrations are not permitted.

In biblical times Shavuot was celebrated as a spring harvest festival, and thanksgiving offerings of two loaves (made from the wheat harvest) were taken to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Today these two elements: the receiving of the Torah and the harvest, are combined in the celebration. In the synagogue flowers and plants decorate the central platform and in particular the steps leading to the Ark. This is to recall the legend that Mount Sinai burst into bloom when G-d gave the Torah to the Moses.

In the synagogue the Book of Ruth is read. This story takes place during the spring harvest time and is therefore relevant to the celebration of the spring harvest festival. It is the custom to stay up all night studying and reading the Torah in the synagogue to commemorate the giving of the Torah.

In modern Israel non-religious kibbutzim (communal settlements) enjoy Shavuot purely as a harvest festival, bringing the first fruits to a celebration with dancing and singing and other entertainment.

Sukkot (Tabernacles)

Sukkot is the later harvest festival. It is described in the Bible (Lev. 23:34) as the ‘Feast of Booths’, or ‘Tabernacles’, and its distinguishing feature is the custom of “dwelling in booths”, or open huts, in recollection of the conditions of the Exodus and, presumably, of farm labourers at harvest time.

Sukkot is a joyous festival in contrast to the solemnity of Yom Kippur, which it immediately follows. This is reflected in the mood of the service.

During the festival it is customary to hold and wave the “four species” of plants in accordance with the Commandment: “To rejoice before the Lord”. These plants are: Lulav (palm branch), Haddasim (3 myrtle twigs), Aravot (2 willow branches), with the three tied together in a bundle generally described as the Lulav, and the Etrog (a special citrus fruit). The etrog is heart-shaped; the palm branch can represent the backbone; the myrtle looks like the mouth; the willow like the eye. The Jew should have a good heart, a brave backbone, a good eye and a mouth to speak by studying the Torah.

The Sukkah

The booth, or ‘Sukkah’ is a temporary structure with at least 3 walls and a roof covered over with branches – leaving gaps so that the stars can be seen at night (to remember G-d’s creation). The roof must be made out of something that grows, to remind Jews of what G-d created rather than what man creates. It is customary to hang fruit and vegetables from the roof to celebrate the harvest. Today, people build sukkot in their gardens and weather permitting they eat and practice the weekly rituals such as Shabbat in them throughout the week.

Hoshana Rabbah

Hoshannah Rabbah literally means the ‘The Great Hoshannah’: the procession around the synagogue with the lulav and etrog which are shaken symbolically throughout the festival of Sukkot, of which this is the last day.

According to Jewish tradition, during Sukkot the world is judged for water and for the blessings of the fruit and crops for the coming year. Hoshannah Rabbah is seen as the final seal for this judgement.

Shemini Atzeret

‘Shemin'” means ‘the eighth’; ‘Atzeret’ means ‘holding back’. Thus, the name “Shemini Atzeret” means the eighth day which is the additional day that brings the seven-day holiday of Succot to its close.
The major custom of Shemini Atzeret is the reading of the Special Prayer for Rain.

Simchat Torah

The ‘Rejoicing of the Law’ takes place on the day after Sukkot. It celebrates the completion and re-commencement of the cycle of weekly Torah readings. This cycle takes the entire Jewish year, as the Torah is divided into portions which are read weekly in the synagogue. On Simchat Torah the final verses of the Book of Deuteronomy are read, followed directly by the beginning of Book of Genesis.

During the Simchat Torah service all the Torah scrolls are taken from the Ark and carried in a procession seven times around the synagogue. Singing, dancing, music and much merriment accompany the procession. It is especially a time for the youngsters in the congregation to become involved. Children bring flags with apples on the top of them and miniature scrolls with which to dance round the synagogue.

A traditonal Sephardi Torah scroll in silver casing



The festival of Chanukah is celebrated for 8 days in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually falls in December. It commemorates the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his followers over Antiochus, the Greek King of Syria, who had desecrated the Jewish Temple and forcibly introduced Hellenistic practices in 169 BCE. The festival celebrates the subsequent rededication of the Temple.

The history is related in detail in Maccabees I and Maccabees II in the Apocrypha, written in Greek and attached to some versions of the Bible. The events are significant as representing the survival of the Jewish tradition in the face of the forces of Hellenism. Politically the result was the establishment of an independent Jewish monarchy.

According to Talmudic legend, when the Macabees recaptured and cleaned the Temple, they found only one little jug of oil to light the Temple Menorah (seven-branched candelabrum). This was enough to light the Menorah for only one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days. Thus, today Jewish families light a candle each night in an eight-branched candelabrum, with a single candle on the first day and all eight lit on the last day. The festival is therefore also known as the Festival of Lights.

It is a widely accepted custom to eat foods fried in oil on Chanukah in remembrance of the theme of oil in the Chanukah story. Some of the most common foods eaten on Chanukah are the fried potato latkes and doughnuts.

There is also a tradition to play with a ‘dreidel’ on Chanukah. A dreidel is a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side. These letters stand for the sentence: “Nes Gadol Haya Sham”, which means “A Great Miracle Happened There (in Israel).”

Presents add a special appeal for young children, especially ‘chanukah gelt’ which nowadays is a gift of chocolate money.


Purim commemorates the success of Queen Esther in foiling an attempt by the King’s Chief Minister to annihilate the Jews of Persia in the 5th century BCE, as described in the Book of Esther in the Bible, which is read in the synagogue from a special scroll on this day. It is a custom for the children to make a noise with wooden noisemakers when the name of the evil minister Haman is mentioned during the reading.

The holiday is generally treated as an occasion for merriment and satire. The major event is a fancy dress party, with most costumes representing characters in the story. It is also a custom to send baskets of food to friends, and give food or money to the poor.

A recent innovation in Sydney is the appearance of a satirical Purim supplement in the Jewish press.


Tisha B’Av

The ninth of Av (‘Tisha B’Av’ in Hebrew) is the day of Jewish mourning for the destruction of the Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem on two occasions, both traditionally on that date.

The first Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed in war by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, which was followed by the Jews’ exile to Babylon, which lasted for seventy years.

The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. This is the traditional date for the beginning of the present dispersion of the Jewish people.

The mourning date of 9th Av also marks other tragedies in Jewish history:

The worship of the golden calf (temporary return to idolatry) during the journey from Egypt to Israel.
The return of the spies from the Promised Land (Israel) and their negative report.
135 CE – the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba Revolt.
136 CE – the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
August 2, 1492 – Jews expelled from Spain.
July 26, 1555 – first Jewish ghetto established in Rome.

The fast of Tisha B’Av continues from sunset to sunset – 25 hours in total. The prohibition on eating and drinking extends also to washing, sexual relations, anointing oneself with makeup or perfumes, the wearing of fancy clothes and leather shoes (all forms of ‘enjoyment’).

In synagogues the Book of Lamentations is read. This is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, and describes the destruction of the First Temple. It is customary for the congregation to sit on the floor.

Other Fast Days

There are five public fasts in the Jewish calendar: the Fast of the 10th of Tevet, the Fast of Gedaliah, the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Esther and the Fast of the Firstborn. These commence at dawn and end at sunset, and they do not require major constraints, such as the other prohibitions required on Tisha B’Av. These four fasts are generally kept only by the most observant.

The Fast of Tevet

The tenth of Tevet is the day on which the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem began. This one event caused a chain reaction that led to the eventual destruction of the Temple.

The Fast of Gedaliah

This fast is observed on the day immediately following Rosh Hashanah, in memory of the assassination of Gedaliah Ben Achikam, the Jewish Governor of Judah, who had been appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon as a conciliatory gesture after the destruction of the Temple.

Gedalia’s appointment and the prospective return of the Jewish population were opposed by the ruler of Ammon (modern Amman, Jordan), whose agents assassinated Gedaliah. The Fast is kept as a day of mourning, since Gedaliah’s death was followed by the killing and final exile of many thousands.

The Fast of Tammuz

The 17th Tammuz is considered an historic day of calamity. It is a tradition that the following events occurred on this date:

Moses descended Mount Sinai and upon seeing the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf, proceeded to break the first set of Tablets carrying the Ten Commandments.

The priests in the First Temple stopped offering the daily sacrifice on this day.

The walls of Jerusalem were breached in the year 3184 (586 BCE) after many months of siege by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces.

In the time of the Roman persecution, Apostomos, leader of the enemy forces, publicly burned the Torah.

Titus, King of Rome, breached the walls of Jerusalem in 3760 (70 CE).

Pope Gregory IX ordered the confiscation of all manuscripts of the Talmud in 4999 (1239).

In 1391, more than 4,000 Jews were killed in Spain.

In 4319 (1559) the Jewish Quarter of Prague was burned and looted.

The Kovno ghetto was liquidated in 5704 (1944).

In 5730 (1970) Libya ordered the confiscation of Jewish property.

The Fast of Esther

This fast is observed in commemoration of the three-day fast observed by Mordechai and Esther and all of the Jews of Shushan, Persia, as described in the Book of Esther. It is the date on which Haman, the Jew’s enemy, had planned to destroy them, but was foiled by Esther’s intervention with he King.

The Fast of the Firstborn

The Fast of the Firstborn reminds us of the last and most horrible plague that was visited upon the Egyptians. After Pharoah had refused to let the Children of Israel go nine times, Moses warned that the next plague would be that every first-born son in the land would die. Moses then told the Israelites how to save their sons from being caught up in the plague.

he instructed them to sacrifice a lamb and put some of its blood on the doorposts of their homes. When the Angel of Death came to Egypt to kill all the first-born sons, the angel would recognise and ‘pass over’ the Jewish homes.

This is where the English name for Pesach, ‘Passover’, comes from. To remember being saved, the first-born son in a Jewish family fasts from dawn on Erev Pesach until the Seder.


Holocaust Memorial Day – Yom Hashoah

Yom Hashoah is the memorial day held to remember the Holocaust, in which six million Jews, including one-and-a-half million children, were murdered in conditions of the utmost atrocity.

In Sydney (as in cities around the world) a service of remembrance is held at the cemetery, and various commemorative communal functions are held. In Israel the country and its media are focused on remembrance and a siren is sounded at 11am. Every activity ceases; motor vehicles stop and the drivers stand in the street; children stop their play, and the whole population stands in silence for two minutes.
Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day for those who have fallen in war or terrorism

Remembrance Day takes place on the day preceding Israel’s Independence Day. It is devoted to the memory of more than 20,000 men, women and children who have given their lives for the creation and continued security of Israel. Special prayers are said on their behalf.

Yom HaAtzma’ut – Israel’s Independence Day

Yom HaAtzmaut marks the day the Jewish people accepted the UN’s Partition Plan of 1947 to create a Jewish State in Palestine alongside an Arab one. On May 15th 1948 the Jews announced the establishment of their state. Unfortunately the Arabs chose to reject the Plan and did not establish their state. Instead they attacked Israel.

In Israel and in Jewish communities around the world large celebrations are held to mark the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish state in the historic homeland and the realisation of the Jews’ dream of returning there after 2,000 years of exile. In most synagogues the day is observed as a festival, with the special prayers appropriate to a festival.

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day

Yom Yerushalayim is the day in 1967 on which Jerusalem was re-united, and the Old City, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, returned to Jewish possession. Special prayers of thanksgiving are said during the Morning service. Celebrations take place in Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide.
Lag B’Omer

Lag B’Omer is celebrated thirty-three days following the first day of Passover. This 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot is meant to be a time of joy and happiness, as the Jews had just secured their freedom from slavery. Instead it is observed as a period of semi mourning. Weddings, music and haircuts are not allowed, and some do not shave during this entire period. It is during this sad period that we come across the holiday of Lag B’Omer, the one day when mourning is halted.

A traditional reason for this sadness during what should have been a period of joy, is that during this period, Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, died from a strange plague. They died because “they did not show proper respect to one another”. Lag B’Omer is celebrated on the 33rd day because on that day the plague ended and Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying.

Since it is the one day in seven weeks when celebrations are permitted, it is a favoured date for weddings. It is also a day for family picnics and outings.

In Israel, it is the custom of Chassidic Jews to make a pilgrimage to Mount Meron, to visit the burial place (pictured above) of the great scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on the anniversary of his death.

Tu Bishvat

Tu Bishvat is the New Year for Trees, which occurs on the 15th day of Shvat (Leviticus 19:23). The day marks the end of the rainy season in Israel.

It is the custom in Israel and throughout the Jewish world to hold tree planting ceremonies as a symbol of commitment to the environment.

Throughout the year the Jewish National Fund collects money for the planting of trees in Israel, and it is a custom to make a contribution on auspicious occasions. It is interesting to note that Israel was the only country in the world to end 2006 with a net gain in its number of trees.