Rituals and Major Festivals in Judaism

The following are some of the basic Jewish rituals and major festivals (see Molloy 2010, 323-330; Matthews 2010, 270-74 for a thorough discussion of these rituals and festivals).

Daily Prayers

Jewish males observe three daily prayer services during the day—in the morning, afternoon, and evening. When making their prayers either in their home or synagogue, they must face the direction of the site of the temple in Jerusalem. A minyan, consisting of 10 Jewish male adults, was traditionally required for a public service or any public reading of the Torah. After the ruling by the Rabbinical Assembly Committee in 1973, women may now be part of the minyan if agreeable to the presiding rabbi.

The Sabbath Day (Shabbat)

The Sabbath occurs every sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Strictly no work is to be done on Sabbath for it is the most sacred day of the week for the Jews, dedicated solely to prayer and rest from the usual everyday activities. The observation of Sabbath honors the day when God, after seeing that all that He created was good, rested on the seventh day, and most importantly, God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Circumcision and Rite of Passage

On the eighth day after their birth, male infants are circumcised, which signals their entry into the covenant between God and their Jewish patriarchs. When boys reach the age of 13, they undergo a rite-of- passage ceremony that marks their entry to adulthood. One who has undergone such a ceremony is called a bar mitzvah, meaning, “son of the commandment.” It signals their acceptance of their religious duties. In some forms of Judaism, girls also undergo the same ritual when they reach the age of 12. A girl who has undergone such a ceremony is called a bat mitzvah.

Major Jewish Festivals

The major festivals Jews celebrate are classified into two kinds: the Pilgrim Festivals and the Days of Awe. The Pilgrim Festivals consist of the festivals of Pesah (Passover), Shavu’ot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Booths). These festivals are called Pilgrim Festivals because the ancient Israelites living in the Kingdom of Judah would make pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem, as commanded in the Torah, to celebrate them. Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance, also called the High Holy Days, consist of the Ro’sh ha-Shanah, Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur. It is a period for serious introspection, a time for deep reflection on one’s life as one considers one’s sins of the previous year, repent on them, and seek reconciliation with those one has done wrong.

The festival of Pesah (Passover) recalls the Lord’s liberation of the Hebrews, led by Moses, from bondage in Egypt. There are eight days of Pesah, the first of which occurs on the Sabbath. This day begins the cycle of Jewish festivals according to the lunar calendar sometime in April or May. Pesah opens with a Seder meal partaken at home. A Seder meal consists of symbolic foods, foremost of which is the unleavened bread (bread without yeast) symbolizing how there was no time for the Israelites to wait for the bread to rise in their rush to leave Egypt. An additional place is set at the table for the prophet Elijah, and a cup of wine is reserved for him—these are actions representing the hope that Elijah will return to earth to announce the coming of the Messiah. A book called the Haggadah provides detailed guidance for the celebration.

The festival of Shavu’ot or Shavuot (Pentecost) is a celebration of the spring harvest season and God’s gift of the Torah—God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Harvesting the first fruits symbolizes receiving the Law from God, which will now guide them in starting a new life after years of slavery. Generally, no work is done during this celebration which, depending on the form of Judaism, can last either for several days or just one day.

Sukkot (Booths) is the festival during which Jews build temporary booths where they take their meals for one week. This reminds the Jews of the time when they lived in booths in the desert after being delivered by God from their slavery in Egypt. The booths were traditionally made of olive, myrtle, and palm branches; but nowadays, these booths come in the form of huts which can be made of bamboo whose leaves serve as roofing. Generally, no work is done during this holiday.

The Ro’sh ha-Shanah or Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish New Year and God’s creation of the world as described in the Torah. It signals the beginning of time. The celebration, which is now observed for two days, is started with the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn (except if the day falls on a Sabbath), to remind the Jews that they stand before God and that they therefore need to repent for their sins of the past year. Work is not done during the celebration.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and is considered the holiest day among Jewish rituals. To atone means to make up for one’s faults, and this day has traditionally been kept by prayer and strict fasting, with no food or drink during the entire day. Yom Kippur begins around sunset of that day and continues into the next day until nightfall, lasting about 25 hours. Observant Jews will fast throughout Yom Kippur and many attend synagogue services for most of the day. The ten days in between the Rosh Hashanah and the Yom Kippur are referred to as the Ten Days of Repentance.