Jewish Holidays: Religious and Spiritual Travel Guide
We all love to travel, whether with friends and family or by ourselves. Vacationing in Israel during the Jewish Holidays can be a wonderful experience.
Jewish holidays in Israel are worth remembering since each one is celebrated differently with festivals and unique events.
Each one has its own traditions and particular quirks, so here is a guide for your Israel Holiday Vacation.
There’s a celebration everywhere around you!
Shabbat, the Day of Rest
The Jewish holiday Shabbat is celebrated weekly and always begins on a Friday night (when dusk falls).
Jews who observe Shabbat diligently will not use electricity, write, or travel other than by foot, and will spend the day in prayer, eating celebratory meals, and resting.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year
Rosh Hashanah (in Hebrew “Head of the Year”) celebrates the Jewish New Year and is a joyous festival.
The festivities include prayers at the synagogue, a large meal, and exchanging gifts.
The ancient ceremony of “tashlich” is carried out on the first afternoon. It is a tradition to go to the sea or any body of water and throw breadcrumbs or pebbles in. This symbolizes the “casting away” of one’s sins.
For religious Jews, all of this is a chance for “spiritual renewal and great contemplation.”
Yom Kippur, “Day of Atonement”
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, and in Israel, all life comes to a standstill.
Every business and school is closed, airplanes do not take off or land, and the streets are deserted by cars.
Religious Jews will fast for 25 hours, wear white and spend large parts of the time in synagogue, praying for forgiveness from God for their sins.
According to Jewish belief, this is the day God will pass judgment on every individual for the coming year. So it is seen as a chance to repent and ask for a chance of forgiveness.
Sukkot, “The Festival of Tabernacles”
Another fun festival, especially for children, is Sukkot which follows Yom Kippur and lasts seven days.
Historically, it was one of the three pilgrimage festivals where the Israelites were commanded to travel to the Temple. Today, Israelis celebrate by building a sukkah, a temporary, freestanding structure with three walls decorated with palm leaves.
It is tradition to eat meals inside and decorate the interior with the “four species,” the four different plants mentioned in the Torah. These are lulav, etrog, hadass, and aravah.
People carry these four plants at the synagogue and recite special prayers known as “Hoshanot.”
Simchat Torah, Rejoicing of the Torah
Simchat Torah immediately follows Sukkot and is a festival of unbridled joy. Jews dance around the synagogue holding Torah scrolls to mark the reading cycle of these holy manuscripts. In Israel, it is common to see Israelis dancing in the streets.
Hanukkah, “Festival of Lights”
Hanukkah is celebrated during winter and commemorates the “miracle of the oil” at the same time as the Second Temple. It lasts for eight days, and each night candles are lit on a special candelabrum.
Two special foods that are eaten are latkes and sufganiyot. Latkes are potato pancakes fried and served either with applesauce or sour cream. Sufganiyot are donuts with jelly inside.
Children spin a “dreidel,” and it’s a tradition to give them “gelt,” chocolate money, and small gifts.
Purim, the Feast of Lots
The Jewish holiday of Purim commemorates the bravery of Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia from being wiped out. It is a festival of enormous merriment in Israel, and it is a wonderful tradition for children and adults to dress up and attend parties.
Jews also attend the synagogue in costume, where they read from the Book of Esther and shout and boo at the name of “Haman,” Esther’s enemy, and drink a lot of wine.
Attending an adloyada (carnival parade) is a beautiful tradition, as is eating “Hamantaschen” cookies filled with poppy seeds. Religious Jews also send “mishloachmanot,” food baskets, to family, friends, and charities.
Yom haAtzmaut, Independence Day
The evening kicks off with a torch of lightning in Jerusalem and fireworks displays all over the country. Some parties continue late into the night, and the following day, it’s a time-honoured tradition to attend a barbeque and eat until you can’t move.
If you’re at the shoreline around midday, watch the flyovers that the Israeli Air Force carries out.
The Eight-Day Festival of Passover
This joyous festival falls in the spring in Israel and commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Israel, who fled slavery under the laws of the cruel Pharaoh.
It’s a tradition at this time of the year to hold a “seder,” in Hebrew “order,” where the “Haggadah” book is read, recounting the story of the Jews flight, including the miraculous parting of the waves of the Red Sea.
At Passover, bakeries in Israel close because it’s a religious commandment to eat only “matzah,” unleavened bread, for the holiday. This lets Jews remember that their ancestors fled Egypt in such haste that their bread had no time to rise.
In the Haggadah, the matzah is called “the Bread of Affliction.” The festival is also a reminder of liberty and that, after 2,000 years, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews became a free people in their land.
Shavuot, “Festival of Weeks”, falls seven weeks after Passover. It is a pilgrimage holiday that marks the end of the spring harvest and the Torah’s giving to Moses on Mount Sinai. It’s a tradition to eat dairy products and wear white clothing with white flowers.
Shavuot is celebrated in earnest on the kibbutz, with the tradition of “bringing forth the first fruit.” Historically, this was an opportunity for farmers to display their achievements after a year of hard work in the fields.
Where’s the best place to spend some of these holidays?
So, where in Israel should you try to go to experience and be a part of the festivities?
Well, at Purim, there are parties all over the country but be sure not to miss the opportunity to see an adloyada. The two most popular take place in Holon, near Tel Aviv, and SdeBoker, in the Negev desert.
Shabbat comes around weekly and is celebrated at home after a short Friday night service at the synagogue. Israelis are very hospitable, so you might be invited as a guest to someone’s house for a meal.
There is also a Get Shabbat program running where you can be paired with a host family. Most families are traditional and observe Shabbat costumes, so you’ll see blessings made over candles, wine, and bread and get a feel for the whole experience.
For Passover, you’ll feel the spirit of freedom everywhere. If you want to see more religious traditions, head to Jerusalem, notably the Western Wall, for the “Birkat Kohanim,” a Priestly Blessing.
In terms of being a tourist, the only day you will be limited is Yom Kippur, so if you’re visiting during this holiday, make sure you have your preparations in advance, or get in touch with your Israeli tour operator for a “day off”.
Whichever time of the year you choose to be in Israel, experiencing any of the Jewish Holidays will only add to your overall enjoyment.
With over 45 years of experience in organizing Jewish heritage tours, we pride ourselves on ensuring that you’ll have a real Israeli vacation.
If you want to experience one of these holidays, ITAS is your way. We have Israel Jewish plans and tours that meet every need.