In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Festivals

  • Introduction
  • General Introductions
  • The Holidays in Interfaith Dialogue
  • Source Criticism and the Evolution of the Biblical Festivals
  • The Festivals at Qumran
  • The Festivals in Second Temple and Early Rabbinic Judaism
  • Passover and the Last Supper
  • The Festivals in Early Judaism and Christianity
  • Holidays in Medieval and Modern Judaism
  • Holiday Liturgy
  • Women and Festival Observance
  • The Holidays in Jewish Spirituality and Mysticism

Biblical Studies Jewish Festivals
Alan Avery-Peck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0214


The topic of Jewish holidays covers diverse historical periods, from biblical times until the present, and also diverse methodological and topical interests. At the same time, these materials are largely united by a shared focus. Of concern throughout is the theological and social meanings that holiday observances have had within the evolving life of the Jewish people, as that life has been manifested in different historical and cultural circumstances. This focus on the holidays’ evolving theological and social meaning is represented in scholars’ concern for the holidays’ origins in pre-Israelite settings and for the ways in which originally pagan and agrarian celebrations were subsumed into Israel’s system of Yahweh-worship, including their integration within the historical matrix of the Exodus that became so central to Israelite self-understanding. This historical interest appears as well as scholars study the reframing of Scripture’s holiday system in Rabbinic and medieval Judaism and especially in modern times, when assimilation, on the one hand, and the search for modes of personal spirituality, on the other, have challenged and stretched inherited theologies and modes of holiday observance. Viewed collectively, these studies highlight that the holidays have never been static. They are instead products of the intertwining of tradition with ideologies and perspectives that in each age give the inherited practices contemporary meaning. The literature reviewed here further reveals that, for all of their evolutionary development, the holidays remain for Jews in modernity, as in antiquity, foundational statements of what Judaism teaches and of what it means to be a Jew. The works before us thus strive both to delineate the holidays’ historical meanings and to articulate the changes in thinking about and observing the holidays that allow even contemporary Jews to identify with and gain value from their reflections on Judaism’s meaning and purpose.

General Introductions

Beginning with Gaster 1968, the focus in general introductions to the annual holiday cycle has been twofold. An overall goal of setting out the holidays’ contemporary ideology and practices stands next to a presentation of each holiday’s historical evolution, from its original biblical formulation to the meanings the holiday has today, including discussion of the specific rituals that now support those meanings. The implication of these studies is that Judaism today—in both Orthodox and nontraditional formulations—is a product of evolutionary developments that, in each generation, have allowed Judaism and its observances to remain meaningful and fresh. Bloch 1978 and Harris 1992 develop this approach with their concern for the evolution of holiday practices. Raphael 1990 is important in adding to the picture contemporary celebrations, such as Israel Independence Day, even as Sperber 1999 analyzes arcane, regional practices not treated by the other authors. Greenberg 1993, probably the best introduction available today, sets out the holidays’ contemporary meanings and implications as well as the historical developments that brought them to this point.

  • Bloch, Abraham P. The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days. New York: Ktav, 1978.

    The book traces the origins and historical development of the holidays and their associated practices, understanding that “the perspective of time is frequently invaluable in the discovery of the rationales of various rituals. These inevitably reflect socio-religious conditions of the period when the customs came into existence” (p. ix). Along with the annual holiday cycle, Bloch treats the life-cycle rituals and daily practices.

  • Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year: A Modern Interpretation and Guide. 4th ed. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1968.

    The festivals manifest the process through which Jews in each age express broad universal truths in terms appropriate to their own day. The focus here is not so much on what is done but on the ideas the holidays express. While this book is today surpassed by other general introductions, especially Greenberg’s The Jewish Way (Greenberg 1993), it represents a first critical assessment of the holidays’ origins and meaning. First edition 1953.

  • Greenberg, Irving. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

    Presents the details of holiday observance within the context of the holidays’ significance in setting out how we are meant to live, to relate to others, and to understand our place and obligations in the world. Greenberg presents the holidays as “orienting events.” He establishes the role of ritual within individual and communal life and shows how the festival calendar has evolved to express the meaning and values of Judaism.

  • Harris, Monford. Exodus and Exile: The Structure of the Jewish Holidays. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

    Interprets the ways in which the holidays shape Jewish existence, inculcating in Jews a unique sense of time and history and pushing them to reflect meaningfully on the issues people face in life. Rather than focusing on individual holiday practices, Harris interprets the overall philosophical and psychological impact of holiday observance.

  • Raphael, Chaim. The Festivals: A History of Jewish Celebration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

    The annual cycle of holidays, including contemporary ones such as Israel Independence Day. Raphael explains the holidays’ origins, biblical roots, and later ritual and interpretative developments. While aimed at general readers, the study is important for its careful delineation of the evolutionary development of the festivals’ meanings and practices.

  • Sperber, Daniel. Why Jews Do What They Do: The History of Jewish Customs throughout the Cycle of the Jewish Year. Translated by Yaakov Elman. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1999.

    Sperber considers holiday customs connected to the Pilgrimage Festivals, High Holidays, the Counting of the Omer, the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, Hanukkah, and special Sabbaths. The topics are arcane (the custom of reciting Psalm 92 twice during Kabbalat Shabbat; not eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah). But these essays insightfully reflect the real-world circumstances in which textual tradition and contemporary interpretation produce an evolving system of practices.

  • Steinberg, Paul. Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays; Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. Edited by Janet Greenstein Potter. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

    This volume, Steinberg and Potter 2007, and Steinberg and Potter 2009 present the holidays as fundamental expressions of Jewish spirituality, invoking the intellectual, emotional, and physical. Holidays connect Jews to history, the earth, their people, and God. Steinberg covers each holiday’s origins, ideology, ritual practices, and interpretations. He then presents holiday texts, examined at literal, interpretive, and personal levels. Steinberg’s goal is to deepen appreciation for and practice of the holidays.

  • Steinberg, Paul, and Janet Greenstein Potter. Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays; Hanukkah, Tu B’shevat, Purim. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

    Steinberg evaluates the holidays of Hanukkah, Tu B’Shevat, and Purim, once minor festivals in the Jewish calendar but increasingly central in contemporary Jewish life. At stake is the historical significance of these days, as well as how modern Jews might deepen their observance and appreciation of them within their own lives. Thus the focus is on personal connections and home observance.

  • Steinberg, Paul, and Janet Greenstein Potter. Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Spring and Summer Holidays; Passover, Shavuot, The Omer, Tisha B’Av. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009.

    Here Steinberg reflects specifically on the origins, ideology, and practices of Passover and Shavuot, including the forty-nine-day period of the Counting of the Omer. Tisha B’Av, the fast day that mourns the destructions of the First and Second Temple, is also examined.

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