If you’ve ever had the pleasure of celebrating a Jewish holiday, either with a Jewish friend or relative, or because you’re Jewish yourself, you know that most of them are joyous events with a potential to create outstanding memories. If you’re not familiar with the Jewish holiday calendar, though, the schedule and timing of these events can be confusing.

Here’s a basic guide to the structure of Jewish holidays.

How the Jewish Calendar Determines Jewish Holidays

If you’ve ever wondered “Is today a Jewish holiday?” you’re not alone. While these celebrations occur on the same day of every year, they abide by the Jewish calendar, which means they seem to change dates and times. The Jewish calendar uses the moon’s cycles to orient itself, rather than the sun’s. As such, it has a different number of days than a standard calendar, and makes up for this difference by adding an additional month every several years.

As such, Jewish holidays don’t always fall on the same day of the secular calendar (like Christmas does in the Christian tradition, for example). They do, however, always fall in the same month or two.

Why Do Different Cultures Celebrate Holidays for Different Lengths of Time?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that, even if a holiday starts within the same general month or two, different groups might celebrate it for different periods of time. This has a historical explanation.

During ancient times, there was a fair amount of confusion surrounding the concept of the lunar calendar. As such, some communities would add or subtract a day or two from their celebrations. Today, holidays are more standardized, and many branches of Judaism celebrate them according to the length specified by the Torah.

Other branches, however, celebrate holidays on Thursday rather than Friday, while still others make both days holy days. This is further complicated by the fact that a Jewish day begins at sunset and holidays, specifically, start the night before the “day” begins.

Notable Jewish Holidays

Jewish HolidaysWhile there are dozens of Jewish holidays throughout the year, these are some of the most notable:

  • Passover. Passover is a holiday dedicated to celebrating the landmark Exodus from Egypt. It is celebrated for between seven and eight days, and starts the evening of the full moon in April. While it typically rolls into Easter, it may be celebrated a full month after the Easter holiday has ended. Jews who observe this holiday strictly will not work, attend school, or conduct business during the first and last two days of Passover.
  • Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It is celebrated the same day the new year begins according to the Jewish calendar, which is generally between Columbus Day and Labor Day. While different branches of Judaism celebrate it differently, it generally lasts for between one and two days. This holiday offers an opportunity for reflection and resolution to prepare for the coming year.
  • Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a Jewish holiday dedicated to atonement and repentance. Designed to encourage repentance for mistakes made in the last year, Yom Kippur occurs nine days after the start of Rosh Hashanah, which typically makes it in early October or late September. Observant Jews generally will not work or attend school on this day.
  • Chanukah. Chanukah is the Jewish festival of light, and marks the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after the revolt. It begins between Christmas and Thanksgiving and is marked by the lighting of candles in the evening with family.

The Jewish Holiday Calendar, Clarified

While the Jewish holiday schedule can be confusing, this simple guide can clarify and streamline the schedule of events so you can celebrate a Jewish holiday today accordingly.