Biblical, Rabbinic, and Modern Holidays

The different types of Jewish festivals

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The celebration of the holiday was expanded in medieval times to include an all-night study session that was meant to symbolize the ancient Israelites’ sleepless anticipation of receiving the Torah. Sukkot celebrates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years when, according to the Hebrew Bible, the intimate and close relationship between God and the Jews was like that of a husband and wife, or even a parent and child.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also have their origins in the Torah. In the latter case, the Torah describes the Day of Atonement as a day on which the Israelites are to practice self-denial (later understood to mean fasting) and to seek expiation for their individual and communal transgressions.

In fact, Leviticus 16 describes an elaborate ritual in which two goats would be sacrificed for the expiation of the sins of the Israelites--one would be slaughtered and the other sent off to die in the wilderness. The High Priest would symbolically place the collective sins of the Israelites upon this scapegoat, which would then be sent off into the desert to symbolize the removal of the people’s sins.

The case of what is today known as Rosh Hashanah is different: The Torah offers scant details on what this holiday is supposed to signify. The Torah describes the first day of Tishrei as “the day of teruah [trumpet blasts]” (Numbers 29:1), and leaves it at that. It was the rabbis of later centuries who imbued the festival with the meaning we ascribe to it today. Rosh Hashanah as the new year, as the Day of Judgment, and as the beginning of 10 days of penitence are all entirely rabbinic in origin.

Likewise, the Torah mentions a holiday attached to the end of Sukkot, without detailing what this day was to be about: “On the eighth day [of Sukkot] you shall observe a sacred occasion...it is a solemn gathering...” (Leviticus 23:36). This holiday became known as Shemini Atzeret, and later, the second day of this festival also evolved into Simchat Torah. Though not mentioned by name in the Talmud, there is a reference to the haftarah (prophetic reading) of the second day of Shemini Atzeret (Megillah 31 a). It is only later that second day of this festival of Shemini Atzeret became known as Simchat Torah, the day of “rejoicing in the Torah.”  In ancient Israel, the Torah was read over the course of three years.  In Babylonia, a different tradition arose and the reading of the Torah was completed in one year. This annual cycle was tied in to the end of the High Holiday period and eventually became the Simchat Torah we know today. (In Israel and in many contemporary liberal Diaspora communities, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated simultaneously as a one-day festival.)

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.