The meaning of the Jewish holidays

by Rabbi Yitzchok Gurevitz
Posted 9/14/23

The Jewish calendar has numerous special days throughout the year. Without a doubt, the fall is the busiest time of year for holidays.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

The meaning of the Jewish holidays


The Jewish calendar has numerous special days throughout the year. Without a doubt, the fall is the busiest time of year for holidays. This holiday season is filled with special prayers, rituals, and customs. 

The holidays begin with Rosh Hashana, the new year. Rosh Hashana is also the beginning of the month of Tishrei, a month referred to as Chodesh Hashvi’i. Chodesh means month. Shvi’i has two meanings. Shvi’i means seventh, and Tishrei is the seventh month from Nissan, the month of Passover. Additionally, Shvi’i is related to the Hebrew root word for satiate. This second meaning is particularly significant for me. Indeed, it reflects the process and purpose of the holidays we celebrate during this month. 

Even before the month of Tishrei begins, there is the month of Elul, an entire month dedicated to introspection, repentance, and reflection of the past year. It is a season of spiritual stocktaking, a time when we take inventory of our most personal and intimate moments, reflecting on the year gone by, including our successes and shortcomings. During this period, we carefully consider and reconsider our relationships with both G-d and humans, striving to identify our failings to correct them for the forthcoming year. (The name of G-d is spelled with a hyphen instead of an 'o' out of respect for its sacredness. This is done in case of any unintentional defacing or irreverent treatment of this page.)

Rosh Hashanah, which this year falls on September 15 to-17, marks the Jewish New Year. It commemorates the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and by extension, the birth of humankind as a whole. On Rosh Hashana, we recommit ourselves to our intended purpose and accept the sovereignty of G-d. Simultaneously, G-d, our Creator, reaffirms His investment in His creation. The primary symbolism of this day is the sounding of the shofar, a ram's horn, to coronate G-d as our King. The wistful cry of the Shofar helps us reconnect to the very depths of our soul, beyond where words can reach.

Ten days later, on September 24-25, we will observe Yom Kippur, the most serious day of the year and our "Day of Atonement." For nearly 26 hours, we abstain from food and drink, spending the day fasting, praying, confessing our sins, and seeking forgiveness. The burdens of the past year are now behind us, and we can fully devote our energies towards the new year. 

Following these solemn days, our mood shifts from somber to joyful. Five days later, Sukkot (celebrated from September 29 to October 8) begins. Sukkot is a seven day holiday of joy. During Sukkot, we dine outdoors in a makeshift hut called a Sukkah, its roof adorned with branches. This practice serves as a reminder of our ancestors' 40-year sojourn in the desert, during which they were protected and sheltered by Divine love and care. By exposing ourselves to the elements, we symbolize our unwavering trust in G-d's providence and protection. The confidence and joy we experience during this holiday carry us forward through the rest of the year.

Immediately following Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, a day devoted to praying for rain and officially commemorating the start of the rainy season. Finally, the climax of the holiday season arrives with Simchat Torah, when we conclude the annual Torah reading cycle and begin a new cycle, welcoming the new beginning with joyous celebrations.

During this holiday season, the special prayers and many rituals fill us with meaning, purpose, and encouragement. This "High Holiday season" satiates us and inspires us for the rest of the year that follows. 

As we observe a season of reflection, connection, and joy, I extend warmest wishes to our neighbors of all faiths for a happy, healthy, sweet new year. 

Rabbi Yitzchok and Pessy Gurevitz are directors of Chabad of Northwest Philadelphia. For a full schedule of holiday events, go to