A Jew’s life is marked by the Jewish holidays, very important times of the year that bring us back in touch not only with our faith in God, but also with our community and family.
The Jewish holidays have, as those who follow us will have realized by now, a special characteristic: each of them has a strong connection with food, which is often one of the central motifs of the celebration and one of the means by which we add a special extra touch of meaning to the holiday.
Shabbat, made holier every Friday by the care we take in preparing dinner ahead of time; Shavuot, with typical dairy dishes; Channukkah, marked by fried foods in remembrance of the miracle of the oil… it is easy to see how food constitutes a foundational element of Jewish culture on every occasion.
The main Jewish holidays are divided into say three groups:
– Yamim Noraim (solemn days), which include the days of Rosh Hashanah and Kippur and the intervening 10 days of repentance;
– Shalosh Regalim (three pilgrimages), i.e., the feasts of Pesach, Shavuot, Succot;
– Minor, man-made (but no less important) holidays such as Channukkah, Tu Bi’Shvat, Purim, Lag Ba Omer.
Then there are other minor Jewish holidays, fasts, and secular festivals that are celebrated mainly in Israel but also in the Diaspora (Yom Ha Shoah, Yom Azikaron…), which we do not deal with on Labna because they do not have a specific relation to cooking. For a complete guide I refer you to Hebcal, which is also my go-to resource for reminding me on exactly what dates various holidays are celebrated from year to year. On Hebcal you will also find a handy calendar that you can add to your iCal or Outlook so you don’t forget any occasion to celebrate.
But let’s go into some detail and see together what is celebrated on each occasion; you can read the history of each of the main Jewish holidays below, and if you click on the names of the holidays below you can also discover all the typical recipes we prepare to celebrate them.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is, with Yom Kippur, the most solemn holiday for our people. It is a holiday about the individual and his or her relationship with God: each of us, in fact, meditates on our actions on this day and asks God for forgiveness for our sins, promising to become better in the new year.
Indeed, with Rosh Hashanah begins the period of the ten penitential days, which ends with Kippur: we have 10 days to repent of our sins and present ourselves purified before God to receive His judgment.
A number of symbolic foods are eaten during the Rosh Hashanah meal: it is customary to eat a slice of apple dipped in honey, so that the year may be sweet; the kernels of a pomegranate, with the wish that the people of Israel will be as numerous as the seeds of this fruit; and some other particular fruits and vegetables, depending on your family customs.
Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, is the holiest of the ten days of contrition beginning with Rosh Hashanah. On this day we ask God to forgive us for all our sins, to judge us with mercy, and to inscribe us in the Book of Life: this is indeed the day God “seals” His decision on the conduct of each of us.
On Kippur all work is absolutely forbidden, and one must abstain from all food and drink for 25 hours. On Yom Kippur we must ask forgiveness for our mistakes, not only towards God, but also towards all the people we might have hurt or offended.
Pesach is the great festival of freedom: in fact, it commemorates the emancipation of the Jews from long slavery in Egypt and the exodus from that land.
During Pesach we are prescribed to abstain from all leavened foods and from all products that contain wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt. We cannot even keep such foods in the house, so right before the holiday we have a thorough Spring clean! :)
In the Pesach ceremony, called the Seder, we eat a selection of foods with strong symbolic value: matzot, or unleavened bread, in remembrance of the Jews’ hasty escape from Egypt; a roasted leg of lamb, reminiscent of the Passover sacrifice; a hard-boiled egg, a symbol of the eternity of life; bitter herbs, reminding us of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt; and charoset, a kind of fruit jam, reminding us of the mortar with which our ancestors made bricks for Pharaoh’s buildings.
Shavuot is the feast of weeks: it commemorates the Lord’s revelation on Mount Sinai and the gift of Torah, the law.
A lot of dairy products are eaten at Shavuot, for it is said that Torah study tastes like milk and honey, and that the newborn people of Israel needed the Torah as the baby needs milk for nourishment.
Succot (or Sukkot) is the feast of huts: indeed, on this occasion we remember the huts in which our fathers lived for forty years in the desert after fleeing Egypt.
The hut is a symbol of the precariousness of life but, above all, of the Lord’s protection over the children of Israel: though so fragile and with its roof of fronds, through which the stars can be seen, the hut has always protected the Jews from all dangers.
Sukkot is also the feast of the blessing of human labor and toil: it celebrates the end of the agricultural season, when the farmer, after a year of labor and struggle against the elements of nature, finally has his barns, storehouses, and cellars filled with his harvest.
The most important prescription on this holiday is to reside in the hut: it is customary to eat meals there and, where possible, to spend the night.
At the time when Christmas is celebrated for non-Jews, generally for us it falls on the Chanukkah, the feast of lights, which lasts for eight days.
On Channukkah we remember a miracle that occurred in very ancient times, in 165 B.C., in Israel. Jerusalem was at that time under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria, a very cruel and tyrannical ruler; Judas Maccabaeus led a rebellion against Antiochus and recaptured the Temple, previously taken and desecrated by the ruler.
Upon entering the Temple to reconsecrate it, the Jews had to light the candelabra that burned permanently in the sanctuary, but they found only a small cruet of pure oil, enough for barely a day: however, a great miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days.
That is why even today, on Channukkah, in remembrance of the miracle of the oil, we light lamps in our homes for eight evenings.
On Chanukkah, it is customary to exchange gifts, give coins to children, and eat lots of food fried in oil.
Tu Bishvat is the New Year of trees. In ancient Israel this day was celebrated because it marked the boundary between two agricultural years: at this time, in fact, trees in Israel begin flowering.
Tu Bi Shvat is celebrated by planting new trees and consuming the fruits of the seven species for which Israel is renowned: wheat, barley, olives, dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranate.
The story of Purim, which happened about 2,500 years ago, is told to us in the book of Esther.
This book tells us in great detail the story of Esther, a very virtuous Jewish woman who went on to marry Ahasuerus, king of Persia, and that of Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, a pious and religious Jew.
In the court of Ahasuerus lived Aman, the king’s prime minister, an arrogant man who demanded that all the people bow before him; when the Jew Mordechai refused to bow before him, Aman decided to take revenge on all the Jewish people and asked the king to decree that all the Jews in his great kingdom be killed.
Again, fortunately, the Jewish people were able to survive the persecution, thanks to the intervention of Queen Esther, who convinced King Ahasuerus to stop Aman’s evil plan and condemn the wicked minister for his cruelty.
On Purim, therefore, we rejoice in the narrow escape from danger and express our confidence in the Lord.
On the occasion of this holiday, it is customary to give friends a package of sweets, called mishloach manot: we give this gift to ensure that those we love have enough food to celebrate, and to share the joy with those close to us.
Lag Ba Omer is a Jewish religious holiday that falls between Pesach and Shavuot and is very difficult to explain.
Forty-nine days pass between Pesach and Shavuot, and during this period in ancient times was the ceremony of offering the Omer, a measure of barley that Jews brought as a sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The festival of Lag Ba Omer originated in the time of the sage Rabbi Akiva, between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.
The first 33 days of the Omer count are considered days of mourning, because during this period 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died, from causes not clearly identified; some claim that the students died from a plague epidemic, sent by God to punish them, while others believe that the students’ deaths are to be linked to one of the bloodiest Jewish uprisings against the Roman Empire, that of Bar Kochba, which took place between 132 and 135 CE.
Whatever the cause of this death of people was, it is known that on the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot, the loss of lives came to an end; hence a time of celebration was instituted, especially among religious boys in rabbinical schools. On this holiday, especially in Israel, but also in the rest of the world, there are barbecues and picnics, with spectacular bonfires around which adults and children gather.