Seasonal Holidays: Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot

Monday, April 20, 2009

Some Jewish holidays are considered seasonal. They signify the agricultural activity of the autumn and the spring, the harvest days and the days of sowing. All these three holidays have close associations with chapters of the biblical exodus story.

Sukkot: Feast of Tabernacles

The first of these, if we are counting from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the festival Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles. It is just five days after Yom Kippur. One realized very quickly that the months of September and early October show probably the densest concentration of Jewish holidays. The fact is that Israel begins its classes only after all of the holidays.

On this festival of Sukkot, people leave their houses, because the holiday is connected to the Israelites who dwelt in huts as they traversed through the desert, following their exodus from Egypt. Just as they lived in these huts, today we will leave our houses and go outside of life, as a way of reexamining ourselves. Jews today build these huts and they eat in them for the entire holiday. Many Jews actually sleep in them as well.

The final day of the holiday marks the move into the coming winter. An special prayer is recited for rain on that day. This same day, the 8th one, is also when the reading of the Torah is finished and recommenced again. In diaspora communities, this happens on a 9th day. The reason for this is very interesting. This has to do with a problem in antiquity. When holidays were declared in Israel, it sometimes took weeks until some diaspora communities found out about this. As a result, in the diaspora it was customary to add another day of festival simply because they had a problem in knowing for sure which day was chosen in Israel as the day of festivities. This is an old custom that quite frankly could be obviated today. Yet, for purposes of tradition, has not been obviated. Many festivals in Israel today have one day less than in the diaspora.


Six months after Sukkot, the festival of Passover is celebrated. The first night is probably the most extraordinary one of the Jewish year. It is when the Seder takes place. This is no ordinary fest of dinner. Even the food is intended to recall memories of bondage in Egypt and the miraculous redemption. You eat an unleavened sort of cracker-like bread, it is called matzah. This symbolizes the haste with which our fathers were forced to flee from Egypt. They had no time to make bread, so, they ate this unleavened bread.

Jews eat bitter herbs on this night, to remind them of the bitterness of slavery. This is reliving the exodus not just through a retelling of the story, but actually eating food that would recount aspects of this deliverance.

Jews recite a text, the Haggadah, which recounts the exodus story by the recitation of biblical scripture, Rabbinic accounts and later medieval poetry. The poetry comes at the very end, and it is sung in a rather festive manner, because people already had drunk some coups and wine.

Children are payed special attention at the Seder. The whole elaborate procedure is intended to make them ask what is this all about. Part of the Haggadah has children asking questions. You are supposed to do everything to make them ask these questions.


Seven weeks after Passover, another festival takes place. We refer to it as Shavuot, literally “weeks”. While biblically this was linked to an agricultural feast, the rabbis determined that this was the day that commemorates the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. We read on that day the portion of the Torah that describes the revelation. Some Jews spend all night studying the Torah on the eve of Shavuot.