Israel's Major Holidays
Time is figured in different ways in Israel. The Western Gregorian calendar—the solar year from January to December—is the basis of day-to-day life and commerce, but the school year, for example, which runs from September through June, follows the Hebrew lunar calendar. Jewish religious festivals are observed as national public holidays, when businesses and some museums are closed (on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, all sites are closed).
The Muslim calendar is also lunar, but without the compensatory leap-year mechanism of its Hebrew counterpart. Muslim holidays thus drift through the seasons and can fall at any time of the year.
Even the Christian calendar is not uniform: Christmas is celebrated on different days by the Roman Catholic (Latin) community, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Orthodox Church.
Major Jewish Holidays
The phrase "Not religious" in the text indicates that the holiday might be part of the religious tradition, but few or no public restrictions apply. On holy days, when the text indicates "Religious," most of the Sabbath restrictions apply.
The Day of Rest in Israel is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and ends at nightfall Saturday. Torah-observant Jews do not cook, travel, answer the telephone, or use money or writing materials during the Shabbat, hence the Sabbath ban on photography at Jewish holy sites like the Western Wall. In Jerusalem, where religious influence is strong, the Downtown area clears out on Friday afternoon, and some religious neighborhoods are even closed to traffic.
Kosher restaurants close on the Sabbath, except for the main hotel restaurants, where some menu restrictions apply. In the holy city itself, your dining choices are considerably reduced, but there are more nonkosher eateries open than there used to be. Outside Jerusalem, however, you'll scarcely be affected; in fact, many restaurants do their best business of the week on the Sabbath because nonreligious Israelis take to the roads.
In Arab areas, such as East Jerusalem and Nazareth, Muslims take time off for the week's most important devotions at midday Friday, but the traveler will notice this much less than on Sunday, when most Christian shopkeepers in those towns close their doors. Saturday is market day, and these towns buzz with activity.
There is no public intercity transportation on the Sabbath, although the private sherut taxis drive between the main cities. Urban buses operate only in Nazareth and, on a reduced schedule, in Haifa. Shabbat is also the busiest day for nature reserves and national parks—indeed, anywhere the city folk can get away for a day. Keep this in mind if you fancy a long drive; the highways toward the main cities can be choked with returning weekend traffic on Saturday afternoon.
Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)
September 29-30, 2011; September 17-18, 2012. This two-day holiday and Yom Kippur are collectively known as the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah traditionally begins a 10-day period of introspection and repentance. Observant Jews attend relatively long synagogue services and eat festive meals, including apples and honey to symbolize the hoped-for sweetness of the new year. Nonobservant Jews often use this holiday to picnic and go to the beach.
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
October 8, 2011; September 26, 2012. Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Observant Jews fast, wear white clothing, avoid leather footwear, and abstain from pleasures of the flesh. Israeli radio and television stations shut down. All sites, entertainment venues, and most restaurants are closed by law. Much of the country comes to a halt, and in Jerusalem and other cities the roads are almost completely empty, aside from emergency vehicles. It is considered a privilege to be invited to someone's house to "break the fast" as the holiday ends, at nightfall.
Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles)
October 13, 2011; October 1, 2012. Religious. Jews build open-roof huts or shelters called sukkot (singular sukkah) on porches and in backyards to remember the makeshift lodgings of the biblical Israelites as they wandered in the desert. The more observant will eat as many of their meals as possible in their sukkah; some even sleep there for the duration of the holiday.
October 20, 2011; October 8, 2012. Religious. The last day of the Sukkoth festival season, this holiday marks the end—and the immediate recommencement—of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. Joyful singing and dancing (often in the street) as people carry the Torah scrolls characterize the evening and morning synagogue services.
December 21-28, 2011; December 9-16, 2012. Not religious. A Jewish rebellion in the 2nd century BC renewed Jewish control of Jerusalem. In the recleansed and rededicated Temple, the tradition tells, a vessel was found with enough oil to burn for a day. It miraculously burned for eight days, hence the eight-day holiday marked by the lighting of an increasing number of candles (on a candelabrum called a hanukkiah) from night to night. Schools take a winter break. Shops, businesses, and services all remain open.
March 8, 2012 (celebrated one day later in Jerusalem). Not religious. Children dress up in costumes on the days leading up to Purim. In synagogues and on public television, devout Jews read the Scroll of Esther, the story of the valiant Jewish queen who prevented the massacre of her people in ancient Persia. On Purim day, it's customary to exchange gifts of prepared foods with neighbors and friends. Many towns hold street festivals.
April 7-13, 2012. First and last days religious; dietary restrictions in force throughout. Passover is preceded by vigorous spring-cleaning to remove all traces of leavened bread and related products from the household. During the seven-day holiday itself, no bread is sold in Jewish stores, and the crackerlike matzoh replaces bread in most hotels and restaurants. On the first evening of the holiday, Jewish families gather to retell the ancient story of their people's exodus from Egyptian bondage, and to eat a festive and highly symbolic meal called the seder (Hebrew for order). Hotels have communal seders, and the Ministry of Tourism can sometimes arrange for tourists to join Israeli families for Passover in their homes.
Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Independence Day)
April 26, 2012. Not religious. Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, but the exact date of Yom Ha'atzma'ut every year follows the Hebrew calendar. Although there are gala events, fireworks displays, and military parades all over the country, most Israelis go picnicking or swimming. Stores are closed, but public transportation runs and most tourist sites are open.
Shavuot (Feast of Weeks)
May 27, 2012. Religious. This holiday, seven weeks after Passover, marks the harvest of the first fruits and, according to tradition, the day on which Moses received the Torah ("the Law") on Mt. Sinai. Many observant Jews stay up all night studying the Torah. It is customary to eat meatless meals with an emphasis on dairy products.
April 8, 2012. This major festival celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. The nature and timing of its ceremonies and services are colorfully different in each Christian tradition represented in the Holy Land—Roman Catholic (Latin), Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian, and so on. The date above is observed by the Western churches—Roman Catholic and Protestant. Check the dates for different groups such as the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox churches, who base their holidays on the older Julian calendar.
Except in towns with a large indigenous Christian population, such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, Christmas is not a high-visibility holiday in Israel. The Christmas of the Catholic and Protestant traditions is, of course, celebrated on December 25, but the Greek Orthodox calendar observes it on January 7, and the Armenian Orthodox wait until January 19. Christmas Eve (December 24) is the time for the international choir assembly in Bethlehem's Manger Square, followed by the Roman Catholic midnight mass in the adjacent church. Take a cab to the border crossing (don't forget your passport), and pick up a shared cab to Manger Square on the Palestinian side. Check first with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism information office that the choral event is on schedule.
Muslims observe Friday as their holy day, but it's accompanied by none of the restrictions and far less of the solemnity than those of the Jewish Shabbat and the Christian Sabbath (in their strictest forms). The noontime prayer on Friday is the most important of the week and is typically preceded by a sermon, often broadcast from the loudspeakers of the mosques.
The dates of Muslim holidays shift each year because of the lunar calendar.
August 1-30, 2011; July 20-August 18, 2012. This monthlong fast commemorates the month in which the Qur'an was first revealed to Muhammad. Devout Muslims must abstain from food, drink, tobacco, and sex during daylight hours; the three-day festival of Id el-Fitr then marks the conclusion of the period. The dates are affected by the sighting of the new moon and can change slightly at the very last moment. The Muslim holy sites on Jerusalem's Haram esh-Sharif (the Temple Mount) offer only short morning visiting hours during this time and are closed to tourists during Id el-Fitr.
November 6, 2011; October 26, 2012. This festival commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son marks the end of the annual Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslim families throughout Israel celebrate Eid al-Adha by slaughtering a sheep or goat.
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