Jewish holidays and what they mean to SFU students

Three Jewish students share their knowledge and experiences.

Image courtesy of The Georgia Straight

By: Gene Cole, Martha D, and Ruth Leavitt. Compiled by Gabrielle McLaren, Features editor. 

Editor’s note: Beliefs about whether or not the full name of G-d should be spelled completely vary throughout the Jewish community. This piece has respected the spellings submitted by our contributors.


Your crash-course on the Jewish calendar

The Jewish calendar is a modified lunar calendar, with a leap month added at the end of some years to ensure that the festivals remain in their correct seasons. The first month of the year is Nisan, in the spring; however, the calendrical year changes in the month of Tishri, on the day of Rosh Hashanah (there are complicated reasons for this, but that’s a whole other story).

Thus this list could begin in fall or in spring, and both are completely valid. Given that it is currently fall (Rosh Hashanah fell on September 9 this year, and began the Jewish year 5779) I started there for simplicity:

  • Rosh Hashanah, the calendrical New Year; the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance to prepare for Yom Kippur
  • Yom Kippur, the Sabbath-of-Sabbaths, the holiest day of the year and one of atonement and reconciliation – with God, with community, and with yourself.
  • Sukkot, the Feast of Booths.
  • Shemini Atzeret and/or Simchat Torah, the “eighth day” of congregation and also the end and re-beginning of the cycle of reading the Torah scroll.
  • Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. A post-Biblical holiday about Jewish perseverance, whether you focus on the Maccabees or the miracle of the oil.
  • Purim, another post-Biblical holiday, is about Jewish survival of anti-Semitism as recorded in the Book of Esther. It has become a day of costumes and drunkenness, and tends to be the epitome of “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”
  • Passover (Heb. Pesach), the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This holiday is celebrated in the recreation of the Passover seder, the retelling of the story of the Exodus around their table at home.

This is not an exhaustive list; there are many minor holidays scattered throughout the year, and some not-so-minor ones that recur — most notably, that of Shabbat itself, the seventh day of rest. In Jewish practice, keeping the Sabbath is a holiday all its own, with its own traditions, practices, and divergent observances among different people, cultures, and norms. – RL



Shabbat is a central part of Jewish living, celebrated every week from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The origin of this comes from the Torah, where we learn that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to Shabbat as a “palace in time” because of the delight it brings to the soul and body, allowing one to focus away from the material everyday and into the holy space created in time.

To differentiate Shabbat from the other weekdays, there are 39 different kinds of restrictions on the work in which we can participate. Before sunset on Friday, it is traditional to clean up your home and wear nice clothes as if to welcome a bride or queen, which are common metaphors for Shabbat. On Saturday night, this time comes to a close through a ceremony called havdalah.

Shabbat is the warm smell of challah bread and the flickering candle lights, and saying kiddush with family and friends to sanctify Shabbat. It is taking a day for yourself to step back and relax, feeling your breathing slow down. It is finding thanks for all the blessings in your week. In addition, observing Shabbat illuminates central Jewish values like helping others, doing acts of kindness, and striving for peace and justice. – MD



Passover is up there as one of the biggest of the Jewish holidays, with its story being retold in tons of cartoons, from Rugrats to the Simpsons. The short version is that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, and one Jew named Moses spoke up for his people and tried to convince the pharaoh to let his people go.

The name ‘Passover’ references the last of the ten plagues that G-d sent to the Egyptians, which was the death of each of their firstborn sons. To signal that their houses should be “passed over” to keep their children safe, Jews painted their door with sheep’s blood. After this night, Pharaoh let the Jews leave, but not before chasing them down once they began their journey. The Jews escaped with the help of one last miracle; the parting of the Red Sea so that the Jews could cross over to safety.

There’s something in the eight-day holiday dedicated to every part of this story. Alongside a synagogue service filled with prayer and song, Passover is greatly centred on a seder dinner: a long meal with prayers and retellings of the story, to help us remember our ancestors’ suffering and appreciate our freedom. This isn’t to say it’s sombre, though— while it’s still a serious affair, it’s a time for appreciating what we have and spending time with family.

There’s one other tradition key to this holiday: Jews are intended to avoid eating risen foods, particularly bread, during Passover. This is to show memory for the Jews who had to leave Egypt so fast that the bread they made didn’t have time to rise. One of the token foods of Passover, a fairly flat and dry cracker called matzah, is a dedication to the food they had to eat on their journey. – GC



Jewish holidays have a pretty common trend in terms of theme and story: the Jewish people were threatened, they escaped and survived, and now we celebrate our perseverance. Sukkot stands far from this trend by being a time to celebrate the fall harvest and rest. At its core, this holiday is a celebration of food, nature, and peace.

What makes this holiday memorable and fun are the traditions around it, which are far more visual than the typical seder dinner (see the entry on Passover). This is much because of where the celebration takes place: an outdoor shelter made of wood and leaves called a Sukkah, which lets us be closer to nature. Many families build their own for their backyard, but Synagogues typically have one of their own for people to use as well.

The other typical tradition involves a pair of objects called the lulav and etrog to represent food and nature. The etrog is a small citrus fruit, while the lulav is a palm branch with two types of twigs (hassadim and aravot) attached to it. On each of the mornings of Sukkot (which lasts around seven days), the prime prayer tradition is to shake these objects in all directions to show appreciation and acknowledgement for the Lord’s love and kindness.

It isn’t the most dramatic holiday, but it’s a pleasant one amidst many challenging days Jews face. As a kid, I can definitely say a highlight of my Jewish upbringing was walking around my Synagogue’s sukkah every year and being amazed at this beautiful, natural structure. – GC



First off, let’s establish that the answer to “how do you spell Hannukah?” is “with a different alphabet.” The variation of spellings in English comes from different preferences for the way Hebrew characters relate to Latin ones. Transliteration has a few rules with wiggle-room, so the variations that exist are all just as right, and just as wrong, as the others.

Hannukah is a holiday from a post-Biblical book called The Book of the Maccabees. The story as currently told is that after a battle fought to oust Greeks that were defiling the Temple, only enough consecrated oil remained for one day. Someone lit it anyways and it miraculously lasted eight days. To this day, we light the candles in memory of God’s miracles and they are symbolic of keeping tradition alive. Because the temple menorah ran on oil, food cooked in oil became symbolic too, making this the holiday of not just latkes, but jelly-filled doughnuts too. The story pushed out of focus by the miracle of the oil is that of Judah Maccabee, who led a group of rebels that ousted the Greeks after they rededicated their Jewish temple. While they were barred from the temple, they couldn’t celebrate Sukkot, so they celebrated it belatedly after they came out victorious against the Greeks. This belated Sukkot was turned into a holiday of its own, to celebrate the struggle to celebrate.

For a few reasons, the story of the oil has taken primacy over his. The Rabbis of the diaspora, centuries later, felt celebrating military victory might be dangerous, not just from outside but from inside as well, inspiring careless bravado that could get people killed.

Regardless of which miracle you promote, in essence their meanings are the same: that of perseverance, and trust that God will bring us through hardship when we feel like we may burn out before the end. Ultimately, the light in darkness — acutely felt in winter here in B.C. — will continue to burn. – RL