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 isn’t 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
In Israel the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot/Simhat Torah are observed as prescribed in the Bible: for seven, one, and eight days, respectively. Historically, communities outside Israel have added a day to each festival (though many modern liberal communities have adopted the Israeli model). All Jewish holidays begin at sundown the evening before the day of the holiday.
Shabbat (Sabbath). Religious. The Day of Rest in Israel is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and ends at nightfall Saturday. Torah-observant Jews don’t 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 than there used to be. Outside Jerusalem, however, you are scarcely 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 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’s 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 21–22, 2017; September 10–11, 2018. Religious. 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), September 30, 2017; September 19, 2018. Religious. 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. By law, all sites, entertainment venues, and most restaurants must close. 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’s considered a privilege to be invited to someone's house to "break the fast" as the holiday ends, at nightfall.
Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), October 5–11, 2017; September 24–30, 2018. 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 eat as many of their meals as possible in their sukkah.
Simhat Torah, October 13, 2017; October 2, 2018. Religious. The last day of the Sukkot 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 services.
Hanukkah, December 13–20, 2017; December 3–10, 2018. Not religious. A Jewish rebellion in the 2nd century BC renewed Jewish control of Jerusalem. In the 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.
Purim, March 12, 2017; March 1, 2018 (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 foods with friends. Many towns hold street festivals.
Pesach (Passover), April 11–18, 2017; March 31–April 7, 2018. First and last days religious. Dietary restrictions in force throughout. Passover is preceded by 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. 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.
Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Independence Day), May 2, 2017; April 19, 2018. 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, 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 31–June 1, 2017; May 20–21, 2018. 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 Mount Sinai. It’s customary to eat dairy products.
Easter, April 16, 2017; April 1, 2018. 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 Western churches—Roman Catholic and Protestant—observe the date above. 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.
Christmas. Except in towns with a large indigenous Christian population, such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, Christmas isn’t 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, while 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 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 mosques' loudspeakers. The dates of Muslim holidays shift each year because of the lunar calendar. Holidays begin at sundown the evening before the day of the holiday.
Ramadan, May 27–June 25, 2017; May 16–June 14, 2018. This monthlong fast commemorates the month in which the Koran was first revealed to Muhammad. Devout Muslims must abstain from food, drink, tobacco, and sex during daylight hours; the three-day festival of Eid el-Fitr 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) are only open a few morning hours during this time and closed to tourists.
Eid al-Adha, September 1–4, 2017; August 21–24, 2018. This festival commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son marks the end of the annual Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.