As soon as the Passover Seders end, many Jews are content to NOT celebrate so much for a while. And yet there are another six days plus a dozen holidays and commemorations in the space of a month and a half, leading up to the anniversary of receiving the Torah, Shavuot. Any description of the Jewish festive cycle must make mention of these milestones typically left out of the holiday hall of fame.
As the Borscht-belt comedian Alan King famously summarized, all Jewish holidays can be summarized as “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” I’m illuminating all of the lesser blips on the radar so we don’t miss out on anything.
Whoever said “it is hard to be a Jew” clearly missed the point; being Jewish is a PARTY!
These special dates are listed according to their placement on the lunar calendar. To figure out their solar counterpart, simply consult a current Jewish-Gregorian calendar, like Hebcal.com.
The 15/16th of Nissan — Leil Seder
The Passover Seder nights.
The 16th of Nissan — S’firat Ha’omer
As soon as the first day of Pesach is over, we start a unique period called S’firat Ha’omer, during which we count the forty-nine days until Shavuot. Forty-nine is a crucial number in Judaism; since the number seven runs throughout the fabric of reality (days of week, colors in rainbow, notes in a scale), logically, seven squared is significant.
In the days of the Temple, a certain measurement known as an omer (about ten cups) of barley was offered by the Cohanim (priests) beginning on the second day of Pesach. We would start the count of one a day, building up our anticipation of the new wheat harvest and the upcoming offering of whole bread loaves on Shavuot. This counting recreates our initial preparation for the Revelation at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 and allows us to refine our character traits to prepare for the ultimate kabbalah, personally receiving the Torah.
According to the Talmud, 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students died during S’firat Ha’omer as punishment for not treating each other with proper respect. This period became associated with an awareness of the importance of achdut (Jewish unity) and a state of semi-mourning. Celebrations like weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties, concerts or even niceties like a shave or haircut are prohibited. What should have been a time of joyous anticipation is now subdued.
The 17th of Nissan — Chol Hamo’ed
The Chol Hamo’ed (intermediate days) of Passover begin as soon as the second day of the holiday (or the first day in Israel) has ended. The four days retain a festive nature but most types of melacha (creative acts forbidden on holidays) can be done. Our prayers are of the weekday variety with special holiday insertions, plus the addition of Hallel (a series of celebratory Psalms), Torah readings and Mussaf.
The Shabbat of Chol Hamo’ed is a unique collision of holiday joy and Sabbath sanctity. The services that day are particularly animated and, in most synagogues, are enhanced with the public reading of the evocative love poetry of King Solomon’s Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs.
21st/22nd of Nissan—Sh’vi’i and Acharon of Pesach
These are the last two days of Pesach. They have the same restrictions as any Jewish holiday, but cooking and carrying things from one place to another is permitted. There are no special observances other than the pleasure of hearing the Torah portion featuring the splitting of the Red Sea on the anniversary of our crossing. The eighth day of the holiday is one of the few formal times we pause to remember those loved ones who passed away in a short memorial ceremony called Yizkor.
The 26th of Nissan — Yom Hashoah
The first of many commemorations on the heels of Pesach is Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Day). This date was chosen by the Israeli government to memorialize the six million who perished in the Holocaust since it is close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Clearly, the authorities chose this famous revolt because it represents the indomitable Jewish spirit, even though it was doomed.
Whereas some Orthodox pundits maintain that Tisha B’Av memorializes all maladies throughout history, I think it is appropriate that the Holocaust has its own milestone. While it is more of an event in the Holy Land, Diaspora organizations typically hold memorials featuring survivor testimonials. It is also the day on which over 10,000 March of the Living participants meet in Auschwitz.
The 1st and 2nd of Iyar — Rosh Chodesh Iyar
The next special day is actually a holiday occurring every month. Rosh Chodesh is the celebration of the new moon. Chodesh (month) is also closely related to the word for newness, chadash. This mitzvah is the very first given to the Jews as a free people right before leaving Egypt. Two weeks after the beginning of Pesach is the next Rosh Chodesh, this time for the month of Iyar. The Rosh Chodesh service includes Hallel and a special Mussaf.
The 3rd of Iyar — Yom Hazikaron
Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s official Memorial Day in remembrance of those who fell in war or acts of terrorism. Back in 1951, the Israeli government decided to separate the ecstatic celebration of Independence Day from mourning and memory, so Yom Hazikaron shifted to the day before. One-minute sirens are sounded at the start of the day at 8:00 pm and then again the following morning at 11:00 am when the official ceremonies begin. This practice of solemnity before jubilation heightens the awareness of the price paid for Jewish independence.
The 4th of Iyar — Yom Ha’atzma’ut
Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, is a serious party in Israel. Crowds gather for concerts and dancing, and Israelis proudly display Israeli flags on their apartments, cars and bodies. Since we usually don’t have this day off in the Diaspora, citywide outdoor concerts are scheduled on a proximal Sunday. Yom Ha’atzma’ut is an uplifting time of Jewish unity.
The 14th of Iyar — Pesach Sheini
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach called Pesach Sheini the “capital of second chances.” It was initiated thanks to spiritually impure Israelites arguing to Moshe Rabbeinu that they, too, had a right to a Passover celebration. One month after the official Seder, God established the designated time when such individuals could bring the Pesach offering.
The 18th of Iyar — Lag B’omer
Lag B’omer is an acronym of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, signifying the 33rd day of the counting of the omer. This day commemorates the yahrzeit(death anniversary) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic who popularized the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah in his text, the Zohar. He commanded his disciples to rejoice on this day; parties replete with bonfires, concerts and dancing celebrate his life and the revelation of the hidden secrets of Torah.
The 28th of Iyar — Yom Yerushalayim
Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War. Many remember this milestone as the modern-day apex of international Jewish pride. King David established Jerusalem as the seat of his monarchy around 1000 BCE. The 1967 victory marked the first time in thousands of years that all Jerusalem, including the Kotel, came under Jewish control.
The 1st of Sivan — Rosh Chodesh Sivan
Rosh Chodesh once again! That makes for a total of a dozen “holidays” for our enjoyment between the Seders and Shavuot on the 6th/7th of Sivan. Welcome to the Minor Leagues. Whoever said “it is hard to be a Jew” clearly missed the point; being Jewish is a PARTY! May we all celebrate together in Jerusalem.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.