Religious Activities Center
40 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
MIT’s Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life offers this guide to the Jewish High Holidays. Rabbi Michelle Fisher of MIT Hillel (rabbif at mit) is available to answer additional questions about the holidays and appropriate accommodations.
In 2023, the fall Jewish holiday season starts in the middle of September and remains busy into early October. The first major holiday, Rosh Hashana, begins on the evening of Friday, September 15, and three more holidays--Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah--follow in quick succession. The major holidays fall mostly on weekends this year, and may have an impact on students’ ability to complete assignments and tests due on Mondays.
Though each holiday is celebrated with its own ceremonies and traditions, they share one thing in common: evening and daytime hours of all major Jewish holidays have restrictions that are followed by a number of Jews observing the holiday. These include not using any electricity or electronic devices including computers, cell phones, email, lights, and cars. Writing, erasing, and lighting a flame are also among forbidden actions. These are restrictions that are also observed every week on the Jewish Sabbath, Friday night until Saturday night, by Jews who are more traditionally observant.
First Days of Passover: April 22—24, Monday (sundown) —Wednesday (sundown)
Last Days of Passover: April 28—30, Sunday (sundown)—Tuesday (sundown)
Passover, or Pesach, is a springtime Jewish holiday that commemorates God’s liberation of the ancient Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. Like most major holidays in the Torah, Jewish Bible, it is also an agricultural holiday, specifically the yearly barley harvest. This dual identity is meant to tie the Jewish people and their sense of gratitude and awe to God both through their miraculous history and through the sustenance they get from the land. The holiday is marked by several significant practices that are observed by many Jews worldwide. The first is a large holiday meal called a Seder (meaning “order") that happens on the first two evenings of the holiday. This meal consists of retelling the story of Passover and eating both symbolic and ritual foods to connect people to the story and provoke meaningful questions to deepen the experience for all of the participants. The main food eaten at the Seder and throughout Passover is matzah, flat unleavened bread. During the entire holiday, many Jews have the practice to not eat any food products that include leavened bread. Even Jews who are less observant of general food restrictions throughout the year are often meticulous about these dietary practices. This can limit their access to food during these 8 days, and many will choose to go home for all or part of the holiday to make it easier to keep these practices during this time. As with the weekly Sabbath and other major holidays in the Torah, many Jews do not engage in various categories of work during the first two and last two days of Pesach. This can include not using electronic devices, writing or going on public transportation. Accommodating the needs of these students during this time would only increase the sense of gratitude that marks this important holiday.
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. This year, Rosh Hashana (pronunciation) will be observed from sundown on Friday, September 15 through sundown on Sunday, September 17. Besides long worship services, in both the evenings and mornings, a celebratory dinner is common. Apples and honey, symbolizing a sweet new year, are commonly enjoyed, as are pomegranates and new fruits one has not yet eaten that season. A common greeting for Rosh Hashana is “Happy New Year” or “May you be written in the Book of Life”. The latter acknowledges that Rosh Hashana begins the ten-day Season of Repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur (pronunciation), the Day of Atonement, is often referred to as the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and falls this year on Monday, September 25. It is a 25-hour fast day, beginning before sunset the day prior. No food or drink may be partaken this entire period, and most of the evening and day are spent in communal prayer. Commonly one wishes one another “An easy fast” or “A meaningful fast.”
Five days after Yom Kippur is the eight-day long holiday of Sukkot (pronunciation), the Feast of Booths. Like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, for traditionally observant Jews, the first two and last two days of this period, September 29-30 and October 7-8, have some particular restrictions (see above). This holiday commemorates the 40-year journey of the Biblical Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land of Israel. Thus, a prominent symbol and practice of the holiday is the building and dwelling in a “sukkah”, a temporary house/hut-type building often with tent-like walls and a roof made of bamboo or branches. Jews eat, study, hang out, and try as much as possible to “live” in this structure for the week. The sukkah is a reminder of the fragility of life, and of the partnership with and dependence upon God and not simply our own efforts for protection, as well as a time to experience more fully the outdoors. The MIT Hillel sukkah can be found in the Bexley Garden park along Mass Ave, across from Building 5 and next to Building W11 (40 Mass. Ave.).The holiday of Sukkot ends with two more holiday days, Shemini Atzeret (pronunciation; literally, the “eighth [day] of assembly”) and Simchat Torah (pronunciation; roughly translated as, “rejoicing with the Torah”), which also have the restrictions above. Shemini Atzeret is a “cap” on the just-completed week of festivities. It is followed the next day by Simchat Torah, during which the annual cycle of public readings from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses, which begins the Hebrew Scriptures) is completed with the chanting of the final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, and then immediately restarted again with chanting from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. The day’s celebration includes festive processions with the Torah scrolls, including much singing and dancing.
Why do the dates of Jewish holidays change from year to year? The Jewish calendar is mostly a lunar calendar. This means that from year to year, from the perspective of the solar Gregorian calendar, the Jewish holidays “shift” over a three to four week period of time. Thus, for example, the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashana can fall from early September to early October depending upon the date of the new moon. While the Jewish months are based on a lunar calendar, the holiday of Passover must always fall in the spring (Specifically spring time in Israel), so every few years we add an extra leap month so that Passover will always fall around the same time each year. Jewish holidays start in the evening, before sunset, and go until nightfall one or two days following.