Throughout the year in Israel there are a number of Jewish holidays to enjoy, many of which may take you by surprise upon arrival in the Holy Land. This is our guide to the hows, whys, and whens of celebrating them as a tourist/visitor.
Israel’s official calendar is the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar calendar. All Jewish holidays, plus the official non-religious festivals, are set according to this calendar (and hence their dates often fluctuate according to the Gregorian calendar – so always check our Event calendar for any upcoming holidays!).
While some holidays are fun, some are more serious and often pose weird and interesting problems, especially if you’re here on a visit. So if you’re planning a holiday, we’d highly recommend a read through of the information below before committing to any dates.
GOOD TO KNOW: Like Shabbat (the Sabbath), Israeli holidays start at sunset on the evening before their official date and finish 24 hours later.
The Jewish Halloween and the first real holiday of the year. It’s not about fending off the evil spirits, but rather the celebration of luck, fate and triumph over adversity. Tel Aviv turns into one giant costume party with events starting days before the holiday and culminating in both organized and impromptu parties all over.
According to tradition, you are expected to get drunk to the point of “Ad Lo Yada”, which translates loosely into being so drunk you no longer know who and where you are. We usually know of the best parties to check out, so check us out for the latest on the typically annual street parties that happen every year in Florentin, the Yafo flea market area, and Rothschild Blvd. Read more about Purim here.
Pessach / Passover (usually around April)
One of the biggest and most religious Jewish holidays, this Jewish spring holiday also coincides with Easter. Much of the country shuts down and goes on vacation too, and the week is unique thanks to the eating of unleavened products only (so no beer, no pizza, no bread, no pita bread, and no cakes, apart from some untasty “Passover-kosher” varieties). While many places nowadays defy the holiday and sell their wares as usual, many still don’t. Many places in Tel Aviv simply shut down during Passover as the pressure is increasingly on not to sell leavened products in Jewish public places (so head for the Tiv Taam shops and Yafo’s many Arab bakeries and restaurants if you need your yeasty fix).
Pessach also signals tourist season, and you will find most hotels and accommodation options adjust their prices accordingly. That aside, the usually fine weather and the holiday can only mean one thing – the start of festival season! Read more about Pessach here.
Holocaust Day (usually in April)
The Israeli Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah) is not on the same date as the international one. In keeping with the seriousness of the day, everything becomes a little bit more serious and muted. The day starts with two minutes of silence, marked by a special siren (a monotone siren, rather than the up and down air raid siren). People drop everything and stand silently at attention for two minutes. Drivers stop their cars in the middle of the road, get out and stand. Out of respect for the day, it’s best if you follow suit. Many Israelis have lost relatives in the Holocaust and get very angry when people appear to disrespect the occasion. Read more about Yom HaShoah here.
War Memorial Day (usually April or May)
The day before Independence Day is marked as War Memorial day (Yom HaZikaron), with ceremonies all over the country. The beginning of the day is marked on the previous evening by a minute long siren sound. At 11:00 on the day itself there is another siren to mark the beginning of the national ceremonies. Similarly to Holocaust day, people stand at attention out of respect for the fallen. The end of Memorial Day marks the beginning of Independence Day and this is when the mad parties start. There have been many debates throughout the years about whether these days should be moved further apart, but in Israel freedom comes with a bloody price tag and no one is ever going to let you forget that. Read more about Yom HaZikaron here.
Following immediately on from War Memorial Day, Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) is when the cities of Israel turn into giant party zones with fireworks, celebrations and parties. Traditionally, places like Florentin in Tel Aviv turn into a giant street party (police permitting), but is generally viewed as disconnected from the general neighborhood vibe and style. Israel’s Independence Day is marked by the Israeli Arabs as the “Nakba day” to commemorate the driving of 700,000 Arabs from their home during the Independence War in 1948 and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. A day of celebration tinged with controversy for many. Read more about Yom HaZtzmaut here.
Shavuot (May or June)
The last of the major Jewish holidays before the summer, Shavuot is known as the harvest holiday and is a great time for those who love dairy food. The holiday celebrates God’s handing the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai. You might not even notice it in the main cities, so head out to the country, and in particular a moshav or a kibbutz (where they take it much more seriously), to celebrate Shavuot. There is typically a couple of days holiday for all. Read more about the Shavuot holiday.
Rosh Hashana (usually around September/early October)
Another of the big Jewish holidays, Rosh HaShana celebrates the Jewish New Year. It kicks off the traditional High Holidays, with Sukkot and Yom Kippur to follow (see below). The whole country celebrates with a big family meal – and then promptly goes on an extended holiday for the following month. Many businesses and government offices operate erratic hours over this coming month, though if you’re purely here on vacation over that time you won’t feel it (though you will be paying a higher premium for flights and accommodation over this period). Expect to see lots of pomegranates, honey, wine, and plenty of good food over the Rosh HaShana holiday. Read more about Rosh HaShana here.
Yom Kippur (10 days after Rosh Hashana)
The holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Everything, and I mean everything, is shut (save for places in deepest darkest Yafo). Religious and even many secular Israelis fast from the evening before the holiday and the more devout ones visit the synagogue. All Israeli TV channels are off as are all radio stations, apart from a single station on the military network that plays sad Israeli songs all day long. Apart from the occasional ambulance, you won’t see any cars on the road either. Non-religious Israelis and their kids jump on their bicycles en mass and head to the motorways, enjoying the car-free day.
As a tourist, mark this day in your calendar and plan accordingly! Read more about Yom Kippur here.
Sukkot (a few days following Yom Kippur)
A holiday that lasts for seven days, Sukkot is a special holiday where you’ll get to spot special little huts springing up in balconies, back yards and even restaurants and cafes. These huts are known as sukkas, and are usually made up of some wooden or metal poles that hold a sheet or cloth around 3 sides, with palm branches for a makeshift roof. Some people eat their meals in the sukka, while others go further still and decorate the interiors with all kinds of tinsel and hanging ornaments.
The day of Sukkot is a national holiday, while the rest of the 7 days are a semi-holiday where official things like government offices and the post offices operate reduced opening hours. There are often many festivals during this time, including Israel’s fringe theater festival in Acco. Read more about Sukkot here.
Hanukkah (usually December)
The Jewish answer to Christmas is somewhat of a more muted affair in Israel, where there’s no competition for the affection of the kids. Candles are lit nightly for 8 days (the holiday is also known as the Festival of Lights) and there are often plenty of cool events in town, though mostly for kids. Israeli kids don’t get the multitude of presents their European and American counterparts get, but they do get chocolate coins and plenty of fried food including my favorite – donuts! Head over to Roladin at Ibn Gabirol 24 (and other branches) for the best selection. They come up with new and exciting varieties every year. Read more about Hanukkah here.