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Time and Worship

The Calendar

According to the Jewish calendar, 1996-97 is the year 5757. The calendar counts the years starting at creation, described in the first chapter of Genesis, and counting forward. Judaism believes that God created the world in 3760 bce. The year designation in this calendar is not usually followed by an abbreviation, unlike the other religions being studied. This is because the other religions begin their calendar after the beginning of time. Islam, for example, designates its years with A.H., After Hijra, while Christianity marks its year with A.D., Anno Domini "The Year of Our Lord," i.e., the year of Jesus' birth. But since Judaism begins with creation, there is no reason to indicate that it comes after a particular event.

The cycle of Judaism's year follows the lunar movements, with months beginning at the new moon. There are twelve months of 29 or 30 days. This means of course that since the lunar year is approximately 354 days long, it is 11 days shorter than the solar year of 365 days. Judaism believes that it is important for the lunar and the solar calendars to remain closely matched (it is a soli-lunar calendar rather than a strictly lunar calendar), so during a leap year--approximately every three years (occassionally two)--an extra month is intercalated to bring the two cycles closer together. This addition comes right after the month of Adar and is called Adar 2. This does not fix the matter perfectly, because three times 11 extra days is 33 days, not the 30 days of the extra month. So while the intercalation of a month keeps the solar and the lunar years close, they coincide exactly only every 19 years, for 19 solar years is exactly equivalent to 235 lunar months. During the 19 years, there are 7 leap years in which the extra month is added in. The result of this complicated system is that one year of the Jewish calendar is essentially equal to one year of the western Gregorian calendar. (For today's Hebrew calendar date, go here.)

The Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashannah ("Head of the Year") in Hebrew, begins in the early fall, usually in September. In the land of Israel, this time is the end of one growing season, that of the dry summer months, when the grapes and olives are harvested, and the start of another, that of the wet winter months, when the grains are planted.

Professor Alan Corre of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who has written a perptual calendar, explains the calendar in the following manner:

The Jewish year harmonizes the solar and lunar cycle, using the 19-year cycle of Meton (c. 432 B.C.E.) Meton discovered that after nineteen years the years reckoned using the sun and the moon get back into synch (almost.) It corrects so that certain dates shall not fall on certain days for religious convenience. The Jewish year has six possible lengths: 353,354,355,383,384,385 days, according to the day and time of the new year lunation, and position in the Metonic cycle. Time figures from 6 p.m. the previous night. The lunation of year 1 is calculated to be on a Monday (our Sunday night) at 11:11:20 p.m. Our data table begins with a hypothetical year 0, corresponding to 3762 B.C.E. Calculations in this program are figured in the ancient Babylonian unit of halaqim "parts" of the hour = 1/1080 hour. However this is transparent to the user of the program. A table is used only to speed the calculation of the most common dates.

According to Jewish tradition, the year 1 of the Jewish calendar was the time of "waste and void" referred to in Genesis 1.1. Nothing was yet created, and only a virtual clock started to tick on the first day of that year, heard, as it were, only by the Creator. On the first day of the week (Sunday) the twenty-fourth day of Elul, corresponding to August 22, 3760 B.C.E. (in the Gregorian calendar -- of course this calendar did not exist at that time) He said: Let there be light! and creation began. It concluded by the following Sabbath (Saturday) which was the first day of Tishri, year 2. A cosmic mystery for you to think about.

For additional information about the Jewish calender, go here.

Worship Cycles


Jewish daily worship centers around prayer. Fixed prayers are said three times a day: in the morning shortly after rising, in the afternoon, and in the evening shortly before retiring. These are considered to be the times when the Temple once offered sacrifices, and the prayers are now considered replacements for the sacrifices (for futher discussion, see the Religious Life Page). The main elements of the prayers are the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions. The prayers can be said by oneself, or one can join in a minyan--a group of at least ten men--which will permit certain additional prayers to be said.


In a weekly cycle, the Sabbath constitutes the most important time. It is the weekly holy day, occuring on the seventh day of the week. Since the Jewish calendar determines that days being at sundown, the Sabbath is celebrated from Friday evening to the beginning of Saturday evening.

The Sabbath is an important time of sanctification for the home. Without the Temple, in fact, the home, and to a certain extent the synagogue, provides the central locations of holiness on the Sabbath. At sundown on Friday evening, the Sabbath is welcomed in with the lighting of candles by the female head of the house. This is a time of great joy and of God's presence, for it is on this holy day especially that God is is with his people Israel. The main observance of the Sabbath is refraining from work. While this clearly means that a person does not practice their weekday job on the Sabbath, it can go far beyond that, depending on a person's level of observance. It may include refraining from driving a car, not cooking food (the special Friday evening meal is prepared before the Sabbath starts), not writing, and in some Orthodox houses, refraining from using electricity.

The Sabbath provides the time when the family attends services at the synagogue. There are three services that coincide with the three times of prayer: Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon. The Saturday morning service is the most important because it is then that the reading of the Torah takes place. This is a joyous time, for the Torah contains God's revelation to the people Israel. The readings are scheduled so that the whole Torah will be read in just one year. Alongside the Torah, selected readings from the Prophets and the Writings will also be read.


The monthly cycle is not very important in Judaism. There are a few additional prayers that are said at the first of the month (the new moon), which again are understood as imitating the extra sacrifices that once were offered at that time. Apart from that, nothing else marks the passage of the months.


Through the Hebrew Year, there is a cycle of religious festivals and observances. The most important appear below. For more information than you could ever read on these and other Jewish holidays, go here.

The New Year (Rosh Hashannah) of the Jewish year begins on the first day of the month of Tishri, which usually falls in September or October. It begins the ten days which are called the Days of Awe. It is during this time that Jews examine their actions and thoughts over the previous year, ask God for forgiveness, and if necessary, make amends to anyone they have wronged. They will also seek out ways to improve themselves in the coming year.

The Days of Awe culminate in the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This is a day of fasting and prayer, during which Jews humble themselves before God and earnestly seek his forgiveness for their sins. Long prayer services are held in the synagogues in which the worshippers seek through prayer to atone for the wrongs they have done. The ten days from Rosh Hashannah to Yom Kippur thus serve to cleanse each person's sins from the "slate of life" so that they can begin the year in the right relationship with God.

The oldest three religious holidays in Judaism are called the Pilgrim Festivals. This title stems from the biblical expectation that all Jews would go up to Jerusalem as pilgrims to celebrate these festivals. The three are: Sukkot (the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover), and Shavuot (also known as Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks). Each of these were originally eight-day observances, but only the feasts of Booths and Passover continue that practice.

The Feast of Booths begins on the 15th day after the New Year. It commemorates both the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years and the fall harvest. The distinctive feature of this festival is that Jews build temporary booths, usually large enough to hold a table, and take some of their meals in the booths during the eight days of the festival. The day following the end of the festival, Simhat Torah ("The Rejoicing of the Torah") celebrates the completion of the year-long cycle of reading the entire Torah.

The Festival of Passover takes place in the spring, on the 15th day of the seventh month, exactly half a year after Sukkot. It commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as well as observing the early spring harvest. During the eight days of this festival, Jews eat no leaven in their food to remind them how quickly the Israelites had to leave Egypt when Pharaoh ordered them out. The stricture against leaven means that they eat no bread, only matzah (sort of a big cracker), and will not cook with any ingredient that makes food rise or ferment.

The main Passover observance is the Seder meal on the first night (and sometimes on the second, see below).** This meal is organized around the reading of a text called the Passover Haggadah.** It is a teaching and discussion work that retells the story of the Exodus and helps explain to children (and adults) how God rescued the Jews from their Egyptian oppressors.**

The festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) has declined in importance over the centuries. It now celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, but is limited to only two days. The name Pentecost comes from the fact that it is fifty ("pente-") days after the start of Passover.

Rosh Hashannah and the first day of three Pilgrim festivals are celebrated for two days in the diaspora. This is because it is the time itself that is holy, and that time is determined by its occurance in the Land of Israel. So to ensure that the proper time is sanctified in countries outside Israel, two days are celebrated.

Judaism celebrates a number of minor holidays and fast days, two of which are worth mentioning here. The first is Purim, usually celebrated in February. The central activity of the day is the reading of the book of Esther, which tells the story of how wicked Haman tried to persuade King Ahasueraus to kill all the Jews in his kingdom and how beautiful and good Queen Esther rescued them. The festival is sort of a clown's day, with children dressing up as the heroes of the story, with hissing at the villains and cheering for the heroes during the reading. It is also the one day of the year in which the drinking of large quantities of alcoholic beverages is approved.

The second minor holiday is Hanukkah. It is an eight-day festival of lights that takes place in December. It commemorates the Maccabees regaining of the Temple from the Greeks and resanctifying it. This holiday is the only one that commemorates an event that is after the time of the Tanak. It has taken on increased importance in modern America because of its nearness to Christmas. Candles are lit each night and children are given a present on each of the eight days.