Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel. Originally a combination of a couple of different spring festivals, it is a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt–especially the night when God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague–and of the following day, when the Israelites had to leave Egypt hurriedly. Centered on the family or communal celebration of the seder (ritual meal), Passover is one of the most beloved of all Jewish holidays.
Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” is celebrated seven weeks after Pesach (Passover). Since the counting of this period (sefirat ha-omer) begins on the second evening of Pesach, Shavuot takes place exactly 50 days after the (first) seder. Hence, following the Greek word for “fifty,” Shavuot is also referred to sometimes as Pentecost. Although its origins are to be found in an ancient grain harvest festival, Shavuot has been identified since biblical times with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a fall holiday, taking place at the beginning of the month of Tishrei, which is actually the seventh month of the Jewish year (counting from Nisan in the spring). It is both a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life.
The culmination of the Days of Awe is the fast day of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). This is the day at the conclusion of which, according to tradition, God seals the Books of Life and Death for the coming year. The day is devoted to communal repentance for sins committed over the course of the previous year. Because of the nature of Yom Kippur and its associated rituals, it is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.