Here’s a general guide to when holidays and festivals occur in Israel. Keep in mind that a Jewish holiday that generally falls in March may some years fall on a late date in February, because Jews follow a lunar-based year. Note also that not all Jewish holidays are subject to Sabbath-like prohibitions and closings. Holidays when things close down are indicated by an asterisk (*). Note: The celebration of each holiday commences at sundown on the evening before the date listed and ends at sundown of the last day shown.
For updated information about holidays, special events, and festivals, check with your nearest IGTO office. In North America, call the Israel Tourism Information Center at tel. 888/77-ISRAEL (477-235) or visit www.goisrael.com.
Israeli Arbor Day (Tu b’Shevat): Thousands of singing and dancing schoolchildren traipse off to plant trees all over the country. Synagogues and some restaurants have special Tu b’Shevat dinners.
Purim (Feast of Lots): Recalling how Queen Esther saved her people in Persia (5th c. b.c.), this is an exciting time when folks, especially children, dress up in fancy or zany (sometimes irreligious) costumes, have parties, parade in the streets, give food baskets, spray shaving cream at passersby, and make merry. In Jerusalem and Safed, Purim is celebrated 1 day later than in the rest of the country.
Passover (Pesach)*: The commemoration of the ancient Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. Because the Israelites left in haste, before the bread in their ovens could rise, no bread, beer, or other foods containing leavening are obtainable for 7 days (8 days outside Israel). Many restaurants simply shut down for this period. The first night of the holiday is devoted to a Seder, a family meal and ritual recalling the Exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. (Note: In the Diaspora, the Seder is held on both the first and second nights of Passover; however, inside Israel, the Seder is held only on the first night.) Many hotels and restaurants have special Seders for tourists. The first and last days of this holiday are Sabbath-like affairs, which means the country more or less closes down. During the half-holiday days of Passover week, many shops, museums, and services are on reduced schedules. As schools are closed, Israelis travel during this week. Reservations at hotels, B&Bs, and kibbutzim are impossible to get unless you book well ahead, and rates are the highest of the year.
Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah)*: This marks the time of the year in 1945 when the concentration camps in Europe were liberated and the Holocaust came to an end. It also marks the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. All places of entertainment are closed. As the day begins (like all Jewish days, at nightfall), most restaurants are closed, although public transportation continues, and most shops and businesses are open. At 10am on Yom Ha-Shoah, a siren sounds throughout Israel, and a period of silence is observed in memory of the six million Jews who perished. A memorial ceremony is held at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem.
Memorial Day*: One week after Yom Ha-Shoah, the nation remembers its war dead. Restaurants and places of public entertainment are closed, but transportation companies operate, and most shops are open. Again, at 11am, a siren sounds, and a period of silence is observed. Throughout the country, memorial services are held.
Independence Day: The day after Memorial Day, Israel commemorates the day in 1948 when the British Mandate ended and the State of Israel was proclaimed. It is celebrated with house parties and municipal fireworks.
Jacob’s Ladder Country, Folk, and Blues Festival (usually at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar): This important event is held in the Galilee for 3 days in mid-May. All types of music from contemporary and classic folk to Celtic are offered. For information, call tel. 04/696-2231 or visit www.jlfestival.com.
Lag b’Omer: Ending 33 days of mourning, this is a happy celebration for the Hassidim, who head to the Meiron tomb of the mystical Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Galilee to sing and dance around bonfires. There are also pilgrimages made to the tombs of other great rabbis. Children around the country sing, dance, and light bonfires.
Shavuot (Pentecost)*: A summer harvest celebration and a special favorite of agricultural settlements, this is often marked by plays, entertainment, and children dressed in white and wearing floral crowns. Because it also recalls the receipt of the Ten Commandments, it is observed as a religious holiday. Dairy foods, such as blintzes and cheesecakes, are traditionally prepared. At synagogues as well as at the Western Wall, the Torah is studied throughout the night.
Abu Gosh Music Festival: This is a new festival held in the Arab-Israeli village of Abu Gosh, in the hills west of Jerusalem. Classical and religious music is performed in the village’s two churches; there are also street performances and arts and crafts. It’s held each year at Shavuot and Succot.
Israel and Jerusalem Festivals of the Performing Arts: In late spring, two festivals featuring extraordinary music groups and theater and dance companies come from all over the world to perform. Exact dates at www.goisrael.com.
White Nights: This is Tel Aviv’s annual late-June, all-nighters’ festival, featuring rock concerts, free architectural tours, parties at local bars, dancing on the beach, art-gallery receptions, outdoor videos, and special dinner deals. Visit www.goisrael.com for information.
Tel Aviv Gay Pride Week: A growing festival it includes a major parade, dozens of events, and thousands of visitors from Israel and abroad. Visit www.gaytlvguide.com.
Israeli Folkdance Festival (Karmiel, in the Galilee): Jewish ethnic dancers come from around the world for this festival. Early July.
Jerusalem International Film Festival: Increasingly prestigious, with offerings from around the globe, this festival takes place at the Jerusalem Cinémathèque. For more information, call tel. 02/672-4131 or visit www.jer-cin.org.il. First 2 weeks in July
Jerusalem Arts and Crafts Festival: Held in the Sultan’s Pool in the valley outside the western walls of the Old City, the contemporary Israeli craft booths are not usually of a high level, but the large International Craft Section is excellent. Performances by Israeli musicians take place every night. Late July.
Ramadan: During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours, but at night many parties are held. Most places serving food in Arab communities are closed during the day; Islamic sites and mosques are closed to non-Muslims during the entire month.
Eid Al Fitr: The biggest holiday in the Islamic year is celebrated the day Ramadan ends and for 2 or 3 days immediately following. On Eid Al Fitr, most Muslim-owned shops are closed.
Tisha b’Av: The fast day on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av is a time set aside to remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which by ominous coincidence were destroyed on the same calendar day in the years 586 b.c. and a.d. 70. Entertainment facilities and many restaurants are closed.
Red Sea Jazz Festival (Eilat): This acclaimed international jazz festival is held in Eilat. Visit www.redseajazzeilat.com for information.
The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival: Held at the YMCA Concert Hall and produced by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, this festival offers an array of internationally famous musicians performing classical chamber music. For information, check out www.jcmf.org.il.
Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)*: The start of the High Holy Days is a 2-day religious festival, not an occasion for revels but rather for solemn contemplation and prayer. Almost everything in the Jewish sectors close.
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)*: On the 10th day of the Jewish year, the High Holy Days culminate in the most solemn of Jewish holidays. Places of worship are crowded, but the large synagogues reserve seats for tourists, and some of the larger hotels organize their own services. Yom Kippur is a fast day, but hotel dining rooms serve guests who wish to eat. Everything comes to a standstill; even TV and radio stations suspend broadcasting.
Succot (Feast of Tabernacles)*: This 7-day holiday recalls how Moses and the children of Israel dwelled in “booths” (or “succot”) as they left Egypt to wander in the desert. Observant families have meals and services in specially built, highly decorated yet simple huts located in gardens or on balconies. Succot is also a harvest festival and thus an agricultural and kibbutz favorite. On the first and last days of Succot, Sabbath-like restrictions are observed.
Simchat Torah*: As Succot ends, Jews rejoice as they complete the yearly cycle of reading the Torah (the first five books of the Bible); street festivities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv mark this day. Cantors read the final verses of the Torah in synagogues around the country and then immediately start again.
Eid Al Adha: The second-biggest Islamic holiday commemorates Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. Animals are sacrificed, big family feasts are held, children receive gifts and new clothes, many shops in Arab neighborhoods are closed, and mosques are closed to tourists.
Olive Festival: In recent years, both Jewish and Arab communities in the Galilee have come to mark the November olive-harvest period with at least a dozen local festivals of traditional foods, music, crafts, and dance. Check with the Nazareth and Akko tourist information offices for the best options.
Chanukah: Celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over Syrian Greeks and the consequent rededication of the Temple in 164 b.c. For 8 days, this history-based holiday is marked by the nightly lighting of the eight-branch menorah.
International Choir Concerts: These take place in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve (December 24). The Christian Information Centre (www.christusrex.org) inside Jaffa Gate has information about these programs and security conditions in Bethlehem.
Liturgica (Jerusalem): A week of choral music organized by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in late December. For program information, visit www.jso.co.il.