Many Jews living in Diaspora are not aware of differences in the way the two major holiday seasons are experienced in Israel as compared to Diaspora. At the moment we are on the cusp of the Fall season, which begins Erev Rosh Hashanah and continues a bit more than three weeks until Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. The corresponding Spring season begins with Erev Pesach and concludes about three weeks later with Yom Haatzmaut. Both seasons involve a rich blend of religious and national observances.
In Diaspora, most of those who observe the holidays do so within a religious framework, and struggle against the background of a majority host society that does not observe these holidays. School, work and commerce continue pretty much as usual in Diaspora, and those who take time off for the holidays likely feel out of step.
In Israel it is quite different. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret (which coincides with Simchat Torah in Israel), are all national work and school holidays. Period. The day before each of these holidays (the “Erev”) is at most a half day of work, with many people off the whole day, which makes it an advance extension of the holiday to come. Everyone shares these holidays, whether observant or not. Schools are closed throughout the week of Sukkot, and sometimes on bridge days between the holidays. Many offices are also closed for the intermediate days of Sukkot (Hol Hamoed) or at most work on a shortened schedule. Because the heat of summer has passed, and because the winter rains are still weeks or even months away, Sukkot is a time of reliably comfortable weather, perfect for touring around the country. Millions do just that. Others stay at home and spend time out locally. Many take trips abroad during part of the three week holiday period. Whatever the choice, it’s a national holiday time.
Other widely inclusive practices: During the days before Rosh Hashanah, it is common in offices, workplaces and other institutions throughout the country to schedule a “Haramat Cosit” – the raising of glasses, of wine or other drinks, usually with pastries or sweets served as well, in honor of the holiday. These events are occasions for people with shared associations to wish one another well in the coming year. It is a feature of the national life in Israel. Another widespread practice is the giving of gifts from employers to employees, usually just before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach.
In recent years, the buses in Jerusalem, now equipped with electronic signs, flash the Hebrew messages “Shana Tova”, “Hatima Tova” and “Hag Sameah” prior to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot respectively. It’s just a part of the everyday scene that reinforces the society-wide nature of the holiday period. I don’t think that the busses in New York, Toronto, London or Paris flash such messages.
For those who attend synagogue regularly, there are other telling enhancements of observing the holidays in Israel. Here are some examples.
Most of the prayers we recite are in the plural. The “we” and “our” are generally understood as referring to the “People Israel”; but for those living in the State of Israel, those words takes on an added dimension. This is perhaps especially true this year, after all the traumas of the last few months and the attacks that Israel has sustained, both in rockets and words.
Every Friday throughout the year, the afternoon is a quieter time as the beginning of Shabbat approaches. However, on the afternoon of Erev Yom Kippur, the quiet that descends on Jerusalem is especially pronounced. Buses and trains strop running in mid-afternoon, earlier than on Fridays; local radio and television transmissions stop; and many are at home for the early pre-fast meal. Throughout Yom Kippur, vehicular traffic is greatly reduced, and totally absent in many neighborhoods. An interesting and perhaps surprising sign of behavioral consensus is reflected in a poll taken in 2013, where 73% of Israeli Jews say they fast on Yom Kippur, including many who do not describe themselves as observant or traditional.
For those who spend Yom Kippur Day in Synagogue, a highlight of the long Musaf service is the Avodah service, which recounts in detail the way Yom Kippur was observed when the Temple stood, a couple of millennia ago. As I sit in the Synagogue during the Avodah service, already somewhat tired from fasting, I am reminded that the Temple rituals being described took place only a few kilometers from where I sit. This link to the past, this sense of Jewish continuity, is very meaningful. It was harder to feel this on Yom Kippur in Toronto, where I lived before coming to Israel, thousands of kilometers from Jerusalem.
During the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, in Jerusalem at least, one often hears in the evenings the hammering or other noises that attend putting up a Sukkah. To purchase Lulav and Etrog, you don’t have to place a special order through the Synagogue. Rather, there are active markets that spring up to meet this need throughout Israel, and not only in Ultra-Orthodox areas. One of the largest and busiest of such temporary “shuks” is situated next to Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s highly renowned outdoor fruit and vegetable market.
During Sukkot, many people take their meals in the Sukkah and some sleep there. This works very comfortably with Israel’s climate. In a place like Toronto, the seasonal chill may require a winter coat or a thermal sleeping bag, and rain (or wet snow on rare occasions) often puts a damper on the attempt.
Finally, the last day in Synagogue, Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, includes a special prayer for rain, and marks the transition from adding a reference to dew to the daily Amidah to adding a reference to wind and rain. This prayer for rain really hits home in Israel, with the rainy season approaching and the dangers of drought quite real.
In conclusion, the Fall Hagim season in Israel is a shared three-week religious and national holiday period for everyone, observant and non-observant. Although the Spring season is different in some important ways, which I will not describe here, both seasons are inclusive high points in the national life of the State of Israel, part of the reality of what a “Jewish state” means.