There are a number of Jewish holidays throughout the year. The following are a few general points about Jewish holidays:
• Because the secular and Jewish calendars are different, the holidays don’t fall on the same date each year. Some find identifying the secular date of a Jewish holiday to be complicated. I will be happy to furnish you with Jewish calendars where the relevant dates are highlighted.
• Holidays are a difficult time for patients in the hospital, and the Jewish patient is no different. Jewish patients might grow anxious and melancholy if they are alone in the hospital during these holidays, and many hope that they can be discharged before the holiday commences. Being aware of these dates up front will help you prepare for this possibility. Whatever can be done to cheer them up during this time will surely be appreciated.
• Of course, each patient is different with unique interests and unique needs. Before a holiday arrives, ask your patients how they would like to observe it and what they might need from you.
These are five major Jewish holidays that are most important to be aware of in the hospital setting:
1. Rosh Hashana
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the day that G-d created Adam, the first human. It is celebrated for two days during September or October.
Your birthday is the day G-d declares that you matter. A birthday is, therefore, an excellent time to reflect on the direction of your life and on your personal purpose. Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of humanity, is a time for us all to engage in this kind of introspection. To set the tone for such reflection, we sound a ram’s horn, called a shofar in Hebrew. The music produced by this horn, which sounds somewhat like an emotional cry, inspires a sense of remorse for inappropriate behaviors and a commitment to improving those aspects of our lives that require improvement. On Rosh Hashanah, many Jewish patients appreciate hearing the sound of the shofar. Rabbis often visit Jewish patients in the hospital during this holiday to sound the shofar for them. Of course, an effort is made to avoid disturbing other patients when this ritual is performed.
2. Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the Jewish holiday of atonement. It is a one-day holiday celebrated eight days after Rosh Hashanah.
In the Jewish tradition, G-d forgives our sins on this day, and many Jews spend this day in prayer at the synagogue. The Bible calls for Jews to fast on this day to set a tone of humble submission, a mind-set of self-examination, and an atmosphere of somber repentance. In the hospital, some Jewish patients might want to fast for (a portion of ) the day. Engaging patients in a conversation about this several days before Yom Kippur will help them understand their limitations, manage their expectations, and establish a fallback plan in case they develop a medical need for nutrition. Patients who are medically unable to fast might feel anxious about this. Advise them to consult their rabbi, who will advise them on how to balance their religious obligations against their medical needs.
Sukkos is a Jewish holiday of gratitude, celebrated for seven days (excluding Shemini Atseres and Simchas Torah). It takes place five days after Yom Kippur.
During Sukkos, which means “booths,” Jews eat their meals in outdoor booths, covered by foliage, to commemorate and thank G-d for the canopy of clouds that enveloped our ancestors for forty years as they traveled through the desert on their way from Egypt to Israel. One of the rituals that Jews perform during this holiday is the waving of four plant kinds: we hold a citron, a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch, and wave them briefly in each direction. This ritual highlights how G-d led the Jews from the desert, a place where these four kinds could not grow, to the Land of Israel, where these four types of plants were in abundance. This ritual is done once a day during this holiday, except on Shabbos, and it need not interfere with other patients. Rabbis often visit patients in the hospital during this holiday to help them perform this ritual.
Chanukah is an eight-day holiday that occurs in November or December, celebrating the victory of the Jews against the Syrian-Greeks during the second century BCE.
When the Jews won their religious freedom, they proceeded to rededicate the Temple. Miraculously, a single cruse of oil fueled the flames of the menorah for eight days and nights.21 To commemorate these miracles, Jews light candles during the eight evenings of Chanukah. The candles, displayed in windows or doorways, proclaim that a little bit of light can illuminate a great deal of darkness. They proclaim that religious freedom cannot be suppressed, and no matter how large the obstacle, freedom will always prevail. Many Jewish patients will appreciate the opportunity to light Chanukah candles in the hospital. Although Shabbos candles can be lit with battery-operated lights, the Chanukah lights can only be lit with an actual candle. Where and if possible, it would be wonderful if safe rooms, such as the chapel, could be designated where Chanukah candles, which burn for approximately thirty minutes, could be kindled under supervision.
Passover is an eight-day holiday, occurring usually in April.
It commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egyptian bondage in 1313 BCE. This holiday celebrates human freedom from all forms of tyranny—freedom from external enslavement to others and freedom from internal enslavement to unhealthy impulses. Many Jews gather on the first and second evenings of Passover for a ritual meal called a seder. Patients might ask to use an available room together with visiting family members for the seder. If the seder must be held at the bedside, it can be held quietly and need not interfere with other patients. One special food item that is consumed on Passover is matzah. Some patients may wish to consume this food, and may inquire as to whether it is compatible with their hospital-regulated diet.
Serving Observant Patients
• Purim is a holiday that commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people from Haman, a Persian tyrant, who planned to annihilate the entire Jewish nation. Purim is a particularly joyful holiday and family, friends, or even the rabbi might visit to cheer up the patient. During this visit, they might chant (quietly) from a scroll, called a megilah, containing the story and history of this holiday. It should take about twenty five minutes. If necessary, these celebrations can be held at the bedside in ways that don’t disturb other patients.
• Passover carries many dietary restrictions, as mentioned in the section on the kosher diet. As a rule, the complications that arise in the hospital around the Passover meal plan can be resolved with advance planning. Advise your Jewish patients to consult their rabbi ahead of the holiday to plan an appropriate menu for Passover.
• Patients who cannot eat matzah or drink wine or grape juice during the seder might grow anxious over their inability to perform these rituals. Advise them to consult their rabbi, who will advise them on how to balance their religious obligations with their medical needs.
• With the exception of Chanukah and Purim, the other holidays we mentioned (except Chol Hamo’ed) are subject to most of the restrictions that were outlined earlier in the section on Shabbos. In total, there are thirteen holiday days in the Jewish calendar year during which these restrictions apply.