Shavuot on May 25 marked the end of a string of Jewish holidays. Between Tu B’Shevat in February, Purim in March and Passover in April, a month rarely went by without a Jewish holiday. But between Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 15, the only Jewish holidays that will occur are minor ones.
Why is this?
Partially, it is because many major Jewish holidays have roots as agricultural festivals. Encyclopedia Britannica states that Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot all had roots in celebrating the start of different farming seasons or marking harvests of different crops. But summer makes farming difficult.
“Between Shavuot and Sukkot, we are dealing with the hot and dry season in Israel,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “There were no agricultural festivals that fell then. When our ancestors developed the Jewish calendar over time, they were not concerned with spacing out the holidays across the seasons. It simply wasn’t a goal to have evenly spread dates.”
Another reason is because the holidays that take place over the summer are more solemn occasions. The 17th of Tammuz, this year on July 5 and 6, is a fast day marking the start of a three-week-long mourning period leading up to Tisha B’Av, the date of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. With these being days of remembrance and loss, it is no wonder there are few celebrations.
“We abstain from joyous things on these days,” explained Rabbi Yanky Baron, the rabbi and executive director of Chabad of Ellicott City. “Festivities during this time go against Jewish law. We’re not supposed to have any marriages in those three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, for example.”
Many synagogues hold services in honor of Tisha B’Av, but they are somber affairs. They lack more festive traditions like Lag B’Omer’s bonfires or Purim’s carnivals.
It is not a completely dour occasion, though. Baron noted that in recent years following the Holocaust, there has been an emphasis put on reclaiming the date.
“It’s a day to reflect on religious unity, and often on the Holocaust,” he said. “I’ve been amazed that there’s been a big focus put on education on the definition of a calamity on this day. In addition, we focus on other calamities throughout history and what we can do about them.”
But Busch noted that Tisha B’Av can go unnoticed in Reform synagogues, which often do not treat it as a major holiday. But it is still widely celebrated in Israel and holds great importance to the Jewish community.
“Understanding and appreciating Jewish history is important for understanding ourselves, our world and Klal Yisrael, our Jewish connections with one another,” he said of its significance.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement also has a period of mourning during the summer. Gimmel Tammuz, or the third day of Tammuz, marks the yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Schneerson was the most recent leader of the movement and a particularly influential Jewish scholar and rabbi, making his death in 1994 a momentous occasion for the community.
People who observe Gimmel Tammuz sometimes visit the Ohel, Schneerson’s gravesite, to meditate and leave prayer petitions there. Others follow the instructions of a letter that Schneerson wrote before the yahrzeit of the previous rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. He encouraged Chabad members to study the Torah and donate to causes supported by the rebbe to honor his memory, as well as discuss it with friends and family.
“It’s a reflection on his memory,” Baron said, “but also a moment to realize how the [Chabad] movement has gotten to be the fastest-growing Jewish movement in the world today.”
Not all of the Jewish holidays taking place over the summer are mournful, though. Also in the month of Av (taking place this year on Aug. 2) is Tu B’Av, commonly known as the Jewish equivalent to Valentine’s Day. According to My Jewish Learning, Tu B’Av was a matchmaking day for young unmarried women before the fall of the Second Temple. While the holiday languished in obscurity for years, recent decades have seen an effort to bring it back as a celebration of love.
Chabad.org calls Tu B’Av a “mini-holiday.” While far from a major holiday in terms of importance to the Jewish community, it still provides a bit of levity during the summer and a meaningful opportunity to spend time with partners and loved ones.
“But it’s never been a major, or even medium, holiday in the Jewish calendar,” Busch noted.
Summer is simply not a time of year when many festive Jewish holidays are celebrated, both because it does not allow for the harvest festivals that punctuate the rest of the year and because many of the important days that do fall during the summer are more serious occasions.
“The Chasidic masters described this as a dance,” Baron said. “There not being many happy occasions during the summer is a sort of distancing where we feel distant from God. But that’s just part of the dance, moving closer and further away throughout the year.”