Jewish Genealogical research in the Netherlands
Compiled by Reinier Bobbe z”l, Jan Sanberg, Ury Link, Moshe Mossel and Ben Noach
“What makes Jewish genealogical research so special and is it so very different from non-Jewish research?” This question often comes up and the answer is definitely yes, especially for the period before 1800. Many documents in that period were written in Yiddish (in Hebrew characters) or in Hebrew, and no Jews figure in the baptism, marriage and burial records kept by the Christian churches. No Jews are mentioned in the so-called feudal chambers as they could not be part of these. (‘Feudal chambers’ were run by large landowners, who would rent their land to men who had done army service.) As Jews could not be part of guilds either they did not feature in their membership lists. Before the civil equality in the French period there were many restrictions for Jews, with the result that in many archives they have left no tracks.
Thus instead of turning to general archive sources, one should consult the records of former Jewish communities, often stored separately in government archives or those of relevant local areas; much was lost by wilful destruction during the Second World War, for obvious reasons.
An additional problem is the fact that most Jews did not have family names before 1811.
In the year 1796 Jews received the same rights and duties as the rest of the population, and in 1811, with the introduction of the civil registry for all citizens, a uniform registration system of births, marriages and deaths was created. From that moment on civil registry records have become a source of information for both Jewish and non-Jewish families.
Searching sources of the 16th century and earlier is of little use, as there were hardly any Jews in the Netherlands at that time. When the Netherlands were part of the Habsburg Empire, it was not possible for Jews to obtain entrance. After the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands came into existence, Sephardic Jews (from Spain and Portugal) began to settle here. In the 17th century the wave of immigration intensified and many Ashkenazi Jews came to our region. In broad outline these are Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, whose rites and symbols differ somewhat from those of the Sephardim. The Portuguese were the earlier immigrants in the Netherlands, and were also of a higher social standing. In the course of the following centuries Ashkenazis surpassed Sephardic Jews in number and eventually also in influence.
The communities existed alongside each other, each with their own synagogues, cemeteries, marriage ceremonies, registration, circumcisions, etc.
Intermarriage between the two communities hardly ever occurred in the first generations.
The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was formed by seven autonomous districts: Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, Groningen and the Ommelanden. The Ashkenazi Jews did not find a permanent place of residence in the Republic immediately, which is why they often moved from one area to another, until they found a place where they could make a reasonable living. This explains why despite the fact that someone lived and worked in the same place for many years, no birth, death or marriage certificates are to be found there. To find the answer to questions such as “Where did he come from ?” “Who were his parents?” “Where were his children born?” “Where did he go?” one should therefore turn to such sources as old town and village archives and the archives of various areas, even though the success rate is usually low. For this reason secondary genealogical source material is more important for Jewish genealogy in the distant past.
To trace a person who is presumed to have lived in a particular area but whose exact place of residence is unknown the so-called assessment lists can be of use. These lists do not give insight into the population as a whole, as they only include the names of those who were taxable, based on property, rights or duties. Another option is searching poll tax lists, known in some areas as “haardstedengeld” (hearth tax) and in others as “huisgeld” (house tax and/or “hoofdgeld” (head tax).
Liste Civique (Civil List)
‘Listes civiques’ or ‘registres civiques’ are population registers from the years 1796-1811. These lists show the entire adult male population for each place, including professions and dates of birth. These lists were drawn up in 1796 by order of the French occupier. They can be found in the municipal archives.
Old Judicial Archive
In the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands the towns were governed by a magistrate, sheriff and/or bailiff, assisted by mayors, aldermen and the town councils. The sheriff, the mayor and the aldermen issued regulations, were responsible for finance, public affairs and business licensing, thus creating with the administrative recording of all these activities a source of information. Guardians for the poor and orphans’ courts, established by local government, also created archives of their own. Inhabitants of a town were called burghers if they had right of burghership, if that was not the case they were called residents.
The town archives of guardians for the poor are often only partly useful in research, as care of the poor usually rested on the shoulders of the various church communities.
This was certainly the case with the Jewish population which was entirely responsible for the care of needy members within their communities.
Here also the registers kept by the Israelite communities (usually written in Hebrew) - or what is left of them - are the only source material.
Burgher-registers are registers in which the names are listed of those who bought burghership. Here too many Jewish names can be found.
As the names used by Jews cannot always to be distinguished from non-Jewish names, one has to be careful when establishing whether a person is Jewish or not.
Restriction of work opportunities
Town policies concerning admittance of new residents applied to Jews as well as non-Jews, but for Jews the demands were sometimes more severe. Many poor Jews who came to the Netherlands from abroad could not show a certificate of indemnity and were thus denied the right to settle in towns. They therefore tried to settle in rural areas, where the demands were less strict. As Jews were denied membership of guilds, they had to choose occupations for which no guilds existed, such as in the tobacco industry, diamond industry, the silk mill, the sugar refinery and the itinerant trade. In the municipal archives details can often be found of the professions of inhabitants through licences granted.
Because of these restrictions commerce, including the retail trade, became the profession of choice for Jews.
A Jewish community could not function without a shochet, a ritual butcher. In the provinces related professions like butchers or cattle dealers were often in Jewish hands as well. Jews even became prominent in this sphere.
The religious food laws (in which the conceptions kashrut and kosher products played a role) made it a necessity that kosher milkmen and bakers were employed in the community. Jews often went to the farmers themselves to check that the cheese made for them, was kosher.
Adherence to the rules of kashrut made the control of Jewish supervisors in cheese and milk factories and in bakeries a necessity, certainly for large communities. This also created extra jobs for those community members able to carry them out. Here should be mentioned the existence of a special butchers’ hall in Amsterdam and other places for kosher meat, again separately for the Ashkenazim and the Portuguese.
( Kashrut. According to the Jewish food laws, Jews are not allowed to eat pork. The animals they can eat (cows, sheep, goats) are slaughtered in such a way that the blood flows out. They have to separate meat from milk products. This means separate plates and cutlery, kitchen towels, pans and pots and dishwashers: one set of each to be used to be separately. All this has its roots in the five books of Moses and the receiving of the Tora).
This affected relationships between the Jews and the non-Jewish population in the villages and towns involved. Traces of this can often be found in secondary sources like legal archives.
Archive of the orphans’ court
The orphans’ court watched over the interests of orphans, and its most important task was to prevent guardians from appropriating possessions belonging to orphans in their care. It should be noted however that the involvement of the orphans’ court with Jewish orphans varied from place to place and should therefore be verified in each case.
Birth registration of Jewish children before 1811 is very poor. In most Jewish communities the birth of a girl was not registered. For the registration of boys we depend mainly on the registers of the Mohel (circumciser) who performed the circumcision, but many of these have been lost. The reason for this is that these registers were the personal property of the circumcisers and thus remained in the possession of their families. So there is no systematic storage of these registers, which, if they did turn up, either came into the possession of the Jewish communities or of official bodies (like the Central Office for Genealogy). Of the roughly 48 circumcision registers which as far as we know have been kept in the Netherlands, a considerable number have been digitalized and put online by Akevoth. Some of these registers were maintained in Hebrew only.
Circumcision of a Jewish boy is usually performed on the eighth day after his birth, that is 7 days after his birthday. So, if using this source, one has to count back seven days to find his date of birth.
This only applies to births of boys of course.
[On the internet more additional information about Jewish marriage can be found in Wikipedia ]
In 1580 the States of Holland brought an end to a period of confusion regarding the status of being married and/or not married by publishing the Political Decree. This order concluded that all couples who at the time of announcement lived together would be regarded as married, but that in future couples could only be married, if the intention to do so was registered and proclaimed in the prescribed manner and no objections were voiced. From that moment Jews could only be lawfully married before the local court.
The Jewish ecclesiastical marriage:
In Hebrew ‘chupah’. This ecclesiastical marriage was according to civil law only allowed only after a civil registration (the publication of the banns) or a lawful wedding.
The chupah consists of two halachic (religious law) parts: the erusin (similar to an engagement) and the kiddushin (blessing of the wedlock).
During the chupah the bride also receives the ketubah (drafted in Aramaic), which states her rights in the marriage (socially as well as financially). This ketubah includes hardly any genealogical information, only the patronymic names of the marrying couple (xx son of yy, yy daughter of ww), and the signatures of the groom, the two witnesses and the officiating rabbi.
The bride does not sign, as she is not part of the ketubah or its drawing up, she only receives it from the groom.
In earlier times the partners for the children were mostly chosen by the parents, with no involvement of the child itself. Often a shadchan (match-maker) was engaged, which would then lead to a shiduch (match-making).
(Today this still exists in very orthodox circles).
In earlier times, especially in Amsterdam, the tna’im ha’achronim (last conditions) were also drafted, during the chupah or just before. These fixed the share of both sides in the match, the support of the couple during the first years, (mostly by the parents, at least partly), possibly the living arrangements and also the financial consequences if one of the parties should pass away early.
In Amsterdam an arrangement of inheritance by the parents of the bride was often made and also an a-priori consent of the brothers of the bridegroom, to give chalitsa without expenses. (see chalitsa). All these details ensured clear identification of all the persons mentioned (and thus a wealth of genealogical information).
In the eighteenth century it was also common in Amsterdam to lay down the tna’im harishonim (first conditions) - in general a year before the chupah, comparable to an official engagement, in which the agreements of the chupah/ tna’im achronim were laid down in advance. These certificates were signed in the presence of two delegates, one for each side, non-family members, who were personally responsible for keeping the agreement on penalty of a fine.
This too is a source for much genealogic information.
These days the tna’im are hardly ever drawn up, except in ultra-orthodox circles.
While in Amsterdam it was not unknown towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century for couples to cohabit before their civil marriage and to have children, it is not known whether chupoth were being held before the civil marriage. Not only would the couple then be breaking the law, but it was far more dangerous for the officiating rabbi who would be held accountable.
In remote areas like the Achterhoek Jews often did not take these regulations too seriously and for them a religious marriage (the chupah) sufficed. If they were “caught”, the children who had already been born were legitimized when the civil marriage was conducted at a later stage.
This legitimation of children on marriage-certificates of Jewish couples in remote areas in the ‘mediene’ (areas not belonging to the large towns) does not therefore always mean that these are children of an unkown parent, but that they were indeed children of both parents, now lawfully married; and that they were born after the chupah but before the civil marriage.
Yibum, chalitsah and geth
Three concepts of minor importance to Jewish genealogical research are the geth (divorce), the yibum (marriage with the brother-in-law) and the chalitsah. If the brother of the deceased refuses to marry his widow, a chalitsah is required for him to be released from this commitment.
Yet these documents can highlight certain aspects, which come up in genealogical research. As a divorce was a rare occurrence, a geth (divorce) may for instance indicate that there were special reasons (a mental handicap, or the marriage remaining childless).
The marriage with a brother-in-law (levirate-marriage), the yibum, was already forbidden for Ashkenazim in 1050 by Rabeinu Gershom, although it was commanded by the Tora. He made this ruling out of social considerations, taking his environment (France) into account, and also to prevent polygamy (as it is also the duty of a married brother-in-law to do this).The option of the chalitsa, not especially recommended by the Tenach, thus became for the Ashkenazim the only possible option when a husband died without leaving surviving descendants. Yet genealogical research in Amsterdam has come across several cases of yibum. In such a case a widow is always free to re-marry, if she does not have a brother-in-law, or if she underwent chalitsah. In all other cases her re-marrying is a serious violation of the religious commandments.
The geth itself has much genealogical value, as all the names of the relevant persons are included.
In the Central Office for Genealogy information about Jewish banns- and marriage- registers can be found as well. The archives of the Jewish communities are also indispensable. It is often difficult to establish where these have been stored. For Amsterdam as an example these can be available at the NIHS (the Dutch Israelite Head Synagogue) in addition to the Amsterdam City Archive. The archives of the NIG (the Dutch Israelite Community) of Rotterdam are kept in the Municipal Archive of Rotterdam.
For the 17th and the 18th centuries the grave- and burial-books are to be considered first and foremost. As these were often only kept in Hebrew or Yiddish, they are not always useful for everyone.
Moreover, in these registers the deceased were often referred to by their Hebrew patronym (father’s name) and not by the official name used in the civil registration.
(The Sephardim, that is the Portuguese-Israelite community, kept burial registers - in Portuguese - long before that; these are stored in the Amsterdam City Archive).
These limitations require the use of additional sources in research.
The text on gravestones is a source of particular importance.
For Ashkenazi in Amsterdam in the 18th century, the eponymous database in ‘Akevoth’ and the other Amsterdam databases like “Trouwen in Mokum” are indispensable. For the “mediene” (the Netherlands not including Amsterdam) published literature on the subject is often helpful. Worth mentioning are also the inventory of the “Mediatheek” in the Jewish Historical Museum and the publications of the Dutch Circle for Jewish Genealogy (de Nederlandse Kring voor Joodse Genealogie) issued in the past.
Sometimes dates of death can also be found in the existing impost-registers (register of tax receipts). In 1806 the tax on burials was cancelled. From that year on an inheritance tax was imposed throughout the country.
In Jewish genealogy (and consequently also for details of death) patronyms, their meaning and the conclusions drawn from them, are very important. See the paragraph “Adoption of names 1811-1826 and name-giving” (below) for further reference.
The Jewish religious law demands a quick burial guided by the principle of “kavod hamet” (as a token of honor or piety towards the deceased).
Keeping the body unburied unnecessarily long is considered a violation of this commandment.
To solve this disparity between the considerations of the civil law and those of the Halacha, generally a middle course was found, with delay of one or two days between the death and the burial an agreed compromise.
Therefore the burial of Jewish dead takes place two days after death as a rule.
Exceptions can point to special circumstances, for example because the Shabbat intervenes, when burials are forbidden. The burial then takes place one day after or sometimes earlier. On a Jewish holiday (“chag”), except for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), burial is allowed.
The following note is appropriate in this context:
While once burials took place on the same day, nowadays the rule is a two days delay, as stated. This is due to legislation which came into force in the meantime, stipulating that someone cannot be buried until at least 5 days after death. The reason behind this is to prevent crimes from being hidden. To release Jews from this rule, a dispensation is needed, a procedure that takes one day.
Another reason for a delay between death and burial is that the possibility of ‘apparent death’ can be excluded.
The burial books usually identify a man as xx son of yy, so in the 18th century not different from the civil identification, if present. (Not to be confused with the conversion of Jewish names to Dutch names, as was customary.)
In the case of women this is far more problematic: typically: wife of xx son of yy.
Adoption of names 1811-1826 and name-giving
The use of a fixed family name became only compulsory when the civil registration was introduced. This does not mean that fixed surnames did not exist before. Surnames existed already in the Middle-Ages, although in the Netherlands this was more the exception than the rule. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was already usual to have a family name in Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. In 1811 in Friesland and Groningen about 40% of the population had a family name. In countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and France the use of a surname was already common in the Middle-Ages.
This is in sharp contrast to what Jewish genealogy shows us.
Although the official adoption of names only started in about 1811 and after, 75 percent of the poor Jews in Amsterdam already had a family name in 1809, by which they were known in the Jewish community. This private name-giving did not really filter through to the civil authorities.
However there were Ashkenazi families, mainly rich ones, whose names were known to the authorities. When names were adopted (or kept), a large number were later officially registered.
The Ashkenazi Jews in other regions often did not have surnames, and as this group remained a very closed community, it did not feel the need to adopt the changing customs of the non-Jewish environment. Eventually they gave in to the compulsory demands of the French occupier. Sometimes the chosen surname was derived from the family’s profession, sometimes it was based on the name of an ancestor; the place or country of origin of a family served as a surname as well.
And from the choice of some surnames – Citroen (lemon), Schaap (sheep), Gulden (guilder), Geldmaker (moneymaker),Naaktgeboren (born naked) - one can conclude that not everybody considered the obligation to adopt a surname to be a serious matter.
However, those belonging to the Sephardi community usually already had a (Portuguese) surname when they settled in the Netherlands, which traditionally consisted of two parts. Totally different rules apply to these, thus affecting genealogical research for this community.
As stated above, it is of crucial importance in Jewish genealogical research to include the Jewish names and the patronyms used (sometimes also the matronym, the name of the mother). Not only are the Hebrew names often quite different from the civil ones, but sometimes the Hebrew name carries within it hints of the civil names.
A Jewish male child is traditionally named after his grandfather, apart from a few exceptions, so from the name “XXXX son of YYYY” the names of both grandfather (XXXX) and father (YYYY) can usually be deduced.
A Jewish female child is likewise named after her grandmother, and the same rules apply.
In the text on gravestones the name of the mother is usually mentioned as well (“XXXX born from ZZZZ” or: “the name of his/her mother is ZZZZ”). Posthumous children on the other hand are named after the father who recently passed away.
Among Sephardim, as is customary among non-Jews, children are often named after the father while he is still alive.
While civil names do not often give a good indication for establishing family relationships, the Hebrew names often give more support for the reconstruction of family ties, taking regional distinctions into account.
Special cases (like an unknown father or a non-Jewish father who converted to Judaism) are often discovered with the help of the Hebrew name. In such cases the child is called son/daughter of Abraham (Avinu = our patriarch).
The Hebrew name of a newborn boy is traditionally announced at the circumcision and that of a newborn girl during the first synagogue service, in which the Tora is read and the father is called up for the reading.
It should be stressed that the use of Yiddish and its later official cancellation in the Netherlands has been a determining influence.
Until the beginning of the 19th century Yiddish was the main language of the Ashkenazi Jews and the language used in Jewish schools. The Dutch language was only used for contact with non-Jews and therefore mastered very poorly by the Jewish population.
After the emancipation the government exerted strong influence to change this, mainly directed at the governing of synagogue matters, by forbidding them to teach in Yiddish; the parnassim cooperated in the end, willingly or reluctantly. That led eventually to the death of Yiddish, although we all know how it left its mark on the Dutch language. (The books “Resten van een taal” (remnants of a language) or “Jerosche” by Hartog Beem should be mentioned in this context).
The widespread use of Yiddish is also the reason for the often large discrepancy in the private name-giving (the Yiddish name commonly in use, the Dutch merely an ad hoc translation of it; this is especially the case with girls).
Cohen, Levi, Yisra’el and their traces in Jewish genealogy
From the Tora Jewry knows three “classes”:
a) Cohen (plural Cohanim) – the caste of the priests.
b) Levi (plural Levi’im) – the servants of the priests (like washing the hands of the Cohanim before [these give] the priest-blessing in the synagogue).
c) Yisra’el – the “common people”.
If someone has the name Cohen ( or variations like Cahen, Cohensius, or Kats/Cats/Katz, (abbreviation of Cohen Tsedek (Righteous Priest) one can conclude that he is of priestly origin.
But many Cohanim have entirely different family names as well.
If someone has the surname Levi, it is not necessarily the case that he is a Levi; this can be a private name as well as a surname.
For both Cohanim and Levi’im it is customary – as mark of honor – that in their Hebrew name their special status is added: - XXXX ha-Cohen (or XXXX ben/son of YYYY ha-Cohen) or XXXX ha-Levi (or XXXX ben/son of YYYY ha-Levi).
On grave stones one often finds their symbols: for Cohanim the upraised blessing hands, for the Levi’im the water jug.
Their priority status is also expressed in the synagogue service as they are called up first for reading from the Tora.
For the Cohanim the Tora demands stricter rules of holy purity, which also today affect the choice of a wedding-partner for example, or entry to a cemetery.
The weekly part of the reading from the Tora
The Tora is divided in 54 portions, which are read on Shabbat and which form a one-year cycle. The Shabbat is called after the portion (parasha) which is read on that day.
As one may sometimes find a reference in registrations to the timing of the reading of the weekly Tora portion, when an event took place in the week of the Shabbath so named after a certain Tora portion (the parasha), awareness of this, and of the genealogical consequences, is important.
The Jewish calendar
The Jewish year is not the same as the regular year. The reason for this is that the Jewish year is not a solar year, but a lunar year. This means that the length of a month is dependent on the time the moon needs to make a full circle around the earth. Each month of the Jewish year has 29 or 30 days. As the moon year adds up to 354 days, while the solar year (the time the earth needs to make a full circle around the sun) has 365 days, the lunar year needs periodically to be readjusted. This is done by adding an extra month seven times per 19 years to the lunar year. Without this adjustment, the Jewish holidays, which are related to a certain season like Pesach (the ‘Jewish Easter’) which always should be in springtime, would in the course of the time no longer take place in the right season. Without such a correction, this spring-holiday would eventually fall in the winter, as each year Pesach would occur eleven days earlier than in the previous year.
This adjustment, the Jewish leap-year, happens in the month of Adar. Seven times in every 19 years the Jewish year has an Adar 1 (the inserted month) and an Adar 2. Historically Adar was also the last month of the Jewish year.
The Jewish year starts on the first of Tishri, the month of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah on the first of this month, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of this month) but the months are counted from the first of Nissan, historically the first month of the year, the month in which Pesach is celebrated in memory of the Exodus of Egypt. The months are:
Av (Menachem Av or Menachem)(July-August)
(While different spellings of the months are acceptable, Akevoth prefers the spelling which is common in Israel and is internationally known).
According to the Jewish calendar the new day does not start at midnight, but in the early evening, with sunset, thus with the onset of dusk. Because of this dates on the gravestones or in Jewish source material and the date according to the civil calendar, may differ by one day, if deaths or births occurred after sunset of the civil day.
To determine the date of birth for a male child the circumcision-registers are often useful. Unless there is a medical reason to postpone a circumcision, a child is circumcised on the eighth day after birth. For this reason a date of birth can usually be determined with the help of the circumcision registration.
The Tenach/Tanach consists of the Pentateuch, the Tora (five books of Moses), the Prophets = the Nevi’im, and the Written Words = Ketuvim.
The term Tenach/Tanach is the abbreviation of these three parts: T = Tora; N = Nevi’im; CH/K = Ketuvim.
The Tora commands that three joyful feasts in honor of God and recalling his blessings are celebrated during the Jewish year: Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, also known as the “foot festivals” (because of the need to make a pilgrimage to the Temple mount in Jerusalem). These festivals are each connected with an important event in the history of the people of Israel, Pesach with the Exodus from Egypt, Shavu’ot, the holiday of the weeks, seven weeks after Pesach, with the giving of the Tora, and Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, with the journey through the desert to the Promised Land. These feasts also refer to the agricultural cycle in the Land of Israel; Pesach coincides with the first barley-harvest, Shavu’ot with the first wheat-harvest and Sukkot with the gathering of the harvest before the start of winter.
The meaning of Pesach is to remember the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and with it the birth of the Jewish people. This festival is celebrated for eight days. In this period it is not allowed to eat leavened bread. The eating of matzot (unleavened bread) during the Pesach-week is the result.
Other traditions connected with this festival are searching chametz (“ fermented or leavened bread”), the selling of chametz, the fast of the first-born, Erev Pesach, and the seder evening.
Meaning: commemorates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. It is also an agricultural festival marking the summer harvest in the Land of Israel. It is in this agricultural sense that it is mentioned in the Tora and is therefore also called Chag ha-Bikurim. It refers to the offering of the first fruits that farmers in the Land of Israel brought to the Temple in Jerusalem in early summer at around the time of the Shavuot holiday.
Meaning: commemorates the wandering of the Jewish people in the desert, when the Israelites stayed in the tabernacles (the Hebrew word for tabernacle is sukah). The feast falls in the season of the last fruit harvest and it is a thanksgiving as well for the bounty of nature during the past year. This festival is also celebrated for eight days.
At Pesach and Sukkot the first and the last days are full holidays when it is forbidden to work (it is allowed to use fire, with restrictions, contrary to the Shabbat when this is forbidden). The days in between (chol hamo’ed) are days when work is permitted, but they retain their festive character.
Often in Jewish documents or in texts on grave-stones these terms can be found as an indication of a date instead of the usual calendar date.
Knowledge of the Jewish calendar as well as the special days which take place during the year, is therefore essential for Jewish genealogy.
The High Holy Days
Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), also called the “Awe-inspiring Days”, are more directed towards the individual person. The contents of the prayers are mainly concerned with sin, repentance and the ideal conduct of the human being on earth.
One is expected to seriously judge one’s deeds in the past year, the start of a new year being an excellent opportunity to contemplate one’s failings and shortcomings in the light of the ideals of the Jewish religion. During this period the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown.
The half-holidays (not demanded by the Tora)
(Work is prohibited only on the festivals mentioned in the Tora. The so-called half-holidays are working-days).
Chanuka: in memory of the rebellion against the oppression of the Jewish people by the Hellenistic Seleucids in the year 175 in the civil era, when it was forbidden for the Jews to adhere to their religious traditions. It celebrates the victory of the few against the many and the renewed inauguration of the desecrated Temple. Chanuka has eight days and it starts during the month of Kislev, and thus in the winter time.
Tu-beshevat. (the 15th in Shevat), New Year for the trees. This is mainly an agricultural festival; schoolchildren plant young trees.
Purim: festival in memory of the rescue of the Jews in Persia from the hands of Haman. The holiday is in the month of Adar, and in the leap-year (see above) in Adar 2.
Lag Ba’omer: The 33rd day of the counting of the Omer.
According the Tora an offering in the size of an omer (a special cubic measure) barley was brought on the second day of Pesach to the Temple. From that day one had to count 49 days or seven weeks until Shavu’ot. That is why it is called the Festival of Weeks (Shavu’ot is the plural of shvu’a = week). Lag Ba-omer is celebrated (in the middle) therefore when about two-thirds of this period has passed. See also Shavu'oth (above).
The Omer counting period is traditionally a period of mourning, when marriages - amongst other things - are forbidden. On Lag Ba'omer the mourning comes to an end and it is therefore a joyful day.
Much folklore surrounds the Lag Ba'omer day, and sources for the traditions are not always clear. (More information about this in Wikipedia.)
Rosh Chodesh: the beginning of the month. In old times the beginning of a new month was fixed by the actual observation of the new crescent moon and it was officially announced in the beginning of the new month.
The Jewish festival of the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) can be one day or two days, as the case may be. If it is one day, it is the first day of the month as expected. If it is two days, then the first day of Rosh Chodesh is the last day of the previous month (the 30th) and the second day is the first day of the new month. This has its historical origin in how the new moon was once observed and the news was relayed by fire signals. Though only superficially observed in daily life, Rosh Chodesh has a measure of additional holiness in the Jewish yearly cycle.
Yom Ha’atsma’ut: Independence-day, the anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708).
Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). The day of the reunification of the two city parts of Jerusalem, following the conquest by the Israeli army of the Old City, held by the Jordanians since the armistice of 1948, during the Six-Day War in June 1967.
TENACH - complementary details
Christians speak about the Old Testament. Jews speak about Tenach. The Tenach is divided in three parts:
- the Tora (the five books of Moses)
- the Nevi’im (the Prophets)
- the Ketuvim (the Written Words)
(Tenach is the abbreviation of the first characters T-N-K/CH)
Tora: the five books of Moses, Bereshite (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Wayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers), Devarim (Deuteronomy).
The Hebrew name of each book is the first word of that book, the word each book starts with.
The Nevi’im are divided in:
The Ketuvim consist of Psalms (Tehilim), Proverbs (Mishlai), Job, the five Megilot (literally ‘Scrolls’) (the Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther) and the historical books Daniel, Ezrah, Nehemiah and the Chronicles I and II. With exception of some parts of Daniel and Ezrah (which are written in Aramaic) the language of the Tenach is Hebrew.
Translation from Dutch sources: Yael Benlev
Revision and basic amendments: Ben Noach
Final editing and amendments: Sara Kirby-Nieweg & Anthony (Tony) Kirby