When reading a book about republics of the ex-Soviet Union, I always knew there would be a phrase: "due to the close historical ties between the ... and Russian people..." It proved to be nonsence now, but then they were trying to tell us that common history could be a reason for the people to join into one nation.
For the Jews common history is, probably, the only basis of unity; more than a common religion, especially in the modern secular society. The results of sociological research done for the United Sinagogue review ("The Time for Change") have shown that among the sinagogue members the number of people seeing "loyalty to their Jewish heritage" as one of the two main aspects of their jewishness rose from 55% among more observant to 70% among less observant respondents. Only a minority mentioned the Jewish religion as the most important aspect. It might seem strange, that except for the small group of Ultra-Orthodox, Jews do not give the prior importance to their religion. Even among those who do observe Shabath and the Festivals, only a minority do it because "it is their religion", many more do it for the reasons of preserving the heritage (Kosmin and Levy, "Jewish Identity in an Anglo-Jewish Community", p.16). This attitude is not so strange considering the meaning of a great number of religious observances.
In Judaism spiritual message is often conveyed through example of a historical event; and a single event can be understood on many levels of religlous significance. The only holiday which has no historical connection is Yom Kippur, but even in it there are observances which have historical connections, like Kol Nidrei - custom of anulling all the vows taken in the last year, originating because of the forced convertions to which the Jews were subjected in the Middle Ages.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is sometimes said to have no historical meaning, but it is actually supposed to be the day when God has completed the process of Creation by creating Adam, and it could be seen to belong to history. Further rabbinical elaborations has attributed to the date of Rosh Hashana a variety of events. For example, Joseph was freed from prison in Egypt, Sara, Rachel and Hanna were granted Divine-Rememberance through a gift children and, according to Rabbi Eliezer, the Patriarchs were also born on that day. (Eliyahu Kitov, "The Book of Our Heritage"). Still, the main religious meaning of Rosh Hashana is that it is believed to be the day when God yearly judges his people, since on this day Adam has disobeyed God's command concerning the Tree of Knowledge, was judged by God and forgiven.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are both holidays of Biblical origin. So are Sukkot (the Festival of Booths), Pesah (or Passover) and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks). Apart from the spiritual meaning, there are two separate themes in the three latter festivals: agricultural and historical. In the Biblical times they were the piligrim's festivals, when all the males of the land of Israel were required to come to Jerusalem and bring offerings to the Temple. On the historical side, all these festivals are connected to the events following the Exodus from Egypt. The whole make-up of the festivals seems to be dictated by their seasonal connections, memories of the historical events, so firmly associated with them now, were, probably, added later. For example, the obligation to live in booths during Sukkot is explained mainly in two ways: as a reminder of the insecure dwellings of the Jews during their wandering in the desert, plus as sign of human powerlessness in this world and need of reliance on God for protection. But it also sounds quite natural that when the piligrims came to Jerusalem for this major harvest festival, they had to make some kind of temporary dwellings to live in for its duration. Actually, Exodus and hardships of wandering in the desert are commemorated on Pesach, another seven-day piligrimage festival. Explanations are given, why a part of commemoration, seemingly belonging to the complex of Pesach rituals has been transferred to a different time. It is said, in hot weather during Passover living in Sukkah would not be a hardship, another opinion connects it to the building of the Golden Calf: the time taken by the Children of Israel to realize their sin and repent is the time space between Pesach and Shavuot. Both explanations sound rather artificial. I believe, it is probable, that during Pesach piligrims also built booths, but later this tradition has been abandoned. Temporary dwellings would not be neseccary for another piligrim's festival, Shavuot, because it lasts only one day. Unfortunately, these thoughts of mine are all pure speculation and I found no support for it in the texts I used.
Possibly, historical commemoration took precedence over the harvest celebrations during the time when the Jews were separated from the land, during Babylonian exile for the first time and again for the last 2000 years.
Unlike the festivals originating in the Rabbinic period, in the first centuries of this Era, all the biblical holidays are the most important of the yearly cycle, as well as the events commemorated by them are the most important part of the Jewish history. A. Unterman writes: "The story of the Exodus, the consequent theophany on Mt. Sinai, and the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness prior to their entry into the Promised Land, are primary themes of Jewish religious consciousness. All exile is seen, typologically, as an extention of the Egyptian experience, and all liberation and redemptoin as an extension of the Exodus." (A. Unterman, "Jews", 1980)
Pesach is often viewed as the most important Jewish festival. It brings the message that no suffering is endless, God will remember his chosen people and bring relief to their troubles. Of course, this message is especially important when people live in harsh conditions, constantly under threat. Jews lived in such conditions for a great part of their history, during the Babylonian captivity, under the Antiochian rule, then under Romans and ever since until the present day.
The main feature of Pesach is eating of unleavened bread, matza. It both reminds of the bitter bread of slavery and that escaping from the Egyptians Jews could not wait for their bread to leaven and had to bake it as it was. Because matza is very lightweight, it is easier to carry in travel too. In Russia, eating of matza has become, in a way, a symbol of Jewish identity.
History is re-lived again in the reading of Haggadah, a book containing history of Exodus, at the first festive meal of Pesah, Seder. Among other Seder customs two, probably, come from the Hellenistic times, one - leaning to the left side as a sign of a free man, another - calling the last eaten piece of matza the Afikoman, a Greek word meaning dessert. A lamb bone is placed on the table in memory of slaughtering of lambs by the Jews to smear their doorposts with their blood and thus avoid the tenth plague, the bone is roasted, as the slaves' food should be.
Ultimately, every Jew should feel as if he himself had taken part in those events, was a slave in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, witnessed Moses to bring down the tablets with the Ten Commandments and then wandered in the desert for forty years. From Pesach starts the counting of Omer, the period of fifty days when Jews were camping at the Sinai mountain awaiting the Revelation, then receiving of the Torah is celebrated in the festival of Shavuot.
During the period of Omer there are restrictions, making it a period of semi-mourning. There are three reasons commonly given for it, it is: "1. a period of apprehencive anticipation of approaching Mount Sinai and the revelation of God; 2. the critical time when the fate of the season's crop is determined; and 3. traditionally, a period in remembrance of the plague which killed many of Rabbi Akiba's students (2-nd century C.E.)" ("The First Jewish Catalog",1973) These explanations illustrate well how two "layers" of history-ancient and more recent plus the agricultural element are incorporated into meaning of the Jewish days of celebration or mourning. The thirty-third day of the Omer is a minor holiday, Lag b'Omer, supposed to mark the day when the plague on Rabbi Akiva's students stopped. Sometimes it is interpreted as a rite of spring, probably indicating its original meaning. To this date is also attributed death of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, reputed author of Zohar.
Counting of the Omer leads to the festival of Shavuot, Its biblical meaning as the grain harvest festival became subservient to the theme of the revelation at the Sinai, the customs reinterpreted accordingly.
I have mentioned Sukkot already. One feature of it is a custom to invite the forefathers to partake of the meals in the Sukkah, as another attempt to connect to history.
There are two holidays of rabbinic origin which have the only meaning of historical commemoration, both celebrating salvation of the Jews. One is Purim, events selebrated in it happen during the Babylonian exile and are written in the book of Esther. This holiday is especially close to the Jews all around the world because the story is set in exile where the Jews are a minority among a foreign nation, just as they are everywhere. In the story the Jews of Persia are saved from the total destruction, intended for them by the evil prime minister Haman by the queen Esther with the help of her cousin Mordechai. It is celebrated by reading the scroll of the Book of Esther, the Megillah, fancy-dress parties, performing plays based on the events of the holiday, Purim-shpil, and a lot of drinking. The triangle-shaped pies, called "Haman's ears"are made.
Chanuka celebrates freeing of the land of Israel from Hellenistic rule. It is commemorated by lighting candles in memory of the miracle, when an amount of oil enough for one day lasted for eight. Even bigger miracle is the Maccabean victory over the might of Antiochia. Games of chance are played on Chanuka evenings, to commemorate the time when the study of Torah was forbidden by the Hellenists, so gathering as if to play games was used as a disguise.
In line with the tradition, new holidays are invented to celebrate the more recent victories, they are Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day and Yom Yerushalayim, the Jerusalem Day, marking reunification of the city in 1967. At the moment the ways of celebrating them are not yet established finally, but in time they will, probably, take the same place as Purim and Chanuka have today.
The importance of holidays and other commemorations is increased through addition of events to the date, for example, the second day of Pesach is supposed to be the day when Esther made feast for the King and Haman, on this day Maccabees purified the Temple from the Hellenists, Levi, the son of Jacob was born and died on the day (amazing number of Biblical and Talmudic personalities die on their birthdays). In this way not only the Festivals are connected, showing the continuity of history, also important events do not remain undated, which is important to historically minded people. The date often connects event to its root, thus the 21-st of Nisan, the seventh day of Pesach, when the waters of the Red sea opened, is also supposed to be the date when 81 years ago Moses was cast into the waters. This is why so many people are reputed to have died in the date of their birth, the date suming up their life for history.
Even the holiday of Rosh Chodesh, The First Day Of The Month, has historical theme in it. It is meant to be observed more by women, because it is their revard for refusing to give jewellery to their husbands for building of the Golden Calf.
Thus connecting to history is not only the major theme of many festivals, but it is the means of conveying the spiritual message, as illustrated by the way historical events are commemorated and re-lived again in Jewish celebrations.