So that begs the question: Are some Jewish holidays more important than other Jewish holidays?
Yes. And no.
The first question we really need to ask before answering this question is ‘Why are you asking the question?’
If the answer to ‘why?’ is in order to determine which days to take off work, then you are about to find out a whole bunch of information that may make you reevaluate your inclination to only take off Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If the answer to the question is that you are wondering how we decide which holiday’s observances trump another’s (for example, Yom Kippur fell on Shabbat this year), you will find a tremendous amount of rabbinical analysis and some relatively straightforward rules.
In the case of two holidays falling on the same day – which frequently occurs when Passover, Hanukkah, and Sukkot overlap Shabbat – a common rabbinic interpretation is that the observances of the holiday with the most restrictions take precedence. This past Shabbat, we could not fulfill the mitzvah of eating Shabbat meals because it was Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, by most interpretations, has the most restrictions of any Jewish holiday and, by that measure, could be considered the ‘most important.’ It carries with it all the restrictions of Shabbat, along with fasting, abstaining from luxuries (such as wearing leather shoes), and other restrictive practices.
Shabbat, then, has the second most amount restrictions of any holiday. Therefore, for example, you do not use a lulav and etrog when Sukkot falls on Shabbat.
So, if you are wondering how we decide which holiday’s observances take precedence over another, then this is one way of doing so; abide by the rule of most restrictions.
However, if you are trying to figure out which holiday is ‘most important’ and thus necessitating your taking a couple PTO days to observe it, you might find yourself in a trickier spot. People often give more weight to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This makes sense, not only for the reasons stated above but because the span from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur encapsulates the 10 days of repentance. It is popular to lean on this period of time, and these two holidays, as the most integral to our personal or familial practice. But, one could argue, fairly easily, that Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Passover, and Shavuot all carry the exact same importance as Rosh Hashanah. They have as many, if not more, restrictions as does Rosh Hashanah. They are, by law and rabbinic interpretation, no less important or significant than the New Year.
In a modern world with many schedules to accommodate, jobs that are non-stop and critical to our livelihood, and pressure to work and study through the holidays, we do have to take pause and deliberately rank order what is most important in our own lives. Many practicing Jews simply cannot afford to take the time off work or away from school to attend services and practice the observances and mitzvot of all of the holidays, particularly during the packed high holiday season. But oversimplifying this discussion – trying to weigh which Jewish holidays are more or less important – diminishes the value of our history, our practice, and our faith.
Here is the opportunity and the charge for us: Learn about the holidays and why we observe them at the time and in the manner we do. Speak with friends, family members, and rabbis to better understand and consider how to prioritize Judaism in your life. Open your mind to the idea that rank of ‘importance’ when it comes to Jewish holidays and practice diminishes the more meaningful discussion of how we as individuals and as a community can honor Judaism as a whole religion and a whole way of life. Being Jewish has never been considered an easy task; it requires sacrifices of time, money, and heart. Those sacrifices look different to everyone, and we will be strongest as a community if we accept the practices and decisions of others, even if we disagree on the importance or value of those practices in our own lives.
May you have time to reflect over these coming days and weeks and head into this new year with a new perspective on what ‘important’ means in when it comes to your own religious practice and what it means to our community as a whole.