Jewish Feasts and Festivals
In order to fully understand the Jewish religion and people, and to gain a greater perspective of a number of events in the New Testament, one needs to study the Jewish feasts and festivals. The Jewish feasts and festivals were scheduled at specific times in the annual calendar and they were both civil and religious in nature. Some marked the beginning or the end of the agricultural year, while others commemorated historic events in the Jewish nation. All of the feasts were marked by thanksgiving and joyous feasting.
The feasts and festivals of Israel were community observances. The poor, the widow, the orphan, the Levite and the sojourner or foreigner were invited to most of the feasts. The accounts of these feasts suggest a potluck type of meal, with some parts of the meal reserved for the priests and the rest given to those who gathered at the temple or the altar for worship. One of the feasts, Passover, originated in the home and later was transferred to the temple. The rest were apparently observed at specific times during the year and in designated places.
The Jews also had three great "pilgrimage" festivals: Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. They were very important in the Jewish faith, and every male was expected to observe them (Deuteronomy 16:16). The religious pilgrimage from the various towns and cities to the temple became annual events. In all the feasts and festivals, the nation of Israel remembered its past and renewed its faith in the Lord who created and sustained his people. We will be examining these feasts and festivals in this article and the next. But before considering the feasts, it will be helpful to take a brief look at the Jewish calendar and how the Jews reckoned these events in their year. Following the discussion of the calendar, we will investigate a complete list of all the feasts and festivals observed by the Jewish people.
The Jewish Calendar
The Jewish calendar was based upon the lunar month; that is, the beginning of the month was marked by the new moon. The moon was carefully observed by the people of Bible times. When it appeared as a thin crescent at sunset, it marked the beginning of a new month. The lunar month was about 29 days long. Therefore, the first crescent of the new moon would appear 29 or 30 days after the previous new moon. The marking of time in Old Testament days revolved primarily around the months, seasonal religious festivals, and the year.
The first month of the Hebrew calendar was in the spring, around March/April or the beginning of the spring equinox. In their early history the Israelites adopted Canaanite names for the months which were connected with agriculture and climate. Only four of these names are mentioned in the Old Testament. The month Abib (Exodus 13:4; 23:15) was the first month (March/ April), which was at the time of barley harvest. The word Abib means "ripening of grain" (Leviticus 2:14). The month Ziv (I Kings 6:1, 37) was the second month (April/May). This word means "splendor," and it refers to the beauty of flowers blooming at that time. Ethanim (I Kings 8:2) was the seventh month (September/October), which occurred during the rainy season. Bul (II Kings 6:38) was the eighth month (October/November). Its name may have reference to "rain," since this month was between the early and latter rains. These four names for the months were associated with the most important agricultural times of the year.
In its later history the nation of Israel adopted all twelve months of the Babylonian calender as their civil calendar, but not all of the twelve months are listed in the Bible. The seven that occur are Nisan, the first month (Nehemiah. 2:1); Sivan, the third month (Esther 8:9), Elul, the sixth month (Nehemiah 6:15); Chislev, the ninth month (Zechariah 7:1); Tebeth, the tenth month (Esther 2:16); Shebat, the eleventh month (Zechariah 1:7); and Adar, the twelfth month (Ezra 6:15). The beginning of this calender also coincided with the spring equinox.
Since the months were based on the lunar system and since each month averaged 29½ days, the year would be 354 days, or 11 days short of the solar year. In just three years the calender would be off more than a month. To reconcile the lunar month with the solar year, Babylon had a sophisticated system where seven months would be added to the calendar over a 19-year cycle, resulting in an error of only two hours and four minutes by the end of the cycle. Israel adjusted her calendar in a similar fashion by adding a thirteenth month, known as Adar Sheni, whenever necessary. The year in which such an intercalation should be made was for a while determined by an authoritative decision of the Sanhedrin, and ultimately fixed in a permanent manner by astronomical calculation. In a cycle of nineteen years the third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth are made leap-years with an average length of 384 days. It is plain, therefore, that the Jewish year has long been, and still is, a lunisolar year. The Jewish year thus far described is one constituted in harmony with ritual requirements, and hence it is called the sacred Jewish year.
Sabbath / Shabbat
The Sabbath is discussed in Exodus 16:22-30; 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-16; 34:21; 35:21-3; Leviticus 23:3; 26:2; Numbers 15:32-36; 28:9-10; and Deuteronomy 5:12-15. The Hebrew word for Sabbath means "to cease or abstain." Exodus 20:8-11 reminded the nation of Israel to remember that God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). This grounds the observance of the Sabbath in the creation of the world. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 reminded Israel to remember its bondage years when there was no rest. This passage fixed the origin of the Sabbath in the bondage of the Hebrews in Egypt.
The Israelites were instructed to include the family, the hired servants, the stranger and even their domestic animals in observance of this holy day. All were commanded to cease from normal labor. This included the command not to gather firewood (Numbers 15:32-36) or to kindle a fire (Exodus 35:2-3). Later in Jewish history, the Jews were forbidden to travel more than 2,000 cubits or 7/8 of a mile on the Sabbath, based on Exodus 16:29. Those who violated the Sabbath would be cut off from among the people or could be put to death by stoning (Exodus 31:12-26).
Although the Sabbath was not intended as a day of worship, it did become a day of convocation to the Lord. A specific burnt sacrifice on the Sabbath was required in Numbers 28:9-10. In later periods of Jewish history, prayer and other rituals became the procedure for observing the Sabbath and just prior to the New Testament times, the Sabbath became a day of assembly when the principle synagogue service was conducted.
The Sabbath observance, which occurred every week, had two purposes. First, it symbolized that the nation of Israel had been set apart by the Lord as his special people. Second, it was also a celebration of the fact that the land belonged to God. This is seen in God's provision of a Sabbatical year, which was one year out of every seven when the land would rest from cultivation in order to renew and replenish itself (Leviticus 25:1-7). The law included the fields of grain and the vineyards. Even that which grew from the planting and pruning of the sixth year was not to be consumed by the owner. Eventually, the cancellation of debts was added to the land rest as a part of the Sabbatical year. Debts to fellow Jews were to be forgiven during this year, although debts of non-Jews might be collected. But the spirit of generosity was encouraged even toward non-Jews. Indentured servants were to be granted their freedom. Not only were they to be freed; they were also to be provided with grain, meat and drink in generous portions.
After every seven Sabbatical years, or 49 years, the 50th year was set aside as the year of Jubilee. Once the Israelites entered and possessed the land of Canaan, it became their obligation to observe this year (Leviticus 23:15-16; 25:8-55; 27:14-24; Jeremiah 34:8, 14-17; Isaiah 61:1-2). The Jubilee year began with the blowing of the ram's horn. The year of Jubilee was a special year in family renewal. A man who was bound to another as a slave or indentured servant was set free and returned to his own family. If any members of his family were also bound, the entire family was set free. Houses and lands could also be redeemed in the year of Jubilee. If they were not redeemed within a year, however, they became the permanent possession of the previous owner. The land owned by Levites was exempted from this law; they could redeem their land at any time.
The Sabbath observances were rounded out by the observance of special Sabbaths where no servile work could be done. The Jews had 52 regular Sabbaths and seven special Sabbaths. These included the first and last days of Passover (Leviticus 23:7-8), Pentecost (Leviticus 23:21), New Year's Day (Leviticus 23:24-25), the day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:28) and the first and last days of the feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:35-36).
The new moon was reckoned by actual personal observation, not by astronomical calculation. The Sanhedrin required two or three independent witnesses as to the appearance of the New Moon. This was so important that the Sanhedrin permitted the witnesses to travel on the Sabbath and make use of a horse or a mule.
The references in the Bible to the New Moon celebration include Numbers 10:10; 28:11-15 and Psalms 81:3. The law specified that two bullocks, one ram, seven lambs and one kid were to be offered in connection with this celebration. Meal mixed with oil accompanied the offerings; a trumpet blast introduced this feast. The sins committed and not expiated during the previous month were covered by the offerings of the New Moon. Thus, sinners received atonement and were reconciled with the Lord.
Passover Feast Of Unleavened Bread / Pesach
The Passover was the first of the three great festivals of the Jewish people. It referred to the sacrifice of a lamb in Egypt when the people of Israel were slaves. The Jews smeared the blood of the lamb on their door posts as a signal to God that he should "pass over" their houses when he destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to let his people go. References to the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread include Exodus 12:1- 13:16; 23:15; 34:18-20, 25; Leviticus 23:4-14; Numbers 28:16-25; Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Joshua 4:19-23; 5:10-12 and II Chronicles 30:2-15. Passover was observed in the spring on the 14th day of the first month, Abib or Nisan, with the service beginning in the evening. It was on the evening of this day that Israel left Egypt. The Passover meal was eaten after nightfall in a family group of at least ten persons, so individuals and small families combined for the celebration. They could not leave Jerusalem during the night of the meal. In addition to roast lamb the meal included unleavened bread and bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitterness in Egypt. It was eaten reclining, a symbol of being free persons.
Passover commemorated this hasty departure from Egypt. Unleavened bread was used in the celebration because this showed that the people had no time to put leaven in their bread as they ate the final meal as slaves in Egypt. Several regulations were given concerning the observance of the Passover, including the cleansing of homes of leaven on the first day of Unleavened Bread, which was a symbol of corruption and evil (Leviticus 2:11). Passover was to be observed "in the place which the Lord your God will choose" (Deuteronomy 16:16). This implied the sanctuary of the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem.
In New Testament times, Passover became a pilgrim festival. Large numbers gathered in Jerusalem to observe this annual celebration. Jesus was crucified in the city during one of these Passover celebrations. He and his disciples ate a meal together on the eve of his death and of the Passover (John 13:1). Like the blood of the lamb which saved the Jewish people from destruction in Egypt, his blood, as the ultimate Passover sacrifice, redeems us from the power of sin and death.
Pentecost Feast Of Weeks / Feast Of Harvest / Shavout
References to Pentecost in the Bible include Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-21; Numbers 28:26-31; Deuteronomy 16:9-12 and II Chronicles 8:13. This feast was observed on the sixth day of the third month (Sivan) on the 50th day after the offering of the barley sheaf at the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Since Pentecost fell on the
50th day after the Sabbath of the Passover, it was always on the first day of the week. Like Passover, it included a holy convocation with the usual restriction on manual labor.
Numbers 28:26-31 describes the number and nature of offerings and Deuteronomy 16:9-12 describes those who were to be invited to this feast. They include servants, sons and daughters, Levites, the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger or foreigner. Israelites were to be reminded of their bondage in Egypt on that day. Pentecost was also originally a harvest festival, celebrating the conclusion of the spring grain harvest. Grain was planted in Palestine, as in other Mediterranean countries, in the fall, allowed to grow during the winter and harvested in the spring. Pentecost is significant to Christians because it was the day in which the Holy Spirit was poured out, signifying the beginning of the Lord's church (Acts 2:1-47).
Feast Of Trumpets / New Year's Day / Rosh Hashanah
This feast commemorated the beginning of the civil or commercial year for the Jews. It was celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri or Ethanim). This was the beginning of the autumn equinox and was a special day because of the symbolical meaning of the seventh or sabbatical month in which the great feasts of the Day of Atonement and Tabernacles occurred. Josephus and many other Jewish historians believe that the Jews had kept the distinction between the civil and the sacred years since the time of Moses. The festival is mentioned in Leviticus 23:24-25 and Numbers 29:1-6. The Feast of Trumpets was introduced with the blowing of trumpets in Jerusalem all day long, festive burnt offerings, and the halt of labor.
Day Of Atonement / Yom Kippur
This was the highest and holiest day of the Jewish year. It was held on the tenth day of the seventh month. The Day of Atonement was not a feast day; it was a solemn, holy fast day accompanied by elaborate ritual (Leviticus 16:1-34; Hebrews 10:1-10). On this day the nation of Israel sought atonement for its sins (Leviticus 23:26-32; 16:29; Numbers 29:7) and all men would stand cleansed of their sins before God (Leviticus 16:30). This was the only fasting period required by the Law (Leviticus 16:29; 23:31). The Day of Atonement was a recognition of man's inability to make an atonement for his sins.
The high priest who officiated on this day first sanctified himself by taking a ceremonial bath and putting on white garments (Leviticus 16:4). Then he had to make atonement for himself and other priests by sacrificing a bullock (Numbers 29:8). God dwelt on the mercy seat in the temple, but no person could approach it except through the mediation of the high priest, who offered the blood of sacrifice.
After sacrificing a bullock, the high priest chose a goat for a sin offering and sanctified it. He then sprinkled its blood on and around the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:12, 14-15). Finally the scapegoat bearing the sins of the people was sent into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22). This scapegoat symbolized the pardon for sin brought through the sacrifice. Jewish people today continue to observe Yom Kippur as a holy fast day.
Feast Of Tabernacles / Feast Of Booths / Feast Of Ingathering / Sukkoth
The feast of Booths or Tabernacles was the most popular festival with the people. It is referenced in Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Leviticus 23:33-36; 39-43; Numbers 29:12-40; Deuteronomy 16:13-16; Ezra 3:4 and Zechariah 14:16, 18-19. It began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and lasted for eight days. The first and eighth days included a holy convocation to the Lord and no work was done on those days.
This feast commemorated the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. The Israelites were commanded to live in booths made of palm and willow trees during the festival to commemorate their period of wilderness wandering when they lived in temporary shelters. The feast was also accompanied by extensive animal sacrifices.
The observance of Tabernacles in New Testament times was quite an event. It included a procession of the people carrying palm, willow, citron, and myrtle branches, which were waved aloft during the daily singing of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) as an expression of joy. Each morning of the period of the feast priests brought water from the fountain of Siloam and poured it out as a libation on the altar. On the last day the priests marched around the alter seven times, praying for rain during the ensuing rainy season. Four large menorahs were set up around the temple courts and kept burning each night. Dancing and pipe-playing lasted most of the night. The Levites chanted the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120- 134), one for each of the steps between the court of Israel and the court of women. The customs at the feast (John 7:2, 14) provide the background for Jesus' statements, "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink" (John 7:37) and "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). The cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue began at Tabernacles.
Feast Of Dedication / Feast Of Lights / Hanukkah
This feast is mentioned only once in the Bible in John 10:22. This feast has been the most popular of the postbiblical feasts in Judaism. It was developed in the era of the Maccabees and celebrated the cleansing and rededication of the temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. The feast of Dedication is observed on the 25th day of the ninth month (Chislev) and lasts for eight days. The name feast of Lights appears in Josephus [Antiquities 12.7.7 ] and is associated with the ceremonial lighting of eight lamps, an additional one on each day of the feast. This practice is derived from the legend that only one cruse of oil was found when the Jews reoccupied the temple, but it miraculously lasted for seven days so the lamp in the temple was kept burning until a new supply of oil could be consecrated. Since this feast, commonly now known as Hanukkah, occurs so close to Christmas, it has acquired for the Jews a comparable social significance including the custom of exchanging gifts and greeting cards.
Feast Of Purim/Feast Of Lots
The feast of Purim is only mentioned in Esther 3:7; 9:24, 26, 28-29, 31-32. This feast commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from destruction by an evil schemer named Haman during the days of their captivity by the Babylonians and Persians. It took its name from the Hebrew word purim, meaning "lots" because Haman cast lots to determine when he would carry out his plan against the Jews.
The feast of Purim took place on the 14th and 15th days of the twelfth month (Adar), and during its celebration the book of Esther is read as a reminder of their deliverance. Purim, which is a very joyous ceremony, is accompanied with the giving of gifts and much celebration.
As was said in the beginning, the Bible student can gain a greater perspective of the events surrounding the life of Christ and the work of the apostles by studying the Jewish feasts and festivals. The Jews had a rich heritage of celebrations to God which marked the beginning or the end of the agricultural year or commemorated historic events in the Jewish nation. When we observe the solemn but joyous and thankful nature in which the Jews celebrated, perhaps we can learn principles for our own worship to God.