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Jewish Religious Festivals (Feasts)

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The main passages describing the Jewish festivals are: Ex 34:21-24, Lev 23 and Num 28-29. The annual festivals are listed on the Jewish Calendar page.

The Sabbath

The Sabbath or rest is first mentioned in creation, when God rested on the seventh day (Gen 2:2-3). When God gave instructions on collecting the manna, he commanded that the seventh day should be a solemn rest (Ex 16:23,29). On the sixth day twice as much manna was provided, and none on the Sabbath. The Sabbath became part of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8-11). The penalty for breaking this holy command was death (Ex 31:12-17). It is significant that the Lord should speak about the Sabbath right after the instructions for the tabernacle. Doing the Lord's work and building His dwelling place was not an excuse to break the rest day. The day also had a practical reason, so all could rest, including, “your son, daughter, manservant, maidservant, cattle, sojourner”, and is connected to creation (Deut 5:12-15).

The Sabbath had various meanings and symbols for the people. It was a sign to the people that God had sanctified them, setting them apart as his people. This would have been one of the things that separated them from the people around them (Ex 31:12, 20:12). It also showed them that in six days God made the heavens and earth, and He rested on the seventh (Ex 31:17). It was also a sign to them that they were at one time slaves, and that the Lord had delivered them. God's concern was that the whole household might rest (Deut 5:12-15). It was also a sign that God was the God of Israel (Ex 20:20).

It was a day of complete rest, with no work whatsoever. A man gathering sticks was stoned (Num 15:32). The Rabbis decided from the size of a town’s pasture land (Num 35:5) that you could not walk more than 2000 cubits (approx 2/3 mile or 1 km). It was Sabbath's day journey from Jerusalem to Mt. of Olives (Acts 1:12).

The work of the priests was slightly increased. The burnt offering was two male lambs a year old without blemish, 2/10 ephah of fine flour as a cereal offering (eight pints or 4.5 litres dry measure) mixed with oil, and a drink offering of wine (four pints, approx 2 litres). This was in addition to the normal two lambs, one in the evening and one in the morning that were offered each day (Num 28:1-8). On the Sabbath the bread of the presence was renewed in the holy place (Lev 24:5-9).

Jesus explains God's intention for the Sabbath, that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mk 2:27). It was a gift from God to his people for them to rest. The word Sabbath does not appear before Moses and is used only a few times after the Gospels. In Acts it is used mainly to name the day on which an activity happened, like Paul preaching in the synagogue. The last reference is in Colossians where Paul says, this Law, along with all others, were nailed to the cross of Jesus (Col 2:14, Gal 4:10). The author of Hebrews declares that entering into God’s rest, which is the fulfilment of the Sabbath, is by trusting the finished work of Christ and ceasing from our own labour (Heb 4).

New Moon (Num 10:10, 28:11)

Not much detail is given about this feast. It was commanded that at the beginning of each month the trumpets should be sounded over the sacrifices (Num 10:10). The sacrifices required were two bulls, one ram and seven male lambs as burnt offerings, together with a cereal offering and a wine offering (Num 28:11). A male goat as a sin offering was also required. All this was in addition to the regular morning and evening sacrifices.

The purpose of the blowing of the trumpets was to remind God of the people (Num 10:10). Some think that this ceremony was a means of consecrating the month to the Lord. The first of anything was seen to picture the whole, including the firstfruits and firstborn. It is also a time of worship and praise (Ps 81:3). David arranged for praise to be offered on a new moon (1 Chr 23:30-32). Isaiah parallels the new moon with the Sabbath as a time of worship (Is 66:22-23).

There were various difficulties in using a lunar calendar. The Jews overcame this by adding an extra or leap month, called Ve-Adar, normally every third year.

There was also a problem with cloudy weather. It needed the authorities to make an official declaration of the start of a new month. To help decide this, officials in later OT times would sit in the Hall of Polished Stones to await for witnesses to come forward and confirm that the new moon had been seen. When this was done, a fire would be lit on the Mount of Olives that would be seen as a beacon. This set off a chain of beacons, even beyond the river. After a while they stopped lighting fires, but sent messengers. This was only seven times a year, in time for the various feasts. Paul clearly shows that new moons are not to be observed by NT believers (Col 2:16).

Passover (Ex 12)

The original Passover was during the last of the plagues of Egypt (Ex 12). God directed that the Passover month shall be the first of the months, hence the difference between the start of the religious and civil years. On the tenth day, the people had to select a lamb, one lamb for a household (or more if households were small). On the 14th day, the lamb was killed and blood put on the two door posts and lintel. They then had a meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The lamb was not to be boiled, but completely roasted. Any left-overs were to be burned. They had to eat in readiness to move out on the journey. That night the angel of death passed over and smote the firstborn of all who did not have the blood on the door posts.

Instructions were given to make this a yearly feast (Ex 12:14). It was to be kept as a memorial day, which was to be followed by seven days when only unleavened bread was eaten (v15). All leaven had to be removed from the house, and if anyone ate anything leavened, they were executed. The first and last of these seven days were Sabbaths when the people gathered together for a holy assembly.

No foreigner was permitted to eat the Passover, but a slave or stranger may, if they are circumcised (Ex 12:43-49). The flesh not eaten shall be burned outside the house and no bones shall be broken.

The instructions were repeated commanding that the people observe the Passover in the promised land (Ex 13:3-10). The Passover was to be a sign for them to remind them that the Lord had delivered them from Egypt (v9-10), also a means of teaching the children (v8). These instructions were repeated in the Book of Leviticus (Lev 23:4-8). The people first kept the memorial feast in the first month of the second year of their freedom from Egypt (Num 9:1-14). At this time some men were unable to partake due to ceremonial uncleanness as they had touched a dead man. The Lord's instruction was that if anyone is unable to keep Passover, he should do so the following month (v11). If the person then fails to keep the Passover and has no excuse for not doing so he should be executed (v13).

In the Book of Numbers, the extra burnt offerings for the days of unleavened bread are listed (Num 28:16):
two bulls, 6/10 ephah of fine flour, plus a wine offering
one ram, 2/10 ephah of fine flour, plus a wine offering
seven lambs, 7/10 ephah of fine flour, plus a wine offering,
plus a sin offering of one goat

This was in addition to the regular burnt offering offered each morning and evening. This should be done for each of the seven days. In Deuteronomy, God gave the people instructions as to how to celebrate the feast in the promised land (Deut 16:2). The difference is that the feast should be “in the place which the Lord shall choose, to make his name dwell there”. Also, in the promised land, the lamb was to be boiled (Deut 16:7).

The feast of Passover (on the 14th day) and the feast of unleavened (15th-21st) come together. The whole period was called the ‘feast for eight days’ (Josephus Ant 2, 15, 1).

The celebration came around the time of the barley harvest. God's instructions was that on the day after the Sabbath, the 16th, a sheaf should be brought into the temple and waved before the Lord accompanied by one male lamb with its cereal and drink offering (Lev 23:9). It was not until this was done that the new crop could be eaten (Lev 23:14). The first fruits should be brought into the house of the Lord (Ex 23:19).

The programme for the Passover festival went something like this:
14th - Passover, killing of lamb and supper
15th - First Sabbath (whether on the seventh day or not)
16th - Offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest
17th-20th - These days were minor festivals. Work could be done that was not starting anything new. For example, you could repair a broken irrigation system but not make a new one.
21st - Second Sabbath

Unleavened bread was eaten on all of these days.

In the NT, Jesus is seen as the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7). He was crucified on the day of preparation when the lambs were to be slaughtered (Jn 19:14), and rose on the day of the offering of the first fruit of the harvest.

The Passover was kept by Joshua (5:10), Hezekiah (2 Chr 30:1), Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23) and Ezra (6:19). Other passovers had been held (at least Hezekiah's) but not with the splendour and enthusiasm to be expected (2 Chr 35:18). Solomon also kept the various feasts (2 Chr 8:13).

Feast of Pentecost

The Feast of Pentecost had various names:
a. Feast of weeks (Ex 34:22, Deut 16:16)
b. Feast of Harvest (Ex 23:16)
c. Feast of First Fruits (Num 28:26)

It was also considered by the Jews to be the anniversary of the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. It was a one day festival on the sixth of the month of Sivan. Fifty days were counted from the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest. "You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days ..." (Lev 23:15).

2/10 of an ephah of fine flour should be baked with leaven as first fruits (v16). The bread would have weighed about 5 1/2 lb (2.5 kg) per loaf. This was offered to the Lord with seven lambs, one bull, two lambs, comprising the burnt offerings, plus cereal and drink offerings, one goat as a sin offering, and two lambs as a peace offering. The bread and peace offering were waved before the Lord. This was the only time leaven was allowed in the temple, and a rare time when peace offerings were commanded. The day was a sabbath day, no work was to be done. This was the time of the wheat harvest, no newly harvested wheat would be used until after this day (Ex 34:22).

The instruction for the feast where changed for when they entered the promised land (Deut 16:9-12). It was to be seven weeks from putting in the sickle to standing grain-barley harvest. They were to bring a free will offering and rejoice in the place that the Lord shall choose, blessing those who had less, including the fatherless and widows. It was to be a day of rejoicing. In Numbers the extra burnt offering are listed: two bulls, one ram, two lambs plus cereal and drink offerings (Num 28:26).

In the New Testament, the Day of Pentecost was the firstfruits of the church when 3000 were saved. Likewise it contrasted the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai with the giving of the Holy Spirit, the Law Giver who came and filled His people.

Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:23-24)

On this day was a festive blowing of trumpets all day long. This day was a day of rest, a sabbath. It marked the first day of the civil year. Offerings should be made, as follows: one bull, one ram and seven male lambs as burnt offerings, plus cereal and drink offerings, one male goat as a sin offering, plus the normal new moon offerings (Num 29:1-6).

Because of the uncertainty of the timing of the appearance of the new moon, the feast was celebrated on two days. The mouthpieces of the horns used on the new year's day were of gold, when normally they were of silver.

The day came to mark the start of a time of repentance leading up to the tenth day, the day of Atonement. Ezra read the law on this day (Neh 7:73b - 8:12). Ezra's instructions were that the people should not be grieved, but rejoice (v11-12).

The Day of Atonement (Ex 30:10, Lev 23:26-32, 25:9, Num 29:7-11)

The Day of Atonement was to be an everlasting statute, which was to take place annually on the tenth day of the seventh month (Lev 16:34), which would be Sept - Oct in the western calendar. The Feast of Trumpets and the Feast of Tabernacles were also in the seventh month. The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year that the people had to fast (Lev 16:29-30). Although it was a feast, it was not a joyful time of celebration as the other feasts were. It was to be a Sabbath and no work was to be done on this day, thus pointing to Christ's atonement which no man can earn.

The Day of Atonement was a time when the corporate sin of the people was dealt with and when atonement was made for the Holy Place, the sanctuary, the tent of meeting, the incense altar, the priest and the priest's family, as well as the people or assembly (Lev 16:17,20,30). Atonement was made because of the uncleanness of the people and because of all their transgressions and all their sins (Lev 16:16). The High Priest was to confess over the live goat (the scapegoat) all the iniquities of the people, and all their transgressions and sins (Lev 16:21,34).

The Day of Atonement was the only day of the year in which the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. The Day of Atonement was to make provision for the people's sins so that a Holy God could continue to dwell in the midst of the people. It was a time of annual renewal and cleansing for the priests, tabernacle and people

The day of Atonement was instituted by God. No one can make Atonement for himself. A life must be exchanged for another, for the wages of sin is death. Thus an animal was slain signifying that death is the just penalty for sin. The sacrifices bear witness that there is a break in fellowship due to man's sin. The sacrifices acknowledge the divine judgment on man as a sinner yet the sacrifices also acknowledge the God appointed means and provision for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The whole concept of atonement originated with God and it is brought to its perfection and completeness in Christ. Atonement takes place at the Mercy Seat and Jesus went into the true tent and made atonement before the throne of God.

The Day of Atonement points to the day when Christ died and the veil was torn and continual access to God was made available. As long as the tabernacle was standing only the Priest could go into the Holy of Holies. As long as the tabernacle and temple were standing it was a constant reminder to the people that they did not have free unlimited access to God.

The use of the word “Atonement” (Kippur).

The word Kippur means to accomplish reconciliation between God the offended party and man the offender. It has two aspects. The first is propitiation, which is the action directed toward God, the offended one. The just wrath of God is satisfied or the wrath is taken away. It is also an expiation, which is the action directed toward the one who has caused the breakdown in the relationship. It is the nullifying of the offensive act (sin) in that sin and guilt are taken away. Atonement is both. Sin that would require God's wrath is expiated (taken away) at God's will. Thus the Day of Atonement shows the wrath of God being satisfied in the sin offering (the goat for the Lord) and guilt and sin being taken out of the way in the goat sent into the wilderness (the scapegoat).

How is the Day of Atonement fulfilled in Christ?

Jesus secured for us both expiation and propitiation. Like the goat on the Day of Atonement, his sacrifice brought permanent reconciliation (Rom 5:10-11), when Jesus endured the wrath for us (Rom 3:25, 5:9). Like the goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, Jesus took away our sin (1 John 2:2, John 1:29, Heb 9:26-28).

The Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:39)

This feast was the last feast instructed by Moses. It marked the end of the agricultural year, all the various harvests were in and it was a time of great rejoicing (Ex 23:16).

It had various names:
Feast of Tabernacles
Feast of Booths
Feast of Ingathering (Ex 23:16, Ex 34:22)

It was on the 15th day of the seventh month lasting for seven days. The first and the eighth day were to be Sabbaths, days of rest (Lev 23:35-36). During the feast, sacrifices were to be offered to the Lord. Palm branches, leafy tree branches, and willow branches should be taken to make booths (v40). The people had to dwell in these booths (tents) for the seven days as a reminder of the journey through the wilderness.

The Book of Numbers gives a detailed list of offerings: Each day two rams were offered and 14 male lambs. On the first day, there were 13 bulls, 12 on the second day, 11 on the third day, reducing each day until the seventh day when seven bulls were offered. Each animal had its appropriate cereal and drink offering. These were the burnt offerings. Each day there was a sin offering of a male goat (Num 29:12-40).

On the eighth day, the Sabbath, there was an extra burnt offering of one bull, one ram, seven lambs, plus the appropriate cereal offering, and a sin offering of a goat. The people during the feast were expected to bring peace offerings and burnt offerings of their own (Num 29:39).

This feast was instructed to be a part of the life of Israel in the promised land, at a place God will choose (Deut 16:13). It was a time of feasting and rejoicing, the people were to be generous to others (v14), and to rejoice in the in-gathering (v13).

During this feast, every seven years, the Law was read to the people (Deut 31:10-18). Ezra and the returned exiles held this feast (Neh 8:13-18). Josephus calls this feast "a most holy and most eminent feast" (Ant. 8,4,1).

By NT times, various rituals and processions had been added to the festival. One group of priests went down to the pool of Siloam to draw water, with music and much joy. At the same time, a group went to the Kidron Valley to collect branches. These they struck on either side of the altar as the priests blew the trumpets. As the water was brought in, the sacrifices commenced. Then there was the singing of the Hallel (Ps 113-118).

Each day of the feast the priests made a procession and walked around the altar. On the seventh day, the great day of the feast, they went around seven times, to remember the priests marching around the walls of Jericho. At the close of the first day the Court of Women was lit by golden candelabras. Old breeches and girdles of the priests were soaked in oil and used as wicks. There were times of singing, praising, dancing and music. The Songs of Degrees were sung as they went up the steps of the Court of Women.

One theme of John's Gospel is Jesus attending these festivals and acting as their fulfilment.

It is thought that the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles was a picture of the great final harvest when there shall be people from every nation, tribe and people before the throne of God (Rev 7:9-10).

The three main feasts:

These were
Passover - First fruits of barley harvest
Pentecost - First fruits of wheat harvest
Tabernacles - Celebration when all harvest was in

At each of these all males were required to go to the place the Lord would choose and celebrate (Deut 16:16). The people had to appear with offerings. There was no excuse of this being too expensive as the people were to use their tithes to finance this (Deut 14:22-27). This tithe was different from the normal tithe (Num 18:21-28) that was given to the Levites, and the third tithe that was given once every three years (Deut 14:28-29). There are more details about tithing in the OT on the tithing page.

Two extra feasts:

These were added later, not having been instituted by God in the Old Testament.

Festival of Light (Hanukkah)

This festival was celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, lasting eight days. It was to remember the cleansing and rededication of the temple after the Abomination of Desolation had been cleaned out that was set up by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc 1:54). Judas Maccabees and his family had great victories against the Greeks. This festival was instituted around 164 BC, and is described in the Book of Maccabees, which also explains why the feast was called the feast of lights (1 Macc 4:36-61). It was also known as the Festival of the Dedication (Jn 10:22)

Feast of Purim

This feast remembered the deliverance wrought by Esther when the tables were turned on Haman and the Jews were able to destroy their enemies. It was celebrated in the villages on the 14th, and on the 15th by those in the towns (fortified cities) (Esther 9:17-19). The institution of this feast is described in the Book of Esther.