Jewish Feasts and Festivals (2)

By Kyle Campbell

Last time we introduced our study by examining some background concerning the Jewish calender and then examined the Sabbath and new moon observances. These were the only two observances that occurred more than once a year. We now turn our attention to the seven yearly festivals in Jewish life.

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 2 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 be- cause 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 (Lev. 2:11). Passover was to be observed “in the place which the Lord your God will choose” (Deut. 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 2 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 (Lev. 16:1-34; Heb. 10:1-10). On this day the nation of Israel sought atonement for its sins (Lev. 23:26-32; 16:29; Num. 29:7) and all men would stand cleansed of their sins before God (Lev. 16:30). This was the only fasting period required by the Law (Lev. 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 (Lev. 16:4). Then he had to make atonement for himself and other priests by sacrificing a bullock (Num. 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 (Lev. 16:12, 14-15). Finally the scapegoat bearing the sins of the people was sent into the wilderness (Lev. 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 (Pss. 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 (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 (Ant. 12.7.7 [325]) 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.