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The law of Moses describes the Jewish primary feasts and festivals in three places: Exodus 23, Leviticus 23, and Deuteronomy 16. Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16 focus on the three “pilgrimage festivals” of Passover/Unleavened Bread, Pentecost (or Weeks), and Tabernacles. The law required all Israelite men to attend these festivals annually at the appointed central sanctuary (Deut. 16:16). Leviticus 23 is a fuller listing of the festivals, including the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Day of Atonement. There is, however, little in the way of description as to how ancient Israelites celebrated the festivals. The manner of celebration doubtless changed over time, much as we have seen changes in Christian corporate worship over the last couple generations.
In addition to the festivals outlined in the Pentateuch, two other feasts appeared in the later history of Israel. The first was Purim, which celebrated the salvation of the Jews during the time of Esther. The second was Hanukkah. Jews began to observe Hanukkah after the temple’s rededication following the depredations of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The story is told in the Apocryphal books of 1 Maccabees (4:52–58) and 2 Maccabees (10:6–8).
The intertestamental writings give us little information about how festival observance changed. The later rabbinic literature gives us more detail. However, it is not clear how much of what the rabbinic materials describe characterized the Greco-Roman period.
In keeping with the Pentateuch’s instructions, Passover continued to be a pilgrimage festival into the New Testament era (Luke 2:41–50). Often the whole family attended the festival, instead of just the men. The Passover lambs were sacrificed at the temple and then taken by the families for roasting and eating. According to the biblical description, Passover is the evening before the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Exodus 12 directs the people to eat the roasted lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Since the practice in the New Testament period was to observe Passover at Jerusalem, those who could not make the pilgrimage tended to focus on the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The removal of leaven from the household was an essential element of the festival. Even today, observant Jews carefully remove all leaven from their houses.
Pentecost (meaning “fiftieth”) occurs fifty days after the waving of the barley sheaf (Lev. 23:9–21). It was also called the Feast of Harvest (Ex. 23:16) or Weeks (Deut. 16:10). At Pentecost, Jews read the book of Ruth during the feast, since Pentecost takes place during the barley and wheat harvests (Ruth 1:22). Like most of the other festivals, except the Day of Atonement, the feast was a time of rejoicing. There is little information, however, about the precise manner of its celebration. Always a Sunday in the Christian tradition, the day of the week varies in Jewish practice. It never occurs on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. During the intertestamental period, Jews connected Pentecost to God’s giving the law at Sinai (perhaps drawing on the date given in Ex. 19:1). Like Passover, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival in the New Testament; Acts 2 makes this clear (see also Acts 20:6, 16).
The Feast of Trumpets, now known as Rosh Hashanah (meaning “new year”), was celebrated, as it is today, in the Jewish month of Tishri. This timing corresponds in our modern calendars to early September through early October. The blowing of the ram’s horn and a festive meal are the essential elements of the feast. This practice is probably very ancient and was almost certainly the practice in the Greco-Roman period.
The Day of Atonement was a day for fasting and repentance. According to the Jewish philosopher Philo, it was carefully observed not only by “those zealous about piety and holiness, but even [by] those who do nothing religious the rest of the time.” According to the intertestamental book of Jubilees, the Day of Atonement originated from the brothers’ sins against Joseph and the grief they caused their father, Jacob. Acts 27:9 refers to the Day of Atonement as “the Fast.”
The Feast of Tabernacles was next in order, five days after the Day of Atonement. It was also the last of the annual festivals prescribed in the law. Jubilees 16:21–30 identifies Abraham as the first one to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This reference reflects Jewish tradition that Abraham was faithful to the later law of Moses. Of all the festivals appointed in the Pentateuch, this was perhaps the most added to by the time of the Greco-Roman period. The rabbinic literature, for example, shows that there was considerable discussion about what materials Jews could properly use for building the temporary shelters known as “booths” or “tabernacles.” The rabbinic literature also describes water ceremonies related to the festival. The origin of these ceremonies is uncertain. Some trace them to Isaiah 12:3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Or the ceremonies may allude to the provision of water in the wilderness (Ex. 17; Num. 20). Whatever their origin, Jesus made use of them in His invitation to the crowd on the last day of the feast (John 7).
The feasts of Hanukkah and Purim both originated in the postexilic period. Hanukkah is the first in order, following shortly after Tabernacles. The Jewish historian Josephus refers to it as the Festival of Lights, while John 10:22 refers to it as the Feast of Dedication. There are varying traditions regarding the precise origin of the connection of the festival with light. Perhaps the most popular is that a miracle occurred that enabled a small quantity of oil to provide sufficient fuel to furnish the temple lamps for eight days. The celebration begins on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, which occurs in late November or early December on our calendar, thus bringing it close to Christmas. It was a time of joy and celebration.
The feast of Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews in the time of Esther. The book of Esther itself does not prescribe any religious requirement for the festival. The tradition developed, however, to read the book of Esther at the synagogue. People celebrate the feast by sending food gifts to one another and by giving alms for charity (Est. 9:22).
These festivals seem innocuous enough in themselves, since they focus on rejoicing and feasting. However, a political element underlies almost all of them. Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from their oppressive Egyptian overlords. Pentecost remembers the giving of the law to Moses, thereby creating the political entity known as Israel. Tabernacles was the first feast recorded as celebrated after the exile (Ezra 3:4; Neh. 8:14–18). Hanukkah celebrates the temple’s purification after the end of Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ hated rule over the Jews. Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a politically and racially motivated massacre. In the first century AD, the Jews were under Roman rule. Many Jews resented Roman rule, considering it a continuation of the history of oppression that the Jews had suffered. Since three of the festivals encouraged pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which brought together large crowds of zealous Jews, there was always the danger of an uprising. It was the reason the priests gave initially for not wanting to prosecute Jesus during the Passover festival (Matt. 26:5).
The feasts had a political character as well as an element of messianic expectation. Moses and Elijah were considered figures of messianic import. Celebrating the festivals always brought Moses to mind, which stimulated the hope for the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15–22; 34:10). David, Levi, and the son of man figure from Daniel 7 fueled messianic speculation. Hopes and expectations of deliverance from Roman rule colored all these messianic elements with strong political overtones. Though many Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament, some did. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a New Testament. The rest, however, continued to incite hopes for an overthrow of Roman rule. The events of AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem initially crushed these hopes. The defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion around AD 135 put those hopes to an end. From that point on, observation of the Jewish festivals became primarily, if not exclusively, religious observances, with only minimal political overtones.