The Feasts of Israel
Many Christians do not realize that the seven feasts which God commanded in Leviticus 23 are still observed by their Jewish neighbors. The feasts, as given to Israel, have a multi-faceted significance. First there was the seasonal aspect of each holiday, involving agricultural activities in the land; then the feasts were to be a memorial of God’s dealings with the people of Israel; and, finally, there may be prophetic symbolism. Many Christians see parallel in God’s dealings with Israel and with the Church.
A study of the feasts of Israel will not only bring greater understanding of the Jewish roots of our faith; it will teach Christians much about various themes of God’s dealing with humankind throughout the ages. Leviticus 23 lists these seven feasts in order of their seasonal observance: Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Booths or Tabernacles. We will also look at the extra-biblical feasts.
Passover, the first and probably best known feast, comes in the spring, in the Jewish month of Nisan, also called Abib. Passover commemorates the redemption of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. On the first Passover each Hebrew household sacrificed a perfect yearling lamb and sprinkled the blood on the crosspiece and side posts of the door. The “Angel of Death” passed over the houses which were protected by the blood of the lamb, but where there was no blood, the first born was slain. In Christian teaching all persons are seen as slaves, in bondage to sin, and all are redeemed and set free by the blood of the Messiah, the pure and spotless Lamb of God (I Peter 1:18,19). See Exo 12, 34, Lev. 23, Deut. 16.
Modern Jewish observance of Passover or Pesach, in Hebrew, no longer includes the eating of the Paschal lamb but the Seder meal is a great visual aid and the menu items have lovely symbolic meanings. The season begins with a thorough house-cleaning to remove all traces of leaven/ The Haggadah- the guidebook used at the meal- contains narratives from the Bible and history, songs prayers and proper blessings. The food items are the wine, matzah- unleavened bread, karpas- parsley or celery dipped in salt water to represent tears, maror- bitter herb (usually horseradish), haroset – chopped apples and nuts symbolizing the mortar of the bricks in Egypt.
The Feast of the Unleavened Bread
The Feast of Unleavened Bread occurs simultaneously with Passover. It begins the day after Passover eve, and lasts for seven days. Because they are so closely related in time and purpose, the names are often interchangeable. During Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread the Jewish people put away all leavened bread or matzah. Leaven in Scripture is usually a symbol of sin. In Christian symbolism the unleavened matzah portrays the sinless Messiah. It is pierced, even as Jesus was pierced by the nails in His hands and feet and the Roman spear in His side; and it is striped in the baking, reminding us that Isaiah said, “ But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities and with his stripes, we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5. However, and this is a big however, the piercing and striping is a much more modern phenomena, caused by modern baking methods and should not be assumed to have existed in biblical times.
The Feast of First Fruits is directly related to Passover and Unleavened Bread, for it is to be celebrated on “the morrow after the Sabbath,” which means the day after the first day of Unleavened Bread. In Bible times this holiday was a feast of thanksgiving for the barley harvest, the first grain of the season. The first harvest is viewed as a promise of the larger harvest to come because the conditions which brought about the first harvest will also bring the rest. Christians see Jesus as Messiah, the First Fruit whom God raised from the dead. Just as the barley harvest was the promise of more to come, Christians believe that the resurrection of Jesus promises ultimate resurrection from the dead. We Christians may appreciate our own interpretation of the symbolism without expecting our Jewish friends to see the same lessons we see in the Feasts.
Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks
Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, also is calculated from the first feast, Passover. It comes 50 days after the Passover Sabbath, thus the name Pentecost which means “fifty.” This is a Greek name, but the Jewish people call it “Shavuot,” which is the Hebrew word for weeks. Shavuot is also a harvest festival, thanking God for the wheat harvest. In Israel today it is customary to adorn the synagogues with plants and flowers, symbolic of the first-fruits. In the synagogue it is usual to read from the book of Ruth, and also the Ten Commandments and the account of Mt. Sinai. According to oral, tradition, this day is the day that Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai. On Shavuot, the priests offered two loaves of bread made from the newly harvested grain. Unlike other offerings, these loaves were baked with leaven. These two loaves are seen bye some as a type of God’s people, both Jews and gentiles, given eternal life and made one. The proper scripture references are: Ex. 19 & 20; Num. 28:28; Deut. 15. Traditions include eating dairy foods and staying up all night studying Torah. The Hebrew date is Sivan 6-7.
After Pentecost, there is a long time lapse before the next feast. Some Christians see in this symbolism of the present age of waiting for the return of the Messiah. Then in autumn, in the month of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar comes the Feast of Trumpets, more commonly known as Rosh Hashanah. This marks the beginning of the civil year and is the Jewish New Year’s Day. In Leviticus 23:24 God commanded the blowing of trumpets on the first day of the seventh month to call the congregation of Israel together for a very solemn assembly. According to Jewish teachings, Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of ten days of judgment when all the children of men pass before the Creator. The righteous are written into the Book of Life, the wicked are condemned and those who are not wholly righteous nor wholly wicked are given ten days to repent and thus escape judgment. Many Christians believe that those who are written in the Lamb’s book of Life need not fear final judgment, but look forward to Messiah’s return with the trumpet sound and the voice of the Archangel to bring us into His Sabbath rest.
The ten days of repentance and introspection lead into the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It has become a time of fasting and prayer. It was the only time in Bible days when the high priest could enter the Hold of Holies. He went in before the Lord with the blood of a sacrificed animal to beg forgiveness for the sins of the people (Lev. 16,23 25: Num.29). Today there are no animal sacrifices because there is no Temple. The Jewish people rely on repentance and God’s mercy for forgiveness of sins. Lev. 17:11 teaches that atonement is in the blood and Christians see the crucifixion of Jesus as a fulfillment of this atonement or covering. The Christian scriptures speak of the veil of the Temple being torn in two, signifying that the way had been opened into the Holy of Holies. Both Jews and Christians expect a great and final Day of Atonement prophesied in Zechariah 12:11 and 13:1 when all people will see the Messiah.
The seventh and final feast is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, known in Hebrew as Sukkot. In Bible days this was the final fall harvest festival a time of ingathering at Jerusalem. The Jewish people built booth-like structures and lived in them during the feast as a reminder of the temporary dwellings the Israelites had in the wilderness. Even today many Jewish people build open-roofed, three-sided huts for this festival. They decorate them with tree boughs and autumn fruits to remind them of harvest. Everyone in Israel, who was able, came up to Jerusalem for this harvest festival every year. The Temple worship for the holiday included the ritual pouring of the prayers for the winter rains. It was at this time that Jesus cried out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” (John 7:37 -38) After Israel’s final Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths will be celebrated again in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:16) Booths speak of the final rest, as well as the final harvest. In Christian understanding, John wrote in Revelation 21:3, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Christians see this as the fulfillment of His promise, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” (Revelation 21.6)
Simhat Torah (rejoicing in the Torah) is the last day of the Sukkot festival, the eighth. On this day the annual cycle of reading from the Torah in the synagogue is completed and a new cycle begun. Lest Satan should tempt one rejoice because the last words of Deuteronomy are finished, they begin reading Genesis immediately. On Simhat Torah eve, and again during the day, all the scrolls are taken from the ark and carried in procession around the synagogue, while songs of praise are chanted.
Hanukah, The Feast of Lights, is not commanded in the Bible but it celebrates an important event. According to tradition, this festival was begun by Judah Maccabee and his followers after the successful rebellion against the Greeks of Syria. During the eight days of this festival, one additional light is lit for each day, until on the eighth day eight lights are burning. This is said to commemorate the miracle of the oil which took place after the Maccabees recovered the Temple from the Greeks. It was discovered that the Greeks had defiled all the oil used in the Temple menorah, except for one cruse, which contained only enough to keep the menorah burning for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted eight days, until new supplies could be consecrated. In remembrance, the festival of Hanuka was instituted. Had not the Maccabees or Hasmoneans, as they are sometimes called, taken a stand against the inroads of pagan Greek culture, there might have been no Jewish community for Miriam and Yosef to bring Yeshua/Jesus into.
Other Jewish Holidays
Purim commemorates the events that took place in the Book of Esther. It is celebrates by reading or acting out the story of Queen Esther and by making noises to drown out every mention of Haman’s name. In Purim it is a tradition to masquerade around in costumes and to give Mishloakh Manot (care packages, i.e. gifts of food and drink) to the poor and the needy. In Israel it is also a tradition to arrange festive parades, known as Ad-D’lo-Yada in the town’s main street.
Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has established four new Jewish holidays.
Nisan 27, day of the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, day to remember the 6 million who died in the Holocaust.
Yom Hazikaron- Memorial Day
4th of Iyar. Day to remember the fallen soldiers.
Israel Independence Day. Occurred May 14, 1948. Celebrated in Israel with dancing in the streets, hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers. In Israel, the previous day is called Yom Hazikaron, remembrance day for soldiers who have died in Israel’s wars.
Yom Yerushalayim- Jerusalem Day
28th of Iyar, reunification of Jerusalem
Thirty-third day between Passover and Shavuot. The day when celebrations may occur during a normally solemn time. Three year old boys have first haircuts.
Fast of the Fourth Month.
The day Moses broke the tablets of the Law. Beginning three weeks of penitence before the 9th of Av
Nineth day of the month of Av. Date of the destruction of both First and Second Temples as well as many other Jewish historical tragedies. A fast day.
New Year for the trees. Like Arbor day. A day to plant trees.