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published: 10/8/13

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Feasts and Fasts in Israel



What were the feasts and fasts in Israel?

egypt

The Nature of the Feasts and Fasts in Israel.

The Hebrews had an abundance of holidays, some based, according to their tradition, on agriculture and the natural changes of times and seasons, some on historical events connected with the national or religious life of Israel, and still others simply on immemorial custom. in most instances two or more of these bases coexist, and the emphasis on the natural, the agricultural, the national, or the religious phase will vary with different writers, different context, or different times. Any classification of these feasts and fasts on the basis of original significance must therefore be imperfect.

We should rather classify them as preëxilic and post-exilic, because the period of the Babylonian captivity marks a complete change, not only in the kinds of festivals instituted from time to time, but also in the manner of celebrating the old.



I. Pre-Exilic

The pre-exilic list includes the three pilgrimage festivals, the Passover week, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, together with the Eighth Day of Assembly at the conclusion of the last of these feasts, and New Year and Atonement Days, the weekly Sabbath and the New Moon.

1. Observances Common to All

The preëxilic festivals were "holy convocations" (Lev 23; Nu 28). Special sacrifices were offered on them in addition to the daily offerings. These sacrifices, however, varied according to the character of the festival (Nu 28; 29). On all of them trumpets ( ḥăcōcerōth ) were blown while the burnt offerings and the peace-offerings were being sacrificed (Numbers 10:10 ). They were all likened to the weekly Sabbath as days of rest, on which there must be complete suspension of all ordinary work (Leviticus 16:29 ; Leviticus 23:7 , Leviticus 23:8 , Leviticus 23:21 , Leviticus 23:24 , Leviticus 23:25 , Leviticus 23:28 , Leviticus 23:35 , Leviticus 23:36 ).

2. Significance of the Festivals

The three pilgrimage festivals were known by that name because on them the Israelites gathered at Jerusalem to give thanks for their doubly joyful character. They were of agricultural significance as well as commemorative of national events. Thus, the Passover is connected with the barley harvest; at the same time it is the zeman ḥērūth , recalling the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:6 ; Leviticus 23:5 , Leviticus 23:8 ; Numbers 28:16-25 ; Deuteronomy 16:1-8 ).

Pentecost has an agricultural phase as hagh ha -bikkūrı̄m , the celebration of the wheat harvest; it has a religious phase as zeman mattan Thōrāh in the Jewish liturgy, based on the rabbinical calculation which makes it the day of the giving of the Law, and this religious side has so completely overshadowed the agricultural that among modern Jews the Pentecost has become "confirmation day" (Exodus 34:26 ; Leviticus 23:10-14 ; Numbers 28:26-31 ).

The Feast of Tabernacles is at once the general harvest festival, ḥagh he -'āṣı̄ph , and the anniversary of the beginnings of the wanderings in the wilderness (Exodus 23:16 ; Leviticus 23:33 ; Deuteronomy 16:13-15 ). The Eighth Day of Assembly immediately following the last day of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:36 ; Numbers 29:35 ; John 7:37 ) and closing the long cycle of Tishri festivals seems to have been merely a final day of rejoicing before the pilgrims returned to their homes.

New Year (Leviticus 23:23-25 ; Numbers 29:1-6 ) and the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1 ; Leviticus 23:26-32 ; Numbers 29:7-11 ) marked the turning of the year; primarily, perhaps, in the natural phenomena of Palestine, but also in the inner life of the nation and the individual. Hence, the religious significance of these days as days of judgment, penitence and forgiveness soon overshadowed any other significance they may have had. The temple ritual for these days, which is minutely described in the Old Testament and in the Talmud, was the most elaborate and impressive of the year. At the same time Atonement Day was socially an important day of rejoicing.

In addition to these annual festivals the pre-exilic Hebrews celebrated the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9 , Numbers 28:10; Leviticus 23:1-3 ) and the New Moon (Numbers 10:10 ; Numbers 28:11-15 ). By analogy to the weekly Sabbath, every seventh year was a Sabbath Year (Exodus 23:11 ; Leviticus 25:1-7 ; Deuteronomy 15:1 ), and every cycle of seven Sabbath years was closed with a Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25:8-18 ) somewhat after the analogy of the seven weeks counted before Pentecost.

For further details of all of these preëxilic festivals see the separate articles.

II. Post-Exilic

In post-exilic times important historical events were made the basis for the institution of new fasts and feasts. When the first temple was destroyed and the people were carried into captivity, "the sacrifice of the body and one's own fat and blood" were substituted for that of animals (see Talmud, Berākhōth 17a ). With such a view of their importance, fasts of all sorts were as a matter of course rapidly multiplied. (Note that the Day of Atonement was the only pre-exilic fast.) Of these post-exilic fasts and feasts, the Feast of Dedication (1 Macc 4:52-59; John 10:22 ; Mishna, Ta‛ănı̄th 2 10; Mō‛ēdh Ḳāṭōn 3 9; Josephus, Ant , XII , vii; Apion , II, xxxix) and the Feast of Purim (Esther 3:7 ; Esther 9:24 ; 2 Macc 15:36); and the fasts of the fourth ( Zechariah 8:19 ; Jer 39; 52; Mishna, Ta‛ănı̄th 4 6), the fifth ( Zechariah 7:3 , Zechariah 7:1 ; Zechariah 8:19 ; Ta‛ănı̄th 4 6), the seventh ( Zechariah 7:5 ; Zechariah 8:19 ; Jeremiah 41:1 ; 2 Kings 25:25 ; Ṣēdher ‛Ōlām Rabbā' 26; Meghillath Ta‛ănı̄th c. 12), the tenth months ( Zechariah 8:19 ; 2 Ki 25), and the Fast of Esther (Esther 4:16 f; Esther 9:31 ) have been preserved by Jewish tradition to this day. (The Feast of Dedication, the Feast of Purim and the Fast of Esther are described in separate articles.)

Significance

The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months are based on historical incidents connected with one or more national calamities. In several instances the rabbis have by close figuring been able to connect with the dates of the fasts as well as the feasts other important national events than those for which the days were primarily instituted. Not less than four incidents are connected with the fasts of the fourth month (17th of Tammuz): ( a ) on this day the Israelites made the golden calf; (b ) Moses broke the tables of law; (c ) The daily sacrifices ceased for want of cattle when the city was closely besieged prior to the destruction of Jerusalem; and (d ) on this day Jerusalem was stormed by Nebuchadnezzar.

The fast of the fifth month (9th day of 'Ābh ) receives its significance from the fact that the First Temple was destroyed upon this day by Nebuchadnezzar, and the Second Temple on the same day of the year by Titus. In addition it is said that on this day Yahweh decreed that those who left Egypt should not enter the land of promise; the day is also the anniversary of the capture of the city of Bether by the Emperor Hadrian. The fast of the seventh month (the 3rd day of Tishrı̄ ) commemorates the murder of Gedaliah at Mizpah. That of the tenth month (10th day of Tebheth ) commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Other fasts and feasts no doubt were instituted on similar occasions and received a local or temporary observance, for example, the Feast of Acra (1 Macc 13:50-52; compare 1:33), to celebrate the recapture of Acra ("the citadel") on the 23rd of 'Īyār 141 bc, and the Feast of Nicanor, in celebration of the victory over Nicanor on the 13th day of 'Ădhār 160 bc (1 Macc 7:49).

Several other festivals are mentioned in the Talmud and other post-Biblical writings which may have been of even greater antiquity. The Feast of Woodcarrying (Midsummer Day: Nehemiah 10:34 ; Josephus, BJ , II, vii, 6; Meghillath Ta‛ănı̄th c.v, p. 32, Mishna, Ta‛ănı̄th 4 8a), for example, is referred to as the greatest day of rejoicing of the Hebrews, ranking with Atonement Day. It was principally a picnic day to which a religious touch was given by making it the woodgatherers' festival for the Temple. A New Year for trees is mentioned in the Talmud (Rō'sh ha -Shānāh 1 1). The pious, according both to the Jewish tradition and the New Testament, observed many private or semi-public fasts, such as the Mondays, Thursdays and following Monday after Nı̄ṣan and Tishrı̄ (the festival months: Luke 18:12 ; Matthew 9:14 ; Matthew 6:16 ; Mark 2:18 ; Luke 5:33 ; Acts 10:30 ; Meghillāh 31a ; Ta‛ănı̄th 12a ; Bābhā' Ḳamā' 8 2). The day before Passover was a fast day for the firstborn (Ṣōpherı̄m 21 3).

In post-Biblical times the Jews outside of Palestine doubled each of the following days: the opening and closing day of Passover and Tabernacles and Pentecost, because of the ṣāphēḳ , or doubt as to the proper day to be observed, growing out of the delays in the transmission of the official decree of the ṣanhedhrı̄n in each season. Differences in hours of sunrise and sunset between Palestine and other countries may have had something to do at least with the perpetuation of the custom. New Year's Day seems to have been doubled from time immemorial, the forty-eight hours counting as one "long day."

Many new modes of observance appear in post-exilic times in connection with the old established festivals, especially in the high festival season of Tishrı̄ . Thus the ṣimḥath bēth ha -shō'ēbhāh , "water drawing festival," was celebrated during the week of Tabernacles with popular games and dances in which even the elders took part, and the streets were so brilliantly illuminated with torches that scarcely an eye was closed in Jerusalem during that week (Talmud, Ḥullı̄n ).

The last day of Tabernacles was known in Talmudic times as yōm hibbuṭ ‛ărābhōth , from the custom of beating willow branches, a custom clearly antedating the various symbolical explanations offered for it. Its festivities were connected with the dismantling of the booth. In later times the day was known as hōsha‛nā' rabbā' , from the liturgical passages beginning with the word hōsha‛nā' , recited throughout the feast and "gathered" on that day. The day after Tabernacles has been made ṣimḥath Tōrāh , the Feast of the Law, from the custom of ending on that day the cycle of fifty-two weekly portions read in the synagogues.

In general it may be said that although the actual observance has changed from time to time to meet new conditions, the synagogal calendar of today is made up of the same festivals as those observed in New Testament times.

Recommended:

The Tabernacle
(overview)
The Priests and Levites The Holy of Holies
The Courtyard of the Tabernacle The Breastplate of the High Priest
The Bronze Laver The Veil of the Tabernacle
The Horns of the Altar The Ark of the Covenant
The Holy Place Manna
The Lampstand The Ten Commandments
The Table of Showbread Aaron's Rod
The Altar of Incense Aaron
Sacrifices in the Bible The Red Heifer
Feasts and Fasts in Israel (this page) The Day of Atonement

Source:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).