What were 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.
Before the exile
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.
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 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 ).
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.
After the exile
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.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).