The Jewish feasts in ancient Israel were a time of celebration. During these festivals the people of Israel came before God to express their gratitude for the many blessings received from God, for the abundance of the harvest, and to celebrate the saving acts of God on behalf of the nation and of the individual.
As the holy people of the holy God, these festivals also provided an opportunity for the people to worship God. The observation of these festivals changed with time. Many of them began as agricultural celebrations and in time, they were transformed into national celebrations which allowed the nation to remember and celebrate the goodness of God.
Several festivals are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
Leviticus 23: 5: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the LORD.”
Deuteronomy 16:1: “Observe the month of Abib by keeping the passover for the LORD your God, for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night.”
The Passover was celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of Abib (March/April). In pre-exilic times, the months were referred by their Canaanite names. After the Babylonian exile, the name of the months were replaced by Babylonian names. Thus, the month of Abib became known as the month of Nisan.
The Passover celebrated Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The first Passover happened when God sent a plague over Egypt. The plague killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but the plague passed over the houses of the Israelites who had sacrificed a lamb and sprinkled its blood on the doorposts of their houses (Exodus 12:1-14).
Feast of Unleavened Bread
Exodus 12:18: “In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread.”
Leviticus 23:6: “On the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the LORD; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.”
The Feast of Unleavened Bread was celebrated on days 15-21 of the month of Abib (Nisan).
The Feast of Unleavened Bread was celebrated to remember that the people of Israel left Egypt in haste. As the people of Israel ate the Passover, they did not have time to allow their bread to rise (Exodus 12:15-20).
Feast of the First Fruits
Leviticus 23:10: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.”
Deuteronomy 26:10: “‘So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.”
The Feast of the First Fruits was celebrated on the 16th day of Nissan.
The Feast of the First Fruits celebrates the beginning of the barley and the flax harvests. It followed the observation of the Passover.
Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, Shavuot
Exodus 23:16: “You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor.”
Leviticus 23:16: “You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the LORD.”
The Feast of Weeks was celebrated 50 days after Passover. The Feast of Weeks was celebrated in the third month, the month of Sivan (May/June). The Greek name “Pentecost” means “the Fiftieth.”
The Feast of Weeks celebrated the harvest of wheat as well as the ripening and gathering of the early figs and grapes.
Rosh Hashanah, Feast of Trumpets
Leviticus 23:24: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.”
Numbers 29:1 “On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets.”
Rosh Hashanah (the New Year’s Festival) was celebrated on the first day of the seventh month, the month of Tishri (September/October).
Rosh Hashanah was the celebration of the New Year. The blowing of the horns, the Feast of Trumpets, was associated with the celebration of the New Year.
Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement
Leviticus 16:29: “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.”
Leviticus 23:27: “Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’s offering by fire.”
The Day of Atonement was celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month, the month of Tishri.
On the Day of Atonement the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. The Day of Atonement was a day of confession and purification.
Succoth, Feast of Booths, Feast of Tabernacles
Exodus 34:22: “You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.”
Leviticus 23:23: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, and lasting seven days, there shall be the festival of booths to the LORD.”
The Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated on the fifteenth to the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the month of Tishri.
The Feast of Tabernacles was a day to remember when the Israelites lived in tents. It was also a time to celebrate the ingathering of the fruits and the olives.
Hanukkah, Feast of Lights
1 Maccabees 4:36: “Then Judas [Maccabeus] and his brothers said, ‘See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.’”
Hanukkah was celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev (December). The celebration of Hanukkah lasted eight days.
Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing and rededication of the temple in 164 B.C. during the days of the Maccabees.
Esther 3:7: “In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur– which means ‘the lot’– before Haman for the day and for the month, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.”
The Feast of Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar (February/March). The word “Purim” comes from the Hebrew word pur, “lots.”
The Feast of Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from the hands of Haman in the days of Queen Esther of Persia (Esther 9:1-32).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary