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Feasts of the Lord: Biblical Holidays and the Hebrew Calendar

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May 22nd, 2020
Jewish Life / By

What we commonly refer to as the ‘Jewish feasts’ should more appropriately be called Biblical Feasts or Feasts of the Lord. Especially since in the Bible, God calls these festivals simply His own. Just look at how many times that phrase is repeated in a single chapter of Leviticus:

These are the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. (23:4) These are the feasts of the Lord which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations. (23:37) You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord… (23:41) So Moses declared to the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord. (23:44)

Many of the biblical feasts, as established by God, have been kept by the Jewish people through the centuries. Since Israel became an independent country in 1948, some of the feasts became official holidays in Israel. 

etrog and lulav set

Biblical Holidays

There are several Christian holidays that famously correspond with Jewish ones. We know Jesus had a Passover meal with His disciples, which later became known as the Last Supper on the night before His crucifixion.

You may also remember that the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit happened on the holiday of Pentecost, which not everyone knows is a Jewish Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. So, how come we don’t celebrate both holidays on the same day today?

That is because the Hebrew calendar is slightly different from the western Gregorian calendar. In short, the Gregorian calendar is solar, which means the seasons are determined by the sun. According to the Gregorian calendar we are now in year 2020, and our year began in January. 

Hebrew calendar is lunar, which means each month is determined by the phases of the moon. Biblically, it would begin in early Spring, when God said the month of Passover would be the first month of the year. However, in today’s Israel, the year starts in early Fall, on the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh HaShanah – head of the year). 

A day in a Week

In the Hebrew calendar, a day runs from one sunset to the next. This definition is rooted in the Biblical description of the Yom Kippur holiday in Leviticus 23:32, where it says the holiday lasted “from evening to evening”. Modern day Israel still follows this rule.

That is why the holiest day of the week – the Sabbath – rightfully identified as Saturday, starts being celebrated on Friday evening. And as soon as the sun sets on Saturday, the new week has begun. 

When God created the world, He did so in six days. On the sixth day, God created man and woman, and instructed them to cultivate the earth. However, before they even got a chance to rule over creation, there came day number seven – the Sabbath. Adam and Eve started their lives with fellowship with their Creator.

Because of the story of creation, in Hebrew the days of the week are simply called: Day First (Sunday), Day Second (Monday), Day Third… The count ends with Shabbat, the seventh day. Whenever Western cultures debate whether the week starts on Sunday or Monday, in Israel it’s not even question. 

Hebrew Measure of Time

God reveals so much of Himself in the biblical celebrations. Jesus said, If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for He wrote of Me (John 5:46). It is fascinating and exciting to explore this different approach to time and counting our days.

God revealed in His Word that even though He mysteriously works outside of our timeframe, He works with it for our benefit, and wants us to be mindful of it. He teaches us to remain watchful. 

In one of his psalms, Moses expresses it beautifully, asking the Lord: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps 90:12) Whichever calendar we follow, God is teaching us about His appointed times, so we can celebrate the miracles He has done and prepare for the second coming of His Son to Earth. 

Let’s trust the Lord today and worship Him for the miracles that He has done and will continue to do! And Christians can freely celebrate the Jewish / Biblical feasts out of a desire to know God’s character. Now, let’s see what they are! 

Feasts of the Lord in Spring

Biblically, the year begins in Spring. As Passover was approaching, God said to His people: “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” (Exodus 12:2) 

Passover falls on the tenth of this month, called Nissan. It is the first of three pilgrimage holidays – appointed times for all Jews to come to Jerusalem.

It celebrates the exodus of Israelites from Egypt and freedom from bondage.

The Hebrews who believed God to keep them safe were protected from death by the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. It is a clear picture of the sacrifice of Jesus, who saved us through his death on the Cross. 

girl holding matzah

Unleavened Bread is usually identified with Passover as they are closely related, but it deserves to be mentioned separately – as it is in the Bible. In fact, one could say that Passover only happened on the first day, and the remaining seven holy days are actually a Feast of the Unleavened Bread. People are instructed to clean out the yeast out of their homes and only eat bread without leaven, called matza. 

Feasts of the Lord in Summer

In early Summer (or sometimes still in late Spring), all Israel celebrates Shavuot – Feast of Weeks. It is the second pilgrimage holiday and it opens the season of harvest in Israel. Called also the Feast of Weeks, it is celebrated after seven weeks since Passover. 

The 50 days is also the reason why it is called Pentecost, meaning fifty in Greek and Latin. On Shavuot, God gave Moses and the people of Israel His law. Millenia later, on this day God poured out His Spirit on the people celebrating Shavuot in Jerusalem. 

Summer is also a season when the Jewish people commemorate the destruction of the Temple. The day is called Tisha B’Av and it is a day of mourning and fasting. 

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Feasts of the Lord in Fall

Fall is the most festive season of the year for the Jewish people. 

The Feast of Trumpets is commonly referred to as the Jewish New Year. Better known as Rosh HaShanah, meaning Head of the Year, it points to the beginning of the civil calendar in Israel. However biblically, it was a solemn day with trumpet blasts reminding people to reflect on their lives and repent. 

Nevertheless, the Jewish tradition on Rosh HaShanah is to dip apples in honey, wishing everyone a good and sweet new year. Feast of Trumpets begins the High Holidays, also called the Days of Awe, that lead up to the Day of Atonement.

drawing of the old city Jerusalem

Day of Atonement in Hebrew is called Yom Kippur. It is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. It is a complete day of fasting and in Israel everything comes to a full stop, including airports and traffic. 

Many spend the day on intensive prayer, since the Bible instructs to ask for forgiveness.

This day reminds us what a gift we have in Jesus, who became the ultimate atonement for our sins. 

The joyous Feast of Tabernacles is the third (out of three) pilgrimage holidays. It is both commemorative and prophetic in its meaning. Called Sukkot in Hebrew (booths), it points to the commandment of God to stay in temporary dwellings for a week, to remember the Hebrews’ journey through the desert. Moreover, it reminds us that our life on earth is also a temporary dwelling. 

Feasts of the Lord in Winter

As the year concludes in Winter, there are more holidays to be observed at this time of the year. However, the following two festivals are not included in what the Torah describes as the Feasts of the Lord.

The Festival of Light called Chanukah and the holiday of Purim are times when the Jewish people celebrate God saving them from the hands of their enemies.

children lighting the menorah

Chanukah is known as the Festival of Light thanks to the tradition of lighting candles every evening for eight days. Commemorating a victory of the Jewish people over their Greek oppressor, the holiday also celebrates a sanctification of the Temple. 

By God’s miracle, the menorah (a candelabra in the Temple) burned for eight days, despite having oil only enough to last a day. The holiday usually falls around the Christmas season in the Gregorian Calendar. 

Purim is a celebration of another victory of the Jewish people over their enemies, similarly to Chanukah. The Book of Esther tells the story of how an orphan made Queen together with her wise cousin unravel an evil plot orchestrated against their own people.

They take a stand in face of adversity and their courage is celebrated at Purim. 

Purim is observed in the last month of the Hebrew Calendar (Adar), which leads us back into spring. 

Want to learn more about the High Holidays? Check out this video:

 

 

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Estera Wieja
Estera Wieja is a journalist, book author and public speaker, focused on the topics of Israel, Jewish history, and Judeo-Christian culture. Born and raised in Poland, Estera is a regular contributor to "Our Inspirations" magazine in Poland. She holds a Bachelor degree in Communications and Media from Azusa Pacific University (California, USA), and a Master degree in Journalism from University of Warsaw, Poland. Estera has lived in Jerusalem, Israel for several years before joining the staff at FIRM in 2018.
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