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Hebrew Feasts and Festivals An Introduction to the Jewish Holy Days

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief introduction to the various Hebrew (or Jewish) feasts, festivals and holy days. Follow the various links within for more detailed treatments of each festival in separate articles.

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Why Study the Hebrew Festivals

When we mention the Hebrew feasts, festivals, or holy days, we are often asked such questions as “why study these OT rituals”, or “didn’t Jesus fulfill all these anyway, so of what relevance are they today, especially for non-Jewish Christians”.

There are several good reasons to study the festivals (besides the fact that they are in the Bible.  First, they are a good place to begin understanding the Hebrew foundations of the Christian faith.  In order to truly comprehend the doctrines of our faith, we must understand the Jewish roots from which they came.  In particular, these feasts and festivals provide much of the basis for a proper perspective of holiness, and of the method by which G-d secured our salvation through the work of Jesus Christ (Rom 15:4, Col 2:16-17).  While they were given to the Jews to help recognize the coming of the Messiah (Mashiach), they were given to all to illustrate how G-d would redeem fallen mankind through the Messiah.  In fact, the seven major festivals provide us a picture of redemption as Christians (see “A Picture of the Christian’s Salvation” below).  They are often referred to as the “Seven Festivals of the Messiah ” or the “Seven Festivals of our Lord”.  Note also that the number “seven” in the Bible often denotes completeness.  Nothing needs to be added to G-d’s plan of salvation.

Second, we see that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church fathers kept and celebrated these festivals.  Paul would altar his journeys to avoid missing one.  He told the Ephesians that “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem” (Acts 18:21).  The first twelve chapters of the Gospel of John are sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs“ (chapters 1-12), in which the main purpose is to present Jesus as the promised Messiah.  In the section, the apostle frames several of the narratives in the context of Jesus fulfilling the messianic hopes associated with various aspects of the Jewish celebrations.  Although we're not always familiar with these facets today, they were well know to John and his readers.

Third, as a foreshadowing of the new covenant (see Typology in Leviticus), they give us a picture of G-d’s sovereign plan for the ages, as well as His plan of salvation for mankind.  They speak to us of our Messiah and Lord, helping us understand Jesus more clearly.  Paul said in Ephesians 1:9-11, “He has made known to us his secret purpose, in accordance with the plan which he determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and earth, might be brought into unity in Christ.  In Christ indeed we have been given our share in this heritage, as was decreed in his design whose purpose is everywhere at work”.

Now that we’ve established the importance of the festivals, let’s take a quick look at each one.  At Sinai, G-d gave his chosen people, as a part of the Law (Halakhah), a system of praise, worship, and service that included daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal reminders to celebrate His wondrous works on their behalf.  These remembrances actually made up a major portion of their worship.  This worship included daily prayer, the weekly Sabbath (Shabbat), monthly new moon celebrations, and the various feasts.  The festivals of Judaism are closely connected with the events of the agricultural year.  Since Israel was an agrarian society, their lives were closely tied with the seasons of planting and harvesting.  They were entirely dependent upon G-d’s favor for their crops.

Most festivals featured a feast, so we’ll use the terms “festival” and “feast” interchangeably in this article.  The most common Hebrew word for “feast” (mo’ed) means “a set or appointed time”.  I believe one reason G-d mandated the festivals is to compel His people to pause from their busy routines long enough to remember His grace and His providence.  Like the Israelites, without placing events on our calendar, we can become so busy and wrapped up with the pressures and responsibilities of everyday life, that we often neglect the important things of eternal value.

For the purpose of this article, we’ve divided the Hebrew festivals into three categories - Festivals for Israel, The Spring Festivals, and the Fall Festivals.

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Festivals for Israel

The festivals and holy days within this category are those given primarily to the Jewish people.

The Sabbath (Shabbat)

The Jewish Sabbath is a weekly day of rest from all work, which commemorated G-d’s rest from His work of creation and His rescue of Israel from slavery.  It was also a sign of the covenant (Ex 31:13-17) and a reminder that G-d, rather than one’s labor would ultimately supply all their needs.  It began at sunset on Friday evening and ended at sunset on Saturday.  Like the other Jewish holy days, its observance brought blessing to both the individual and the community.

New Moon (Rosh Chodesh)

On the first day of each month (hodesh), special sacrifices and a feast were held to remind Israel of G-d’s faithful provision for His people (Num 28:11-15).

Sabbath Year (Shmita)

Every seven years, Israel observed a year of rest for the land (Lev 25:1-7).  During this year, no planting or cultivating was allowed, however any crops which the land produced on its own could be eaten.  The land’s steward could gather only what he needed for his household on a day by day basis.  Any remaining crops was to be left for the poor and the foreigners, then whatever they left provided food for domestic and wild animals.  Like the Sabbath Day, this holy year was a time of reflection and devotion that reminded the Jews that all their needs would be met by G-d (Lev 25:18-22).

Year of Jubilee (Yovel)

The Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8-17) was celebrated every fifty years, beginning on the Day of Atonement with the blowing of the trumpets (shofar).  During this year, also known as the Year of Liberty, all Hebrew slaves were set free, obligations of debts were terminated, and land was restored to the original owner (see also Lev 25:39-55 , 27:16-25 and Ez 46:16-17).  Some scholars have argued that the forty-ninth year served as both Sabbath (seventh) and jubilee (fiftieth) years since the fiftieth year would place the Year of Jubilee immediately after the seventh Sabbath year, which would mean two consecutive years without harvests.  This reasoning is clearly rebutted by Lev 25:8-11.  Furthermore, due to G-d’s blessings, the land would produce a crop in the sixth year that was large enough for three years, even into the ninth year (Lev 25:18-22).

All the regulations concerning the Sabbath Year also applied to the Jubilee Year, particularly those pertaining to rest for the land.  Unique to the fiftieth year was that, possession of any land that had been sold would revert back to the clan or tribe to which it was originally allotted under Joshua (Josh 13-21).  Not only did the land provide for its owner economically, but it also linked the owner to his ancestors as a part of the Mosaic covenant.  The return of the land also prevented exploitation of the poor and provided a reminder that the ultimate landowner was G-d.  He had evicted the various Canaanite tribes from the Promised Land due to their wickedness, and settled His people who would be better stewards and more in step with the land’s Creator.  The Year of Jubilee looks forward to the rest that the Messiah will give when He comes and reigns in glory.

Festival of Purim

The festival of Purim (Esther 9:1-32) is the only OT festival not established during the time of Moses.  The annual celebration, held the 14th or 15th day of 12th month Adar (which can fall in February or March), commemorates G-d’s miraculous rescue of the Jews from almost certain annihilation at the hands of a Persian nobleman named Haman.  Haman developed a great hatred for Mordecai the Jew, which carried over to a plot to exterminate the entire Jewish race throughout the entire empire of King Xerxes.  The full story is chronicled in the Book of Esther.

The festival name comes from the Hebrew word purim, which was derived from the Akkadian word puru, meaning “lots” or “dice”.  Haman had lots (or dice) cast to decide the best month and day to carry out his plot, determined to be March 7, 473 BC.  G-d had providentially placed the Jewish girl Esther as King Xerxes’ queen over Persia, then worked through her and Mordecai to thwart Haman’s plot and save the Jewish people from extermination.  Subsequently, Mordecai and Esther established an annual observance of G-d’s rescue so that all future generations would remember what G-d had done (Es 9:20-32).  The festival was widely celebrated thereafter among the Jews (Josephus, Antiquities 11.6.13) as a joyous holiday with fasting, feasting, and giving of gifts for friends and the poor.  The book of Esther is also read aloud, along with loud booing for Haman and cheering for Mordecai.

Festival of Lights (Hanukkah)

Hanukkah (Jn 10:22, 1 Maccabees 3–4, 2 Maccabees 8:1–10:8) was established during the intertestamental epoch, the roughly four hundred year period of time between the last writings of the canonical OT (ministry of Malachi) and NT (ministry of John the Baptist) texts.  The annual winter festival, held on the 25th–31st days of 9th month Kislev (late November or December), commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been defiled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–163 BC).  Greek soldiers had captured Jerusalem, pillaged the Temple of its treasures, and sacrificed unclean animals on its altar, making it unusable for worship.  Judas Maccabeus led a Jewish revolt against Antiochus, reclaiming and rededicating the Temple to the Lord in 163 BC.

During the festival, the priests examined their commitment to service, reflecting on the shepherd theme of Ezekiel 34 as their principal Bible text.  The Apostle John records Jesus using the same theme at a Hanukkah celebration (Jn 10:22-28), portraying himself as the good shepherd (see also Jn 10:1-18) in contrast to the Jewish religious leaders.

Hanukkah (a Hebrew word meaning “dedication“ or “consecration") also commemorates the “miracle of the container of oil“.  According to the Talmud (a principle text in Judaism containing Rabbinic discussions concerning Jewish laws and customs), at the re-dedication of the Temple, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame for one day.  Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.  The celebration of this miracle is observed by lighting the nine-branched Menorah, a special candelabrum.  One candlestick is lit the first night, then one additional on each night of the holiday until all eight are kindled on the final night.  An extra light called a “guard” or “servant (shamash) is also lit each night for the purpose of lighting the others and guarding against their secular use.

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The Spring (Former Rain) Festivals

There are four festivals in the spring, known collectively as the “Feasts of the Former Rain”.

Passover (Pesach) and Feast of Unleavened Bread (Hag HaMatzah)

The first, Passover (Lev 23:4-8) celebrated the exodus from Egypt and marked the death angel “passing over” the houses marked with the lamb’s blood.  It is also a picture of Christ’s death as “the Lamb of G-d that takes away the sins of the world.”  It’s certainly no coincidence that Jesus died on Passover (1Cor 5:6-8), the preparation day for the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  Unleavened Bread reflects the hasty departure from Egypt.  For Christians, it pictures the sinless life of Christ, His death and resulting removal of sin and death from believers.  These two feasts later merged into one festival.

FirstFruits (Hag ha-Bikkurim)

The last day of Unleavened Bread is our next festival, the Feast of Firstfruits ( Lev 23:9-14) or Feast of the Harvest, commemorating the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple.  The festival also celebrates the entry of Israel into the Promised Land.  Jesus was resurrected on the very day of Firstfruits (the Sunday morning after the Sabbath following Passover), confirming to us that he is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23).

As most of you know, the resurrection has been under constant attacks by critics of Christianity.  The fact that the early Church worshipped on Sunday is actually a great validation of the resurrection.  Keep in mind that the early Church was comprised primarily of Jews who had been taught from birth to honor the Sabbath.  It would have taken a cataclysmic event (the resurrection) for them to move their holy day from the Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday.  Our celebration of the resurrection is known today as Easter, one of the two holiest days of the Christian’s year (the other being Christmas).

Feast of Weeks (Shavu'ot)

Exactly fifty days after Firstfruits, the celebration and thanksgiving for the completion of the grain harvest begins.  This final spring festival is known as Festival of Weeks (Lev 23:15-22), which celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, thus establishing the Nation of Israel as a theocracy.  Christians know this celebration as Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the three thousand in Acts 2 and the Church was born fifty days after the resurrection of Christ.  Just as,  after he giving of the Law, the Israelites looked forward to their entry into the Promised Land, after receiving the Holy Spirits, Christians look forward to our entry into the Promised Land of Heaven.

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The Fall (Latter Rain) Festivals

We now come to the fall festivals, known as the “Feasts of the Latter Rain”.  While the prophecies of the former rain feasts have been fulfilled by Christ, those of the latter rain are yet to come.  This period of time between the spring and fall feasts represents the dispensation of grace in which we now live.  This is the only time period in the prophecy of the feasts that we cannot determine, the time between Pentecost and when the angel blows the trumpet (John 14:2-3, 1Cor 15:51-52, 1Th 4:16-17).

Feast of the Trumpets (Yom Teru’ah) / Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah)

As you may have guessed, the first latter rain festival is the Feast of the Trumpets (Lev 23:23-25), which falls on the first day of Tishri (September or October), the first day of the Jewish New Year.  It is a very sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts of the shofar (the ram’s horn).  The major themes are repentance, prayer for a fruitful year, and preparation for the day of Divine judgment that includes the re-gathering of the dispersed people of Israel (Zech 14).  For Christians, this feast foreshadows the rapture and the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)

The next fall festival, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16, 23:26-32), is the most solemn of the festivals and is devoted to fasting, prayer, and repentance.  This was the only day of the year that the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies to make sacrifices for himself and for the people.  This pre-figured the ultimate Day of Atonement at Calvary, where the blood of Jesus washed away the sins of those who had or would believe in Him (Heb 9:11-14, 10:1-10).  Yom Kippur also looks forward to the second coming of Christ.

Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot)

The final fall festival is the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:33-44), aka the Festival of Booths, and several other names.  The Festival of Sukkot begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur.  It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays to the most joyous.  Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as the “Season of our Rejoicing” and “Festival of Joy”.  It was so popular in Biblical times that the Scripture authors often referred to Sukkot as simply “the festival” or “the feast”.  It is also the one festival that included the Nations (Gentiles as well as the Jewish people), thus it is also known as the “Feast of the Nations”.

Sukkot is the last of the three pilgrimage festivals.  Like Passover and Shavu'ot, Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural.  Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to as Chag ha-Asif, the “Festival of Ingathering”.  Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters.  Prophetically, Sukkot foreshadows the millennial reign of Christ.  The word Sukkot means “booths” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we just mentioned.  The festival pre-figures Christ dwelling with His people (Jn 1:14) and looks forward to the millennial rest of Israel (Am 9:11-15, Zech 14:16-21) and all nations (Rev 7:9-12).  For more information, see our article, Feast of Tabernacles.

Also associated with Sukkot are the festivals of Shemini Atzeret (Assembly of the Eighth Day) and Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah).  For more information, see our article, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

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A Picture of the Christian's Salvation

As mentioned earlier, the seven festivals of the Spring and Fall Rains, provide us with an excellent picture of G-d's plan for our salvation.  In particular, we see the work of Jesus (Heb Yeshua, meaning “salvation”) the Messiah.  The first four festivals, the Feasts of the Spring Rains, foreshadow events associated with the first coming of the Messiah, and the three Feasts of the Fall Rains primarily anticipate events connected with His second coming.

First, Passover illustrates that Christians are saved by the shed blood of the Lamb by repenting of our sins (fleeing Egypt) and trusting in Christ alone for our salvation.  The Unleavened Bread (leaven symbolizes sin) represents the sinless life of Christ, of which we attempt to emulate as our sanctification begins.  Simultaneously, just a Christ rose from the dead as our Firstfruits (1Cor 15:20-23), we receive the Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) at our Pentecost as a guarantee of our future resurrection (Rom 8:23, Eph 1:13-14).

In the fall, the Feast of Trumpets looks forward to the rapture and the marriage supper of the Lamb.  The Day of Atonement prefigured Christ’s work at Calvary, and also looks forward to His second coming.  Finally, just as the Israelites lived in temporary shelter while wondering in the wilderness waiting to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, we dwell in our earthly bodies while awaiting our spiritual bodies upon entry into our heavenly Promised Land.  The Feast of Tabernacles also looks forward to the millennial reign of the Messiah.  Finally, Shemini Atzeret, the day after Tabernacles, anticipates our eternal life in heaven.

Note that we only see the full picture when the festivals are taken together.  Likewise, each step or event foreshadowed by the festivals is critical for entering and living the Christian life.

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The Festivals Relevance to Christians Today

The question is often asked, “Should the Church still observe the Jewish festivals today”?  We've seen the inarguable spiritual importance of the Jewish festivals, so the question becomes, “Should Christians observe the various traditions and rituals  associated with the festivals”?

We should first note that not all of the festivals were exclusively for the Jews (see Dt 16:11,14 or example).  In these verses, the Hebrew word translated stranger, foreigner, alien or sojourner in the various English versions is ger, which refers to a non-Jew who lived with the Israelites and believed in the G-d of Israel, so some Jewish celebrations in OT times included the Gentiles.

We also know that Paul and some church fathers such as Polycarp (student of John) observed the Passover and Sukkot at least thru the second century.  In the third century, there appears to have been a major split between the Roman Catholics and other churches based in Asia Minor over, among other issues, the keeping of the festivals (the Catholics were increasingly against the festivals).  In 387AD, the Roman Catholic saint John Chrysostom preached the following in Antioch, Syria: “The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts.  There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do.  Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts.  I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now...”  This is not to say that all Catholics are anti-Semitic.  Indeed, there are many Catholics who still keep the festivals and are at the forefront of the effort to improve relations between Christians and Jews.  Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism is also well documented, although he appeared to soften his comments (and even recant many) in his elder years.

Protestants today generally do not observe the spring festivals as originally celebrated during Biblical times, since they have been fulfilled by Christ.  Many still observe the fall festivals, primarily the Feast of Tabernacles which is also known as the “Feast of the Nations", since a portion of their fulfillments are still in the future.  That said, many Christian holidays and celebrations are based on the original Jewish customs, with additional meanings derived from the NT.  For example, the Jews celebrated Passover as commemorating the birth of Israel and looking forward to the coming Messiah.  Christians now observe Passover as the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and looking forward to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  In addition, the Passover and  Firstfruits foreshadowed the events which Christians memorialize on Good Friday and Easter, the shedding of the blood of the Lamb at the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of the Christ as the First Fruits of a future resurrection of all who are in Christ (1Cor 15:20, Rom 6:5).  The Jews mark Pentecost as the giving of the Law at Sinai, while Christians remember the occasion as the coming of the Holy Spirit at the birth of the Church.

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