The law commanded that three times a year all the males of the covenant people were to appear before the Lord in the place that He should choose; that is, in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, in the Feast of Weeks, and in the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex. 23:14–17; Deut. 16:16). This ordinance presupposed a state of settled peace rarely if ever realized in the history of the people in Old Testament times. It was not and could not be generally or even frequently observed. Elkanah, a pious Israelite of the times of the later Judges, went up to Shiloh once a year (1 Sam. 1:3). In New Testament times the case was altered. The Jews came up from all parts of the land with much more regularity to keep their three great feasts.
The Feast of the Passover was instituted to commemorate the passing over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when God smote the firstborn of the Egyptians, and more generally the redemption from Egypt (Ex. 12:27; 13:15).
The first Passover differed somewhat from those succeeding it. On the 10th Abib (March or April) a male lamb (or kid) of the first year, without blemish, was chosen for each family or two small families in Israel. It was slain by the whole congregation between the evenings (between sunset and total darkness) of the 14th Abib, and its blood sprinkled on the lintel and two sideposts of the doors of the houses. It was roasted with fire, and no bone of it was broken. It was eaten standing, ready for a journey, and in haste, with unleavened loaves and bitter herbs. Anything left was burned with fire, and no persons went out of their houses until the morning.
Three great changes or developments were made almost immediately in the nature of the Feast of the Passover: (1) It lost its domestic character and became a sanctuary feast. (2) A seven days’ feast of unleavened bread (hence its usual name), with special offerings, was added (Ex. 12:15; Num. 28:16–25). The first and seventh days were Sabbaths and days of holy convocation. (3) The feast was connected with the harvest. On the morrow after the Sabbath (probably 16th Abib) a sheaf of the firstfruits of the harvest (barley) was waved before the Lord (Lev. 23:10–14).
In later times the following ceremonies were added: (1) The history of the redemption from Egypt was related by the head of the household (Ex. 12:26–27). (2) Four cups of wine mixed with water were drunk at different stages of the feast (compare Luke 22:17, 20; 1 Cor. 10:16, the cup of blessing). (3) Ps. 113–18 (the Hallel) were sung. (4) The various materials of the feast were dipped in a sauce. (5) The feast was not eaten standing, but reclining. (6) The Levites (at least on some occasions) slew the sacrifices. (7) Voluntary peace offerings (called Chagigah) were offered. Of these there are traces in the law and in the history (Num. 10:10; 2 Chr. 30:22–24; 35:13). (8) A second Passover for those prevented by ceremonial uncleanness from keeping the Passover at the proper time was instituted by Moses (Num. 9:10) on the 14th day of the second month. This was called the Little Passover.
The Passovers of historical importance are few in number. After the Passovers in Egypt (Ex. 12), the desert (Num. 9), and Canaan (Gilgal) after the circumcision of the people (Josh. 5), no celebration is recorded till the times of Hezekiah (2 Chr. 30). In later times the Passovers were remarkable (1) for the number of Jews from all parts of the world who attended them, (2) for the tumults that arose and the terrible consequent massacres. Two Passovers of the deepest interest were the Passover of the death of our Lord and the last Passover of the Jewish dispensation. Titus with his army shut up in Jerusalem those who came to keep the latter. The city was thus overcrowded, and the sufferings of the besieged by famine, etc., were terribly increased. Since the destruction of Jerusalem the Jews have kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread but not the Feast of the Passover—that is, they do not offer the sacrificial lamb. The Passover is still eaten by the colony of Samaritans on Gerizim.
Fifty days (Lev. 23:16) after the Feast of the Passover, the Feast of Pentecost was kept. During those 50 days the harvest of wheat was being gathered in. It is called (Ex. 23:16) “the feast of harvest, the firstfruits of thy labours” and (Deut. 16:10) “the feast of weeks.” The feast lasted a single day, which was a day of holy convocation (Lev. 23:21); and the characteristic rite was the new meal offering; that is, two loaves of leavened bread made of fine flour of new wheat. Special animal sacrifices (Lev. 23:18) and freewill offerings (Deut. 16:10) were also made. The festival was prolonged in later times, and huge numbers of Jews attended it. Of this the narrative in Acts 2 is sufficient proof. It had the same evil reputation as the Feast of the Passover for tumults and massacres. We have no record of the celebration of this feast in the Old Testament.
The Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:34) or of Ingathering (Ex. 23:16), called by later Jews the Feast (John 7:37) and reckoned by them to be the greatest and most joyful of all, was celebrated on the 15th to 21st days of the seventh month. To the seven days was added an eighth, “the last day, that great day of the feast” (John 7:37), a day of holy convocation, which marked the ending not only of this particular feast, but of the whole festival season. The events celebrated were the sojourning of the children of Israel in the wilderness (Lev. 23:43) and the gathering-in of all the fruits of the year (Ex. 23:16). The sacrifices prescribed by the law were more numerous than for any other feast, and impressive ceremonies were added in later times; that is, (1) the drawing of water from Siloam and its libation on the altar (of this it was said that he who has not seen the joy of the drawing of water at the Feast of Tabernacles does not know what joy is); and (2) the illumination of the temple courts by four golden candelabra. It is probably to these ceremonies that our Lord refers in John 7:37 and 8:12. (3) The making of a canopy of willows over the altar. The characteristic rite of the Feast of Tabernacles was the dwelling in booths made of the boughs of trees. This rite seems to have been neglected from the time of Joshua to the time of Ezra (Neh. 8:17). It is practiced by the Jews of modern times. Remarkable celebrations of the Feast of Tabernacles took place at the opening of Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs. 8:2; 2 Chr. 5:3; 7:8) and in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8:14). Jeroboam adapted this feast to the later seasons of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs. 12:32). Zechariah in prophetic imagery represents the nations as coming up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles and describes the curse that should fall on those who did not come (Zech. 14:16–19).
The Feast of Purim (called Mordecai’s Day) was instituted by Mordecai and confirmed by Esther to commemorate the overthrow of Haman and the failure of his plots against the Jews (Esth. 9:20–32). The name Purim (lots) was given in mockery of the lots Haman had cast to secure a day of good omen for his enterprise (Esth. 3:7). The feast was held on the 14th and 15th of Adar (the twelfth month). The 13th of Adar, which was originally a feast to commemorate a Maccabean victory, afterwards became a fast, called the Fast of Esther, in preparation for the feast. During the feast the whole book of Esther was read in the synagogues, and all Israelites—men, women, children, and slaves—were required to be present. The reading was accompanied by clapping of hands, stamping of feet, and clamorous curses on Haman and the Jews’ enemies and blessings on Mordecai, Esther, etc. The feast was celebrated with great joy, shown by distributing gifts.
The Feast of the Dedication was instituted in the days of Judas Maccabaeus to commemorate the dedication of the new altar of burnt offering after the profanation of the temple and the old altar by Antiochus Epiphanes. The feast began on the 25th Chisleu, the anniversary of the profanation in 168 B.C., and the dedication in 165 B.C., and lasted eight days, during which no fast or mourning for any calamity or bereavement was allowed. It was kept like the Feast of Tabernacles with great gladness and with the bearing of the branches of palms and of other trees. There was also a general illumination, from which circumstance the feast received the name Feast of Lights. The Jews attempted to stone Jesus when He was walking in the temple in Solomon’s porch during this feast (John 10:22).
In addition to these annual feasts, there were the weekly Sabbaths to be observed, commemorating God’s rest from creation, and also the redemption from bondage in Egypt (Deut. 5:15). On these days the daily sacrifices were doubled, the loaves of the shewbread were changed, and the people abstained from all manner of work and a holy assembly was held. See Sabbath.
The law also directed that at the New Moons special sacrifices should be offered (Lev. 23:24–25; Num. 10:10; 1 Sam. 20:5–6, 29; 2 Kgs. 4:23; Amos 8:5). As the days of the celebration of all the great Feasts of the Jews were reckoned by the moon, the exact time of the appearance of the new moons was a matter of importance. Watchers were placed on the heights around Jerusalem to bring the news of its appearance with all speed to the Sanhedrin, who proclaimed it as soon as satisfactory evidence was given. Watchfires on the hilltops told the news to distant cities. It is said the Samaritans, to cause confusion, lighted fires at wrong times. See also Jubilee, Year of; Sabbatical Year.
With regard to the festivals of the Christian Church, we have evidence of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1–2; Heb. 10:25; Rev. 1:10). The old Jewish festivals continued to be observed and had now additional associations connected with them (Acts 2:1; 18:21; 20:16; 1 Cor. 5:7–8). The other present-day Christian festivals date from a time subsequent to the New Testament and are not authorized by the scripture.