Unscriptural Holy Days: Jewish Feasts and Holy Days

Daniel H. King
Nashville, Tennessee

Contemporary Jewish feasts and Holy Days include both canonical (biblical) and non-canonical celebrations. Moreover, even those days which were observed in Bible times have been in many instances altered to allow for the fact that the temple no longer stands and may no longer be utilized in the services rendered on such occasions. Although Judaism generally concedes that the Holy Spirit departed from Israel after the end of prophetic times, still allowances are made both for additional feasts and needed changes to up-date and modernize the ancient ones. Also, Jews generally consider their feasts as living memorials of historical events worth remembering, so they fear not to heap tradition upon tradition in expanding both the number of feasts and the character of those already in existence. In doing so, three things appear to be important to a greater or lesser extent: (1) The Biblical instructions; (2) The judgments of the Rabbis in the Mishna, Midrashim, and Talmudim; and (3) The contemporary situation. In this short article, we shall attempt to keep the discussion of the Biblical instructions at a bare minimum, since this information is easily obtainable in Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries, in order to focus upon the Holy Days as they are observed among the Jews at the present time.

Pesach: Passover

In Bible times this was the first of three annual festivals at which all Israelite men were required to appear at the sanctuary (Ex. 12:43; Deut. 16:1). It was known also as the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 23:15, Deut. 16:16), and was instituted in Egypt to commemorate the night when the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, but passed over the houses of the Israelites where the blood had been sprinkled and those within were standing, staff in hand, awaiting the deliverance promised by the Lord (Ex. 12; 23; Deut. 16). Passover began on the 14th of Abib at even, with the sacrificial meal (Lev. 23:5-6). A lamb or kid was slain between the evenings, was roasted whole, and was eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8). Not a bone of the lamb was to be broken (Ex. 12:46). If the family was too small, then neighbors joined until the company was large enough to consume the entire lamb (Ex.12:4). During the seven days of the feast only unleavened bread was eaten, and, in addition to the regular services of the sanctuary, 2 bullocks, 1 ram, and 7 lambs were offered as a burnt offering, and a male goat as a sin offering (Lev. 23:8; Num. 28:19-23).

Modern Jews recognize the impossibility of observing the feast according to biblical injunction. In fact, they freely make the admission as the following quotation shows: "Although the Biblical laws of Passover have been rendered obsolete by the destruction of the temple, many of the elements which made our festival so joyous then still remain to gladden our hearts today" (S.M. Lehrman, The Jewish Festivals (2nd. ed.; London: Shapiro, Vallentine & Co., 1938), pp. 42-43). In Modern Jewry the Seder-the word means "the order of service" or "formal procedure"-is at once a substitute for the ancient paschal sacrifice and a fulfillment of the Biblical injunction to retell the story of the Exodus to one's children (Ex. 13:8). The principal feature of the ritual is the eating of various foods associated with the original Passover meal: matzah, or unleavened bread; bitter herbs (horse-radish); and haroseth, a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, raisins and cinnamon, which is said to symbolize the mortar in which the Israelites labored (Ex. 1:11). The meal is introduced by the consumption of parsley dipped in salted water. At the first institution the participants stood, but the Talmud reflects the Roman banquet custom and thenceforth the communicants have reclined at Passover. During the course of it, a minimum of four cups of wine mixed with water must be drunk, recalling the four expressions used in- Ex. 6:6-7 to describe God's deliverance of Israel. And, besides the food actually consumed, the shankbone of a lamb and a roasted egg are placed on the table. The former symbolizes the paschal offering, while the latter is, in all probability an imported pagan custom. Strict custom surrounds the manner and order of the eating of these ritual foods. And, finally, at the conclusion of the supper, an extra cup of wine is filled for the prophet Elijah, who it is believed, will come on Passover night to herald the final redemption of Israel. The main door of the house is opened momentarily to permit his entrance.

The narrative portion of the ceremony is known as the Haggadah or Recital, and consists of a repetition of the Biblical story of the Exodus, embellished by Rabbinic comments and elaborations and includes also the chanting of Psalms (especially the Hallels, Pss. 113-118), hymns, and secular songs.

Shavuoth: Pentecost

Called in the Old Testament "the Feast of Weeks", Pentecost was the second of the three annual festivals requiring every male Israelite to appear before the Lord at the sanctuary (Ex. 34:22-23). Its date was set seven complete weeks after the consecration of the harvest season by the offering of the sheaf of the first ripe barley (Lev. 23:15-16; Deut. 16:9-10). This sheaf was waved on the morrow after the Sabbath (Lev. 23:11). The festival fell on the 50th day after the waving of the sheaf (Lev. 23:10-11, 15-16), which gave rise to the Greek .name Pentecost or 50th day. (Acts 2:1). It was also called the Feast of Harvest or Day of Firstfruits. It celebrated the close of the barley harvest and beginning of the wheat harvest. On this day ordinary labors were suspended, and there was a holy convocation (Lev. 23:21; Num. 28:26); two loaves of leavened bread were offered to the Lord (Lev. 23:17, 20); and with them ten animals were sacrificed for a burnt offering, a male goat for a sin offering, and 2 male lambs for a peace offering (Lev. 23:18-19).


Since the destruction of the temple, however, this harvest festival has been reinterpreted to commemorate the giving of the Law at Sinai. The giving of the Law was thought by the Rabbis on the basis of Ex. 19:1 to have taken place fifty days after the Exodus and so was in keeping with the symbolism of the feast. In the modern Jewish liturgy it is known as zemay matan toratenu or "the reason of the giving of our law." The festival to modern Jews thus is celebrated as the birthday of Israel, the anniversary of the day on which the Covenant was concluded between God and his people. One rabbi even described it as the wedding anniversary of the Jewish people and said that the Law was the Ketubah or marriage certificate between the Jews and God. The twofold character of the festival, the ancient and the modern, finds expression in the services of the synagogue: on the first day, the lesson from the Pentateuch (Ex. 19-20) deals with the promulgation of the Ten Commandments; on the second day, with the institution and observance of the Feast of Firstfruits (Deut. 15:19-16:17); while on both days an extra portion is read describing the special sacrifices which were anciently presented on this occasion (Num. 28:26-31). The dominant theme is, however, the Giving of the Law. After feasting on Shavuoth Eve, the congregation goes to the Beth ha-Midrash ("the House of Study"), to spend the entire night reading Tikkun. The Tlkkun is an abridged Bible and Mishnah (the oral Law), which was composed so that Jews on this occasion could review the teachings of Judaism. Synagogues and homes are decorated with green branches and flowers and special dishes and delicacies — honey cakes and cheese cakes — are reminders that the Torah or Law is sweet and life-giving.

On the second evening only half the night is spent in the synagogue. And this time the congregation recites the Psalms of David. For, some Jews believe that King David was born at Shavuoth time (cf. Ben M. Edidin, Jewish Holidays and Festivals [New York: Hebrew Pub. Co., 1940] , p. 173), while others say he died then (cf. Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals, trans. by Samuel Jaffe [Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938], p. 93). The book of Ruth is also read at this time, since it is connected both with the harvest season and the ancestry of David. Reform Jews also have their Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation ceremonies for their children at this season.

Sukkoth: Tabernacles

Tabernacles was the last of the three great annual festivals at which every man in Israel was required to appear before the Lord at the sanctuary, and the second of the harvest festivals (Deut. 16:16; 2 Chron. 8:12,13). Its name derived from the custom of dwelling in booths during its celebration (Lev. 23:40-42). It was kept in the seventh month at the close of the agricultural season, when all the products of the year from the grainfield, olive yard, and vineyard were gathered. Thus, it was also called the Feast of Ingathering (Ex. 23:16; 24:22; Lev. 23:39; Deut. 16:13,15). It began on the 15th of the month and continued for seven days. The special burnt offering amounted to seventy bullocks and a daily sacrifice of two rams and fourteen lambs. As a sin offering a he goat was sacrificed every day (Num. 29:1234). The booths made of the boughs of trees were reminiscent of the march from Egypt through the wilderness (Lev. 23:43).

In the days of the Herodian Temple the Mishna tells us that on every day of the festival a golden flagon was filled from the neighboring pool of Siloam and carried to the Temple in gay procession. This was the Water Libation. Delivered to the officiating priest, it was then poured into a silver container, the spout of which was trained upon the altar. The Mishnah likewise preserves another historical remembrance of the observance in New Testament times. On the evening of the first day, we are told, men repaired to the precincts of the Temple and lit a huge candelabra in the Court of the Women. "Men of piety and good works" danced, waving burning torches while the Levites furnished accompanying music. At cockcrow, a set of priests who stood at the Nicanor Gate, sounded a series of trumpet blasts. "Our forefathers," they said, "when they were in this place, turned their backs to the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the rising sun in the east, but we-our eyes are turned toward the Lord." This ceremony was known as "Rejoicing at the Beth haShoebah."

The combination of the Mishnaic practice, the Biblical commandment, and modern custom added together give us the modern practices. The Bible commands that "ye shall take, you, on the first day, the fruit of a goodly tree, palm-branches, foliage of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice seven days before the Lord your God" (Lev. 23:40). These festive branches (now called lulabh and ethrog) in the modern celebration are taken to symbolize the characters and virtues of the ancient patriarchs, and when they are carried in procession around the synagogue during the morning services of the festival, this is regarded as a memorial of the circuits which the priests used to make around the altar on the Feast of Booths. On the other hand, the Water Libation is presently memorialized by the custom of offering special prayers for rain on the eighth day of the festival. Also, the feast is called 7eman simhatenu or "the Season of our Rejoicing," recalling the Mishnah passage referring to the Libation (Sukkah V. i.), "Whoever has not witnessed it has never seen joy."

Among modern Jews the Sukkah or Booth, is still a feature of the holiday. Home Sukkahs are built on roofs or in back yards. Sometimes porches are so constructed that the roofs can be replaced with green foliage for Sukkoth. The most beautiful ones are usually built by synagogues. In some reform temples a small, decorative booth is erected on the pulpit.

Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement


The Old Testament "Day of Atonement" is called in Hebrew Yom ha-kippurim (Lev. 23:27; 25:9). It was the annual day of .expiation for the sins of Israel, when the high priest offered sacrifices as an atonement for the sanctuary, the priests, and the people (Lev. 16; 23:26-32; Num. 29:7-11). It was observed on the tenth day of the seventh month by abstinence from labor, a holy convocation, and by fasting. An elaborate ritual was performed by the high priest: clad in simple white linen he sacrificed a bullock as a sin offering for himself and the priest, taking a censer of live coals from the altar, he entered the holy of holies and burned incense; the blood of the slain bullock he sprinkled upon the mercy seat and on the floor; he took two goats and cast lots upon them; one he slew as a sin offering for the people and sprinkled its blood within the veil; the other goat he sent away into the wilderness laden with the sins of the people.

As one writer has truly said, "No other holy day has undergone such a transformation since it was first ordained." With the temple destroyed and the priestly intercessor gone, the entire day is now devoted to fasting and prayer. These now take the place of the offerings for the Jews. Rabbinic reflection lies at the heart of this change (along with necessity), for they concluded that "when the sanctuary fell, there fell with it that wall of iron that formerly severed Israel from his God" (Berachoth 32b). The service of the heart was soon viewed as more important than the service of the temple (Sanhedrin 106b). The attitude of the Jews with regard to Yom Kippur after the destruction of the Temple is shown in the following Talmudic tale:

Rebhan lochanan ben Zakkaf, together with his pupil, Rabbi Joshua, once stood gazing at the ruins of the Temple. And Rabbi Joshua said, "Woe to us, that the place where Jews were forgiven for their sins is destroyed." To which Rebhan lochanan answered, "My son, regret it not. We have another medium, just as good, for the forgiveness of sin. It Is: Do good to mankind. For it is written: (Hos. 6:6) `I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'" Aboth de Rabbi Nathan IV.

Among contemporary Jews some visit the cemetery and bring large candles to the synagogue, which are lit in memory of dead parents. Pious Jews ask a neighbor or friend to strike them thirty-nine times with a strap as self-inflicted punishment for sins committed.

Purim: Feast of Lots

Celebrated in biblical times on the 14th and 15th of the month Adar (Feb.-March), this festival has its origin in the book of Esther (Est. 3:7; 9:24ff). The wicked Haman had cast pur, or a lot, to ascertain a favorable day for the massacre of the Jewish exiles in Persia. The failing of his plans by Esther occasioned the institution of the feast, "a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another" (9:19).

Among Jews today the 13th of Adar is kept as the Fast of Esther. This custom of fasting before Purim is first heard of in the eighth century A.D. In the evening which is the beginning of the 14th, they assemble in the synagogue. After the evening service the reading of the book of Esther is begun. When the name of Haman is reached, the people cry out, "Let his name be blotted out," or "The name of the wicked shall rot," while the children spring rattles. The names of Haman's sons are all read in a breath, to indicate that they were hanged simultaneously. The next morning they return to the synagogue, and finish the formal services and then devote the day to mirth and rejoicing. The wealthy give gifts to the poor. Purim masquerades, Purim dramas, and many other customs attend the season. Some' burn an effigy of Haman, others write his name on stones and rub them together until it disappears, still others chalk his name upon the soles of their shoes and stomp and shuffle until it is wiped out. Most Jewish children would agree that, "Purim is the jolliest of all holidays."

Rosh Hashanah: New Year

The beginning of the Jewish calendrical year is a very complicated question in the Old Testament. Suffice it to say that there were two systems of reckoning employed: one civil and one religious, the first being solar in orientation and the second lunar. The civil year began in the autumn (Ex. 23:16, 34:22), while the ritual one started in the seventh month of the calendar year, which would correspond to our September-October (Lev. 25:9). In the Bible, the first of Tishri is called simply "the Day of Memorial," (Lev. 23:24) but that day is never labeled "rosh hashanah," "the first of the year;" it is only designated as the first day of the seventh month. It is clear, therefore, that in biblical days there was no holiday by that name. In fact, none of the Jewish documents from the second Temple period ever refer to it as the New Year. Shortly after the destruction of the temple, however, the first of Tishri came to be commonly called Rosh Hashanah. In those days the belief was popularized that Rosh Hashanah marked the day on which mankind was judged in heaven and man's fate settled. These ideas were obviously borrowed from the Babylonians (where the most popular rabbinic school thrived during this period) who conceived of their New Year's Day in this way, as well as the conception that creation is renewed on that day (the rabbis said the world was created on Rosh Hashanah).

The essential feature of New Year's Day in the Jewish synagogue is the Glowing of the shofar, or trumpet. This instrument is usually fashioned out of ram's horn, and requires considerable skill. The notes are duly prescribed by tradition, and there may be no deviation from the established order. It must be sounded five times during the service, each at a particular interval, and one time toward the end. During the morning services of the festival, all adult males wear a long white cloak known as a kittel. It is also worn on Yom Kippur and Pesach. It is the symbol of purity, and in this garment the pious Jew is both married and buried.


This day also begins the so-called "Ten Days of Penitence." Since Rosh Hashana falls on the first of Tishri and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the tenth of Tishri, this day is the first in a series of days which are preparatory to that important Holy Day. The principal outward observance of this period is the recital of special supplicatory psalms and prayers every morning at dawn. Obviously, this period is also an addition to biblical prescription.

Hanukkah: Feast of Lights

Hanukkah, or the Feast of Dedication, is not mentioned in the Old Testament. It is celebrated for eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev (December), to commemorate the victory of Judas Maccabaeus and his followers over the forces of the Svrian king Antiochus IV, Epiphanes in 165 B.C. The temple was purified and dedicated exactly three years after it had been desecrated by the introduction of Greek idolatry and other pollutions by the order of the king. The story is told in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees, which form part of the Apocrypha, and in the writings of the Greek historian Polybius (204-122 B.C .). The Maccabees, we are told, celebrated their triumph with an eight-day festival, and, with the consent of the proper authorities, enjoined that it be perpetuated in Israel as the Feast of Dedication.

As to the actual observance of Hanukkah, the only religious ceremony which attaches to the celebration is the kindling of lights each evening at dusk. The usual practice is to start with one light and to increase the number by one on each successive evening, the flames: being lit from right to left, after the direction of Hebrew writing. The lighting of the lamps is accompanied by a blessing and a brief statement in Hebrew to the effect that the ceremony commemorates "the miracles, deliverance, deeds of power and acts of salvation" wrought by God. After the lights have been lit, the Thirtieth Psalm is intoned. It bears the title, "A Psalm, a Song for the Dedication of the House." Scholars .think that the lighting of lights for the occasion probably was a later addition to the celebration, likely borrowed from the pagans. We might also add that Jesus was present in Jerusalem and delivered a discourse to the assembled multitude during the feast on at least one occasion (Jn. 10:22).

Minor Festivals

Many other minor festivals and holy days exist within the Jewish community which have no elaborate ritual and play no important part in Jewish life. An example is Rosh Hodesh, the first of the month, synonymous with the appearance of the New Moon. It was simply known as Hodesh in the Bible (1 Sam. 20:5, 24; 2 Kgs. 4:23; Isa. 1:13; 66:23; Amos 8:5; Kos. 2:f3) and along with the Sabbath was a day of rest. It is little observed today by most Jews. Many others fall into the same category with Rosh Hodesh. Time and space, however, disallows our discussing them.


Two very simple points are sufficient in pointing out the errors of contemporary Judaism with respect to her Holidays and Holy Days. First, assuming that the Torah, or Law, is still in effect, the Jews are still as wrong to make additions and alterations to the Word of God as they were when Jesus condemned their doing so (Matt. 15:1-20). Their own Law convicts them of sin (heut. 4:2; 12:32; etc.). And, the necessity of the temple and priesthood to acceptable Jewish worship cannot be avoided by sophistry or specious quibbling. The Jews must rebuild their temple and reactivate their priesthood to satisfy the demands of their Torah. Yet this is not even being planned by the Jews of modern Israel, though they possess the real estate of Mt. Zion at present. I have heard that premillennialists, in their anxiety to see their false prophecies come to fruition, have offered to help pay for it-but to no avail. The mosque of Omar has long stood on the site of the temple in the southwest of the Haram area. Jews feel that the destruction of one of the most sacred shrines of the Moslems would call down upon their heads the united fury of that otherwise disparate and disjunctive people. And they are probably right. Nonetheless, if they are right and righteous, then God will come to their aid as he has in the past. But if they are wrong, then no amount of prayer or penitence will save them.

Howbeit, the above assumption that the Law is still effectual is only that. The Jewish prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34) predicted a New Covenant unlike the Old one, even as all the prophets predicted the coming of the Messiah, or Christ. And, even the Rabbis admitted that the era of the Messiah would bring an end to the Law (Sanhedrin 97a; Aboda Zara 9a; Jer. Meg. 70 d). Thus, Jewish feasts and Holy Days may no longer be used to judge us, as Paul boldly declared: "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a Sabbath day; which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ's" (Col. 2:16,17).

Why is this so? Because the Messiah has "blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2:14). Yet as long as Israef continues to harden her heart and deny the words of her prophets, there is no hope for her. A look at one of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith makes this the more evident:

"I believe with perfect faith that this Law will not be changed, and that there will never be any other law from the Creator, blessed be his name" (Excerpted from Reshith Daath, (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1927), p.95).

This puts Jewry in direct contradiction with Jeremiah, with all of her other, prophets, and even with her own Rabbis. A strange paradox indeed!

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