Feasts and Fasts

fests (mo`edh, "an appointed day" or "an assembling," chagh, from chaghagh, "to dance" or possibly "to make a pilgrimage"; tsom, "fast," ta`anith, "a day of affliction"):


A) Annual

1. Passover, 15th-22d Nican

2. Pentecost, 6th Ciwan ) Pilgrimage

3. Tabernacles, 15th-22d Tishri ) Festivals

4. Shemini `Atsereth, 23d Tishri

5. New Year, Feast of Trumpets, 1st Tishri

6. Atonement, 10th Tishri

B) Periodic

1. Weekly Sabbath

2. New Moon

3. Sabbath Year

4. Jubilee Year


1. Feast of Dedication, 25th Kiclew

2. Fast of Esther, 13th 'Adhar

3. Feast of Purim, 14th 'Adhar

4. Fast of the Fourth Month, 17th Tammuz

5. Fast of the Fifth Month, 9th 'Abh

6. Fast of the Seventh Month, 3rd Tishri

7. Fast of the Tenth Month, 10th Tebheth

8. Feast of Acra, 23d Iyar

9. Feast of Nicanor, 18th 'Adhar

10. Feast of Woodcarrying, Midsummer Day, 15th 'Abh

11. New Year for Trees, 15th ShebhaT

12. Bi-weekly Fasts, Mondays and Thursdays after Festivals

13. Second Days of Festivals Instituted

14. New Modes of Observing Old Festivals Instituted

The Nature of the Hebrew Festivals:

The Hebrews had an abundance of holidays, some based, according to their tradition, on agriculture and the natural changes of times and seasons, some on historical events connected with the national or religious life of Israel, and still others simply on immemorial custom. in most instances two or more of these bases coexist, and the emphasis on the natural, the agricultural, the national, or the religious phase will vary with different writers, different context, or different times. Any classification of these feasts and fasts on the basis of original significance must therefore be imperfect.

We should rather classify them as preexilic and post-exilic, because the period of the Babylonian captivity marks a complete change, not only in the kinds of festivals instituted from time to time, but also in the manner of celebrating the old.

I. Pre-exilic.

The pre-exilic list includes the three pilgrimage festivals, the Passover week, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, together with the Eighth Day of Assembly at the conclusion of the last of these feasts, and New Year and Atonement Days, the weekly Sabbath and the New Moon.

1. Observances Common to All:

The preexilic festivals were "holy convocations" (Le 23:1-44; Nu 28:1-31). Special sacrifices were offered on them in addition to the daily offerings. These sacrifices, however, varied according to the character of the festival (Nu 28:1-31; 29:1-40). On all of them trumpets (chatsotseroth) were blown while the burnt offerings and the peace-offerings were being sacrificed (Nu 10:10). They were all likened to the weekly Sabbath as days of rest, on which there must be complete suspension of all ordinary work (Le 16:29; 23:7-8,21,24-25,28,35-36).

2. Significance of the Festivals:

The three pilgrimage festivals were known by that name because on them the Israelites gathered at Jerusalem to give thanks for their doubly joyful character. They were of agricultural significance as well as commemorative of national events. Thus, the Passover is connected with the barley harvest; at the same time it is the zeman cheruth, recalling the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 12:6; Le 23:5,8; Nu 28:16-25; De 16:1-8).

Pentecost has an agricultural phase as chagh habikkurim, the celebration of the wheat harvest; it has a religious phase as zeman mattan Thorah in the Jewish liturgy, based on the rabbinical calculation which makes it the day of the giving of the Law, and this religious side has so completely overshadowed the agricultural that among modern Jews the Pentecost has become "confirmation day" (Ex 34:26; Le 23:10-14; Nu 28:26-31).

The Feast of Tabernacles is at once the general harvest festival, chagh he-'aciph, and the anniversary of the beginnings of the wanderings in the wilderness (Ex 23:16; Le 23:33 ff; De 16:13-15). The Eighth Day of Assembly immediately following the last day of Tabernacles (Le 23:36; Nu 29:35 ff; Joh 7:37) and closing the long cycle of Tishri festivals seems to have been merely a final day of rejoicing before the pilgrims returned to their homes.

New Year (Le 23:23-25; Nu 29:1-6) and the Day of Atonement (Le 16:1 ff; Le 23:26-32; Nu 29:7-11) marked the turning of the year; primarily, perhaps, in the natural phenomena of Palestine, but also in the inner life of the nation and the individual. Hence, the religious significance of these days as days of judgment, penitence and forgiveness soon overshadowed any other significance they may have had. The temple ritual for these days, which is minutely described in the Old Testament and in the Talmud, was the most elaborate and impressive of the year. At the same time Atonement Day was socially an important day of rejoicing.

In addition to these annual festivals the pre-exilic Hebrews celebrated the Sabbath (Nu 28:9-10; Le 23:1-3) and the New Moon (Nu 10:10; 28:11-15). By analogy to the weekly Sabbath, every seventh year was a Sabbath Year (Ex 23:11; Le 25:1-7; De 15:1), and every cycle of seven Sabbath years was closed with a Jubilee Year (Le 25:8-18) somewhat after the analogy of the seven weeks counted before Pentecost.

For further details of all of these preexilic festivals see the separate articles.

II. Post-exilic.

In post-exilic times important historical events were made the basis for the institution of new fasts and feasts. When the first temple was destroyed and the people were carried into captivity, "the sacrifice of the body and one's own fat and blood" were substituted for that of animals (see Talmud, Berakhoth 17a). With such a view of their importance, fasts of all sorts were as a matter of course rapidly multiplied. (Note that the Day of Atonement was the only pre-exilic fast.) Of these post-exilic fasts and feasts, the Feast of Dedication (1 Macc 4:52-59; Joh 10:22; Mishna, Ta`anith 2 10; Mo`edh QaTon 3 9; Josephus, Ant, XII, vii; Apion, II, xxxix) and the Feast of Purim (Es 3:7; 9:24 ff; 2 Macc 15:36); and the fasts of the fourth (Zec 8:19; Jer 39:1-18; 52:1-34; Mishna, Ta`anith 4 Jer 6:1-30), the fifth (Zec 7:3,1; 8:19; Ta`anith 4 Zec 6:1-15), the seventh (Zec 7:5; 8:19; Jer 41:1 ff; 2Ki 25:25; Cedher `Olam Rabba' 26; Meghillath Ta`anith c. 12), the tenth months (Zec 8:19; 2Ki 25:1-30), and the Fast of Esther (Es 4:16 f; Es 9:31) have been preserved by Jewish tradition to this day. (The Feast of Dedication, the Feast of Purim and the Fast of Esther are described in separate articles.)


The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months are based on historical incidents connected with one or more national calamities. In several instances the rabbis have by close figuring been able to connect with the dates of the fasts as well as the feasts other important national events than those for which the days were primarily instituted. Not less than four incidents are connected with the fasts of the fourth month (17th of Tammuz): (a) on this day the Israelites made the golden calf; (b) Moses broke the tables of law; (c) the daily sacrifices ceased for want of cattle when the city was closely besieged prior to the destruction of Jerusalem; and (d) on this day Jerusalem was stormed by Nebuchadnezzar. The fast of the fifth month (9th day of 'Abh) receives its significance from the fact that the First Temple was destroyed upon this day by Nebuchadnezzar, and the Second Temple on the same day of the year by Titus. In addition it is said that on this day Yahweh decreed that those who left Egypt should not enter the land of promise; the day is also the anniversary of the capture of the city of Bether by the Emperor Hadrian. The fast of the seventh month (the 3rd day of Tishri) commemorates the murder of Gedaliah at Mizpah. That of the tenth month (10th day of Tebheth) commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Other fasts and feasts no doubt were instituted on similar occasions and received a local or temporary observance, for example, the Feast of Acra (1 Macc 13:50-52; compare 1:33), to celebrate the recapture of Acra ("the citadel") on the 23rd of 'Iyar 141BC , and the Feast of Nicanor, in celebration of the victory over Nicanor on the 13th day of 'Adhar 160BC (1 Macc 7:49).

Several other festivals are mentioned in the Talmud and other post-Biblical writings which may have been of even greater antiquity. The Feast of Woodcarrying (Midsummer Day: Ne 10:34; Josephus, BJ, II, vii, 6; Meghillath Ta`anith c.v, p. 32, Mishna, Ta`anith 4 8a), for example, is referred to as the greatest day of rejoicing of the Hebrews, ranking with Atonement Day. It was principally a picnic day to which a religious touch was given by making it the woodgatherers' festival for the Temple. A New Year for trees is mentioned in the Talmud (Ro'sh ha-Shdnah 1 1). The pious, according both to the Jewish tradition and the New Testament, observed many private or semi-public fasts, such as the Mondays, Thursdays and following Monday after Nisan and Tishri (the festival months: Lu 18:12; Mt 9:14; 6:16; Mr 2:18; Lu 5:33; Ac 10:30; Meghillah 31a; Ta`anith 12a; Bdbha' Qama' 8 2). The day before Passover was a fast day for the firstborn (Copherim 21 3).

In post-Biblical times the Jews outside of Palestine doubled each of the following days: the opening and closing day of Passover and Tabernacles and Pentecost, because of the capheq, or doubt as to the proper day to be observed, growing out of the delays in the transmission of the official decree of the Sanhedhrin in each season. Differences in hours of sunrise and sunset between Palestine and other countries may have had something to do at least with the perpetuation of the custom. New Year's Day seems to have been doubled from time immemorial, the forty-eight hours counting as one "long day."

Many new modes of observance appear in post-exilic times in connection with the old established festivals, especially in the high festival season of Tishri. Thus the cimchath beth ha-sho'ebhah, "water drawing festival," was celebrated during the week of Tabernacles with popular games and dances in which even the elders took part, and the streets were so brilliantly illuminated with torches that scarcely an eye was closed in Jerusalem during that week (Talmud, Chullin).

The last day of Tabernacles was known in Talmudic times as yom chibbuT `arabhoth, from the custom of beating willow branches, a custom clearly antedating the various symbolical explanations offered for it. Its festivities were connected with the dismantling of the booth. In later times the day was known as hosha`na' rabba', from the liturgical passages beginning with the word hosha`na', recited throughout the feast and "gathered" on that day. The day after Tabernacles has been made cimchath Torah, the Feast of the Law, from the custom of ending on that day the cycle of fifty-two weekly portions read in the synagogues.

In general it may be said that although the actual observance has changed from time to time to meet new conditions, the synagogal calendar of today is made up of the same festivals as those observed in New Testament times.

Ella Davis Isaacs

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