The Yearly Festivals

Overview

The pages in this section are excerpts about the Yearly Festivals which are taken from the book Introduction to Torah Living, by Tim Hegg. The Yearly Festivals are listed in Leviticus 23 and expounded upon in various passages in Numbers and Deuteronomy. For each Festival, Hegg discusses the initial Biblical commandment and then explains the history and traditions related to them. Hegg begins this section by briefly explaining the Hebrew Calendar and then demonstrating how all of the Festivals fit together following the pattern of a wedding.

The present Jewish year is lunar as to months, and solar as to years. Thus, the months are regulated by the moon and are 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 1/3 seconds long. The solar year is 365 days, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds long, which means that a solar year exceeds a lunar one (12 lunar months) by 11 days.

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The five Torah festivals (Purim and Hanukkah were added later to make a total of seven) may be pictured in a number of ways, but it seems very possible that they were given to illustrate the love of God for His people, following the pattern of a wedding. We should first note that the order of the Festivals changes following the Exodus event.

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The Festivals

Passover was originally designated as “the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag haMatzot) the term “Passover” designating the sacrificial lamb offered and eaten at the feast. The central theme of Pesach is liberation and freedom from slavery, and thus the entire festival is termed zeman cheir-u-teinu, “the time of our freedom” or “season of our liberation.”

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The Festival of Shavuot occurs 50 days after the first omer is counted, i.e., 50 days after the second day of Pesach. There is an on-going Rabbinic debate exactly how to calculate the day of Shavuot (the debate hinges on what is meant by the word Sabbath in Lev. 23:15), but the prevailing halachah after the destruction of the Temple accepted the Pharisaic reckoning.

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The Torah refers to Rosh HaShanah as Yom Teruah “Day of blowing [the Shofar])” or Yom haZikkaron “Day of Remembering.” It was not called Rosh HaShanah until the Talmudic times, a name taken from Ezekiel 40:1. There are four New Years in the Jewish calendar.

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Yom Kippur centers its attention upon atonement—being right with God even though one knows himself or herself to be a sinner, and that God cannot have fellowship with sinners. Here is the mystery of atonement: God makes a way for a sinner to be made clean, and thus to be a fitting companion with Him.

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The festival cycle begun at Pesach and continued through Shavuot (the giving of the Torah) comes to a conclusion in Sukkot, dwelling in booths as a reminder of the Israelites in the desert. In a prophetic manner, Pesach reveals redemption, Shavuot centers on revelation, and Sukkot emphasizes communion. God redeems Israel, reveals His Torah to her, and comes to dwell in her midst.

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The name Shemini Atzeret is taken from Num 29:35, “On the eighth day [shemini atzeret] you shall have a solemn assembly, you shall do no laborious work.” Yet the word עֲצֶרֶת atzeret does not mean “day” but “concluding meal” or “festival.” Thus, the Rabbis understood this language to indicate that this final day is an attempt to make the Sukkot festival linger, to extend it even beyond its prescribed limits.

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The Minor Festivals

In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great with his Greek armies conquered the Near East including Israel. After his death, his empire split apart. The land of Israel, after a period of struggle, came under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled the region of Syria. In the year 167 BCE, the king Antiochus Epiphanes decided to force all the peoples under his rule to hellenize.

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Purim, meaning “lots,” celebrates the victory which God gave to the Jews when it appeared that Haman, an evil officer in the Persian court, had gained the authority to attempt their mass destruction. The book of Esther is the biblical account, and lays the basis for the yearly festival.

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