The Jewish calendar and Jewish religious culture is largely shaped by festivals (or Holy days). There are three main Biblical festivals, often referred to as the pilgrim festivals. Pilgrim festivals because the expectation was that Jewish people would travel up as pilgrims to Jerusalem in order to mark and celebrate these special times.

The three pilgrim festivals are Passover, Pentecost (the Festival of Weeks) and Tabernacles (Sukkot). These three festivals are all rooted in Biblical commandments and have rich spiritual, historical and agricultural significance.

Passover is the spring festival which begins on the 15th day of Nisan. It marks the exodus from Egypt, and in many ways, it is a celebration of deliverance and freedom. Key Biblical texts linked to this festival include Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16. On the Sabbath in the middle of the festival the Haf tarah (the prophetic reading) is Ezekiel 37. Three of the Gospel accounts make clear that the last supper Jesus shared with His disciples was a Passover meal.

Pentecost takes place on the 6th day of Sivan and is a celebration of the giving of the Torah (Law of Moses) on Mount Sinai. Key Biblical texts linked to this festival include Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 16 and Leviticus 23. Many customs have grown up around this festival in Jewish tradition; perhaps the most noticeable (and beautiful) is the custom to adorn synagogues and prayer rooms with flowers. This points to the beauty and fragrance of living out the Torah.

The Book of Acts (Acts 2:1) makes clear that it was on the day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit was fully poured out upon the early followers of Jesus. This reality transformed and empowered these people and helped them share and live the Good News of Jesus with boldness, wisdom and love. David Stern in his Jewish New Testament Commentary makes this telling comment linking the giving of the Holy Spirit with the festival of Pentecost; “It is in this framework of Jewish thought and custom, in which Shavu’ot (Pentecost) is celebrated as a festival of harvest and Torah, that the events of Acts 2 must be understood. Because it was God’s intention to bring the Jewish New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:30-33) to the Jewish people in a Jewish way, he made maximum use of the Jewish festivals to convey new truths in ways that emphasized their connection with old truths (see Matthew 13:52).”

Tabernacles takes place in the autumn on the 15th day of Sukkot. This festival is a reminder of the forty years spent travelling in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Often people build simple structures in which to live for seven days in order to identify with the time in the wilderness. Key Biblical texts for this festival include Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. As this festival takes place during the final harvest of the year there is often a great sense of joy.

While there is an explicit link between the first two pilgrim festivals and events in the ministry of Jesus and the early ‘Church’ it is not so clear what the link with Tabernacles is. Clearly Jesus used this festival as an opportunity to teach within the temple courts (John 7); however some Christians suggest that the birth of Jesus took place during this festival, while other also add the understanding that His return will also occur during Tabernacles. For more on this teaching linking Tabernacles to the birth (and return) of Jesus see the book (available from the shop page on this website) by Alex Jacob - Walking an Ancient Path (p 25-28).

In addition to these three major pilgrim festivals other key festivals include Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) which takes place on the1st day of Tishri. This then leads up to arguably the most solemn day of the Jewish year which takes place on the 10th day of Tishri. This is the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) which is described in Leviticus 16. This is a solemn day of fasting and reflection on the nature of sin, the establishing of righteous relationships and how one finds favour in the eyes of Almighty God. Yom Kippur has a very far ranging appeal and even for Jewish people who are not connected with religious life or synagogue attendance Yom Kippur will be the time to gather together, to fast and to pray.

In the ministry of CMJ we always mark Yom Kippur by holding a special prayer meeting and encouraging all our supporters to fast. This is a mark of solidarity with Jewish communities and a reflection of our hope that all Jewish People will know and respond to the atonement which is offered freely and completely through the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus.

Later festivals were established by the Rabbinical communities and perhaps the best two known are Purim (Feast of Esther) and Hanukkah (Festival of Lights). Also in Israel today Holocaust Memorial day and Israel Independence Day are major national days. All the above festivals are annual occurrences which gives a clear shape, purpose and identity to Jewish life and culture. However arguably the most significant festival is the weekly festival of the Sabbath which is rooted in God’s creation pattern and the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath underpins Jewish identity and helps to establish a ‘rhythm of life’. Alongside the weekly Sabbath there is the Sabbatical Year which occurs in a seven year cycle (Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15) and culminates in a year of Jubilee which see the cancellation of debts and a fair redistribution of community wealth.

There is much debate in the Church regarding how within the liturgical year these Biblical festivals should be honoured and celebrated. CMJ has often been engaged in these debates and we are always willing to help Church leaders reflect upon these issues and to explore good practice and to learn together.

Posted by Phil Bowell on .

Thinking Aloud
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