When thinking of holidays, one generally thinks of modern days when people have the day off from work or school; days when families gather and spend time together. While this is not an incorrect view, the holidays set forth in the Bible are not the same as most of the holidays generally celebrated in today’s mostly-secular world.
There are both major days and lesser observances to be recognized. Many of the holidays include several calendar days, though some are observed on a single day each year. Some are celebrated by feasting, while others are celebrated by fasting or other purposeful deprivation.
Seven major observances are set forth in the Bible, each with specific instructions. These are Passover (Pesach), Unleavened Bread (Chag Hamotzi), Firstfruits (Yom habikkurim), Pentecost (Shavu’ot), Trumpets (Yom Teru’ah), Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot).
Lesser holy days include the weekly Sabbath and the new month. While Jewish and Messianic groups celebrate other holidays, such as Hanukkah, Purim, and Tisha B’Av, these are additions and not Biblically mandated (though they do have significance as remembrance, and some are based on Biblical incidences).
Passover is set to begin on the Hebrew date Nissan 15, which usually falls in March or April of our calendar. It was commanded to be observed in memory of the escape from Egypt, when the angel passed over the Israelite homes where the lamb’s blood was on the doorposts. (See Exodus 1-15 for the story.) Other terms used to refer to this time are Zeman Herutenu (“Time of Our Freedom”), Chag he-Aviv (“Spring Festival”), and Chag ha-Matzoth (“Festival of Matzahs”).
On the night of Passover, a special family meal called the Seder is held. Unlike general family feasts, this meal has a specific order and menu, which involves fourteen parts: Kaddesh (Sanctification), Urechatz (Washing), Karpas (Vegetable), Yachatz (Breaking), Maggid (The Story), Rachtzah (Washing), Motzi Matzah (Blessings), Maror (Bitter Herbs), Korech (Sandwich), Shulchan Orech (Dinner), Tzafun (Dessert), Barech (Grace), Hallel (Song), and Nirtzah (Closing).
Immediately preceding the Feast of Unleaved Bread, Passover is a part of the same feast time and the two are often combined when speaking about them.
Feast of Unleavened Bread
The Feast of Unleavened Bread immediately follows the Passover, beginning the following day. The observance includes seven days, of which the first and last are High Sabbath days, in which no labor is permitted, regardless which day of the week they fall on. However, the regular Sabbath day is still observed during that week.
No leaven is to be eaten, and it is to be removed from the house entirely, for the duration of the feast. It is a reminder of the escape from Egypt and the sanctification of Christians. Leaven is also used as an example of sin, and therefore this is also symbolic of removing sin from one’s life.
Feast of First Fruits
This is a part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, technically, as it falls on the second day of that feast. It is a celebration of harvest, and a reminder that God asked His people to give Him the first fruits of their increase. This begins a seven-week period referred to as “counting the omer” which culminates in Shavu’ot.
Feast of Weeks (Pentecost or Shavu’ot)
Taking place fifty days after the Feast of First Fruits, Pentecost comes from Latin meaning “fiftieth day.” It is in memory of when God gave Moses the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and when the disciples received the Holy Spirit.
The feast on the fiftieth day was celebrated after a ceremony of offerings with a feast of a meal to which all were invited, including strangers, poor, and the Levites.
Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah)
This celebrates the new year for the Jewish nation. It is also representative of a day of judgment. A notable part of the holiday is the blowing of the shofar (a long horn). There are also usually prayer services in the morning of the day, focusing on remembrance and God’s majesty and judgment.
Traditionally, this is considered the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. Along with sounding the shofar, services are held in synagogues with special liturgy, and festive meals are also enjoyed, usually with something dipped in honey to symbolize a “sweet” new year.
Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)
Nine days after the Feast of Trumpets comes the Day of Atonement. A High Holiday, the Day of Atonement is considered the holiest day of the year to those who follow Judaism. It is also called the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
The day is usually observed by 25 hours of fasting and prayer, much of that spent in synagogue services. Five services are generally held throughout the day and they include prayer, confessions of sins, and a unique prayer for the day.
This is one holy day that is often observed even by secular Jews, and some even attend synagogue on that day even though they do not go any other time.
The day before Yom Kippur is also commemorated. Additional prayers are said. People go to their friends, family, and acquaintances and ask forgiveness. Charity giving is common on this day, and festive meals are enjoyed.
Tradition states that the following are to be avoided on Yom Kippur: eating, drinking, leather shoes, bathing, washing, anointing with lotions or perfumes, and marital relations. This is meant to allow people to sympathize with those who are uncomfortable as their lot in life, and for purity’s sake.
Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot)
Also known as the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles is observed by building a booth outside, either of sticks and thatch, or, in recent years, with PVC and cloth, in which the people live for eight days. This represents the time when the Israelites lived in booths after leaving Egypt’s captivity. It is also viewed as a celebration of harvest, as it generally occurs during the harvest season.
During the week of the festival, the Torah is read daily along with prayers.
Purim, or Holiday of Joy, remembers the Persian Jews and their miraculous rescue by Queen Esther.
Hanukkah, or Festival of Lights, is a holiday based on a historical event in which the lamp oil did not run out for eight days, even though the quantity of oil was not sufficient.
Tenth of Tevet commemorates the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem.
Tisha B’Av remembers the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – twice.