THE MEANING AND IMPORTANCE OF THE JEWISH HOLIDAYS
By Rabbi John Fischer, Ph.D., Th.D.
Copyright © 2004 by Dr. John Fischer.
"These are THE FEASTS OF THE LORD..." Leviticus 23:4
When God taught the Jewish people His truths in the time of Moses, He communicated them in a unique way. As any good educator or communicator would, He employed vehicles that involved all of our senses in order to leave an indelible impression on us. These vehicles communicate God's message in beautiful, picturesque ways. Most significantly they include the festivals of the Jewish calendar.
A study of Numbers 10:10 reveals that God instituted the festivals and new month celebrations to serve as reminders of Him and our obligations to Him. As such they serve as teaching aids for absorbing religious truths. They can also serve to communicate God's message to our children and friends.
In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 God commanded us to daily teach our children His ways in all we do. In this way they (and we) will understand that following God is a life-style and is relevant to every aspect of life.The observance of the calendar events aids in this process and demonstrates that each day of our lives has tremendous significance before God. Rabbi Samsnon Hirsch explained it well:
FULFILLMENT IN THE FESTIVALS
The B'rit Hadasha (Newer Testament) stresses that Yeshua (Jesus) fulfills the message of these calendar events, providing them with added significance. Hebrews (8:5; 10:1) speaks in terms of them being "Shadows of good things to come," that is, they highlight the Messiah. But a shadow can't highlight anyone if it's removed from the picture. Therefore, the "shadows" still have important functions to perform.
Yeshua taught (Matt. 5:17-19) that anyone who annulled the least of God's commandments, or taught others to do so, would be called "least" in His kingdom. He didnt' come to abolish or set aside the Law and its teachings; he came to do the opposite, to fulfill them. The term Yeshua used for "fulfill" carries the idea of bringing to full expression, showing off in its true meaning. The image is that of a crown, showing someone forth in his full radiance. The festivals are beautiful pictures of this.
Although the Sabbath (cf. Lev. 23:2-3) and new month celebrations are part of the calendar events, the rest of this chapter focuses on the major festivals.
THE CYCLE OF FESTIVALS AND THEIR FULFILLMENT
Leviticus 23 relates the yearly cycle of Jewish festivals. In addition to the teachings being communicated, the very chronology of these festivals has significance.
Exodus 12 and the earlier chapters tell the story of Pesach. Nine plagues had not convinced the Pharaoh of Egypt to release the Jewish people. God had one final plague in mind. In order to be protected from this plague, each family had to kill a lamb and apply its blood to the door of their home. When the angel of destruction passed through Egypt, he passed over the homes with blood on the door.
Leviticus 23:4-5 commands this festival to be observed in the first month of the Jewish year. Pesach is no longer celebrated in the first month because of a different starting point for the Jewish calendar, one which also goes back to biblical times. Notice too, the strong association of Pesach with unleavened bread. Traditionally, Pesach is observed much as it has been since before Yeshua. The major exceptions include the presence of the lamb bone replacing the eating of the lamb, and the addition of the Afikomen (the so-called "dessert"). [There is ample indication that Yeshua himself probably instituted this practice, which then found its way into traditional observance because of the early Messianic Jews.]
An incident from the time of the Second Temple highlights the Messianic significance of Pesach. At that time people traveled great distances to observe the holiday in Jerusalem. They would then go to the Temple area to select a lamb for the festival. There the priest would indicate an appropriate lamb by pointing to the lamb and saying: "Behold, the lamb." On one occasion Yohanan (John the Baptizer), the son of a priest, saw Yeshua coming in the distance, pointed and said: "Behold the lamb..." But he went on to complete his statement, "...the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29). He thus indicated that Yeshua's forthcoming sacrifical death was related to the meaning of Pesach. Later, Rav Shaul (Apostle Paul) stated, "Yeshua, our Passover, is sacrificed for us" (1 Cor. 5:7).
Yeshua the Messiah acted as God's Passover lamb for us; He died that we might live. Before He died, Yeshua took one of the cups of wine during Pesach and said that it represented His blood, which would shortly be shed on our behalf for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26: 27-28). This would have reminded His followers of the blood of the Passover lamb that was applied to the doorposts back in Egypt.
Now as we celebrate Pesach, we remember not only God's actions during the time of the Exodus but also Yeshua's death for us, which secured our atonement. In fact, the term used for the piece of matzah which is "hidden" during the Pesach meal, Afikomen—a Greek, not Hebrew term—literally means "the one who came." It was used in the first couple of centuries as a title of Yeshua the Messiah. [Cf. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon.]
FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD
Leviticus 23:6-8 describes this festival which is closely connected to Pesach, which also uses unleavened bread. Unleavened bread (matzot) may well picture "pure" bread in that it has no yeast-like agents. In this sense it remains "uncontaminated". For this reason leaven frequently represented evil (I Cor. 5:6-7). This feast became part of the Passover week observance because of the command to eat matzot for seven days during Pesach (Ex. 12:18).
When Yeshua ate His last Passover meal, He took the matzah, broke it—as we do even today—and said it represented His body, which would be given as a sacrifice for us (Matt. 26:26), hence, the signficiance of "pure" or unleavened bread.
CEREMONY OF FIRSTFRUITS
According to Leviticus 23:9-14 the ceremony of firstfruits occurs immediately after Pesach. The very first part of the harvest is waved before God, a symbolic way of presenting it to God, "to be accepted for us" (v. 11). Traditional observance associates this ceremony with Passover week. The beginning of the fifty-day period of counting the omer, observed by traditional Jews, reflects this ceremony today.
Three days after His death and right after Pesach, Yeshua rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1f). Rav Shaul wrote that by rising from the dead, "Yeshua became the first-fruits of those who died" (I Cor. 15:20). Like the firstfruits (Lev. 23:11), His ressurection was "accepted for us" as He was "raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). So, the ceremony of the firstfruits and its traditional counterpart, the beginning of the counting of the omer, should remind us of Yeshua's ressurection. The resurrection demonstrated that He was indeed the Messiah and that His sacrifice had in fact secured atonement for us.
As we recall the significance of Passover week, we recognize several truths. The blood of the Passover lamb reminds us of Yeshua's great loss of blood at His crucifixion, and the matzah recall His body sacrificed on our behalf. These holidays picture His death. The ceremony of firstfruits pictures His resurrection. Thus, the Messianic significance of Passover week relates to the atonement made for us by Yeshua the Messiah, effected by His death and resurrection.
Chronologically, Shavuot (Pentecost), the Feast of Weeks, occurs next in the original Jewish calendar (Lev. 23:15-22). This special time takes place fifty days after the firstfruits ceremony. Along with other offerings two loaves of leavened bread were presented to God. Deuteronomy 16:9-17 indicates that although this festival accompanied the harvest, it was intended to remind us that we were once slaves in Egypt, before God set us free.
As our traditions developed, Shavuot became the festival of the giving of the Law. Evidently, the rabbis concluded by calculations that the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai took place on this day. Traditional Jews read the scroll of Ruth in the synagogue on this day and occasionally refer to Shavuot as "Atzeret shel Pesach," the completion of Passover. Messianic significance abounds in this festival. From God's perspective the time of great "harvest"—when large numbers of Jews and then Gentiles came into a personal relationship with Him—was initiated at the Shavuot after Yeshua's resurrection (Acts 2:40-43). The two leavened (impure) loaves of Shavuot may therefore symbolize Jew and Gentile "presented" to God and now part of His "family". The scroll of Ruth, the story of the Gentile woman who became part of God's people, certainly pictures this time when Gentiles first became God's children in large numbers.
Rav Shaul's teaching about our former condition as slaves to sin (Romans 6-8) is certainly reminiscent of Shavuot's reminder that we were formerly slaves in Egypt. God set us free from slavery to sin by placing His Spirit in us to enable us to live as He intended (Rom. 8:1-4). God visibly placed His Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) in Yeshua's followers on this important Shavuot centuries ago (Acts 2:4).
Technically, the work of atonement is not complete unless man's sin nature ("yetzer hara", evil inclination) has been dealt with and power to overcome it has been granted. The coming of the Ruach HaKodesh served as the completion of Passover (Atzeret shel Pesach), the completion of our atonement, in the sense that through the Spirit God gives us the power we need to overcome our tendency to evil. Yeshua Himself indicated this (John 16:7): "Unless I go, the Ruach HaKodesh will not come. But when I go (i.e. "firstfruits", His resurrection), I will send the Ruach to you" (Shavuot, the completion of the fifty days from firstfruits, occuring during Passover week).
Shavuot possess other Messianic significance as well. God spoke of a time when He would write His laws in our hearts (Jer. 31:32-33). Ezekiel 36:25-27 mentions His placing the Ruach in our hearts in this same connection. So God associates the giving of the Ruach (Acts 2:4; Ezek. 36:25-27) with the placing of His Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:32-33). What more appropriate time to visibly place His Ruach in His people than on Shavuot, the feast of the giving of the Law! Notice that Ezekiel connects the giving of the Ruach with the sprinkling of water on us. Moroccan Jews have an ancient custom they perform on Shavuot. They pour water on each other! (Hayyim Schauss, Guide to the Jewish Holy Days, p. 95). This becomes one more symbol that Shavuot pictures God's visibly placing the Ruach in the followers of Yeshua.
The biblical holiday originated as the "memorial of the blowing of trumpets" (Lev. 23:23-25), a holy gathering. Today, we observe it as the New Year because, according to tradition, God created the world on this day. Rosh Hashanah is frequently called the day of remembrance (Yom HaZikaron) or the day of judgment (Yom HaDin) in view of its inauguration of the days of awe. The first name stresses God's faithfulness to His covenant and promises, the second His righteousness and justice. Still, the holiday conveys joy and delight, as illustrated by the custom of eating sweet things (e.g., apples dipped in honey).
A very interesting ceremony, Tashlich, grew up as part of the Rosh Hashanah observance. Devout Jews go to the edge of a body of water and empty their pockets or throw bread or stones into the water. As they do this, they repeat Micah 7:18-20, which includes: "You will throw our sins into the depths of the sea."
Since Rosh Hashanah originated as the memorial of blowing of trumpets, the shofar plays an important role. Among other things it symbolizes, according to the rabbis, are God's kingship and the coming of the Messianic Age (Olam Haba).
Rosh Hashanah has deep messianic significance. The rabbis taught that one day the shofar would sound and the Messiah would come. When He came, the dead would rise (Joseph Hertz, Daily Prayer Book, p. 865). About a decade after Yeshua, Rav Shaul talked about this when he referred to the fact that Yeshua would return for His followers and would thereafter rule the earth as Messiah the King. People refer to this event as the Rapture or Yeshua's Second Coming. In describing the Rapture, Rav Shaul said: "The trumpet (shofar) will sound; the Messiah will come, and the dead will rise" (I Thess. 4:16-18). This day will certainly be charactersized by joy, delight, and sweetness (cf. apples dipped in honey).
This particular resurrection is for those who have had, as Tashlich reminds us, their sins thrown into the sea by God because they have accepted Yeshua as Messiah. At this time, we will undergo a new creation, so to speak (I Cor. 15:50-53); we will receive new bodies. Remember, Rosh Hashanah traditionally commemorates the original creation. The Rapture, while being a sign of God's faithfulness to us (Yom HaZikaron, day of remembrance), ushers in a time of judgment on the world (Yom HaDin, day of judgment).
In Leviticus the term "memorial" does not mean remembering something which is past. It calls attention to something about to occur. As we observe Rosh Hashanah, we should anticipate the time of Yeshua's return.
The Bible (Lev. 23:26-32) describes this day (the Day of Atonement) as most solemn, a time of introspection and repentance. Those who didn't observe this holy day were severely punished. Only on Yom Kippur could the high priest enter the most sacred part of the sancuary, and only he could enter. There, after making a sacrifice for himself, he brought the blood from the sacrifice made for the people (Lev. 16). On this day atonement was made for the whole nation, as a goat died in place of the people. (According to the most up-to-date studies, atonement, Heb. KIPPER, means "ransom by means of a substitute.")
Traditional observance has maintained the solemnity of this great day of repentance. Reminiscences of the Yom Kippur sacrifice still exist among some religious Jews in the custom of Kapporot. A chicken is swung over the head as the following is recited: "this is my substitute, this is my commutation; this chicken goes to death; but may I be gathered and enter into a long and happy life and into peace."
Messianic signficance abounds. The services during the period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur refer repeatedly to the binding or sacrific of Isaac ("Akedah"). The rabbis teach that in some way God accepts the "sacrifice" of Isaac on our behalf. Isaac beautifully foreshadows the sacrifice of Messiah (e.g. Heb. 11:17-19), whose sacrifice God accepted on our behalf. The Haftorah portion on Yom Kippur is the book of Jonah, the prophet who spent three days in the belly of a large fish before emerging. When Yeshua was challenged to provide evidence for His Messiahship, He pointed to the example of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-40). He used Jonah as a picture of His own death and resurrection. A musaf prayer found in many older Yom Kippur prayerbooks exhibits additional Messianic significance.
Rav Shaul writes of a time in the future when all Israel will be redeemed and will have atonement (Rom. 11:26). The prophet Zechariah (12:10; 13:9) also predicted this time of national redemption. In the past atonement was made for all Israel on Yom Kippur. Presently, this holy day looks forward to the time when all Israel will accept the atonement provided by the Messiah. This will be a time not only of national atonment for Israel but of atonement for the entire world.
As we await this day, we can celebrate Yom Kippur by thanking God for the atonement available through Yeshua and by praying that more of our people will recognize and accept Him as their atonement. The tenor of the day also provides us with an opportunity for self-searching, repentance and recommitment to God (cf. II Cor. 13:5; I Jn. 1:9).
The Bible (Lev. 23:33-43) pictures Succot (Festival of Booths or Tabernacles) as an eight-day period of rejoicing. Although it occurs at harvest time, the festival virtually ignores the harvest theme as it commemorates God's faithfulness to Israel through the wilderness wanderings after they left Egypt.
Traditional observance has maintained the spirit of great rejoicing during Succot. As in biblical times, meals are to be eaten in booths as a "picture of man's sojourn under God's wings," and also as a reminder of freedom from Egypt (Lev. 23:43). Participants carry the lulav branches and the etrog [a lemon-like fruit] in a procession through the synagogue and wave the branches in four directions. The waving of the branches goes back to earlier times when Near Eastern people welcomed visiting dignitaries in this way.
The seventh day of the celebration, Hoshana Rabba, gets its name from the prayers said on that day. Those prayers begin with the Hebrew "hoshana" (save now) and include some special Messianic prayers. In tune with the spirit of joy, the participants recite Hallel Psalms (113-118) during the week's celebration. It all culminates on the ninth day with Simchat Torah, the day of rejoicing over God's gift of the Law to the Jewish people.
During the Second Temple times, two events which no longer take place highlighted the celebration. Water, drawn from a nearby source, was brought to the Temple and poured out by the altar as Isaiah 12:3 was repeated: "Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." The torchlight parade, brilliantly illuminating the Temple at night, stood out as the other great event, possibly reflecting one of the verses from the Hallel Psalms (118:27): "God is the Lord who has shown us light."
Yeshua chose these two events to highlight His mission as Messiah. As the water was being poured by the altar, He announced: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Scripture says that rivers of living water will flow from his inmost being" (John 7:37-39). As torches lit up the Temple, He shouted: "I am the light of the world...light will flood the path of the one following me" (John 8:12).
Messianic significance also abounds in the celebration as traditionally observed since Temple days. Two verses from one of the Hallel Psalms stand out (118:22-23): "The stone which the builders refused has become the head stone of the corner." This beautifully pictured the time when Yeshua will reign as Messiah, the king over the earth. The waving of the lulav, that oriental form of welcome, will be directed toward Him in that day. One of the prayers of Hoshana Rabba echoes this welcome to Messiah.
This prayer eagerly ancitipates the coming of the Messianic kingdom. Then, people will rejoice in the presence of the living Torah, Yeshua, the one called the Word of God (cf. John 1:1f). That Simchat Torah will have no rivals in its joy and celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19 describes this as a time when all nations, not just Israel, will keep the festival of Succot and live in booths.
When the apostle Peter (Shimon Ha-Shaliach) awoke from dozing and for a moment caught sight of the glory Yeshua reflected at His transfiguration, he immediately thought the Messiah had come to rule. In the spirit of the Zechariah passage, he appropriately suggested that they begin celebrating Succot. His idea was good, but his timing was off. Shimon discovered later that he had had the privilege of looking into the future that Zechariah had predicted. So Succot pictures the coming reign of Messiah over the earth, that time of ultimate freedom.
As we celebrate Succot each year, we can anticipate that time when the booths will no longer picture our present "sojourn under God's wings". Then they will remind us of the past, before the reign of Yeshua HaMashiach the King. In the meantime the booths remind us to depend on God and not on material goods (cf. Mt. 6:25-33).
Perhaps a chart best summarizes the Messianic significances of the Jewish holidays. It also helps demonstrate the importance of their specific sequence in Leviticus 23, as they reflect in chronological order the major events of God's dealings with us.
The Holidays Outside the Leviticus Cycle
Purim commemorates the events of the scroll of Esther, as we relive our deliverance from Haman and take renewed faith in outliving Hamans of other times. The celebration provides a joyous, carnival-type of atmosphere. Men dress up as women, women as men; people playfully snatch each other's food. All of this serves as a picture of disorder.
Haman was the first to attempt to exterminate the Jews, so the holiday is a reminder of God's preservation of and commitment to Israel. But in the context of Purim, it reminds us of God's preservation during our exile. Exile is pictured as a time of disorder, in contrast to the order which characterizes Messiah's reign, the final and complete end of exile. The disorderly, raucous, carnival nature of Purim then serves to remind us of God's preservation of our people through the years of exile until Messiah rules, and disorder disappears.
Hanukkah reminds us of the victory won by the Maccabees in 165 B.C.E. to insure the purity of the worship of God and to preserve the distinctiveness of Israel and Jewish identity. After God granted this tremendous victory, the people cleansed and rededicated the Temple. The Syrian ruler Antiochus had defiled the Temple and turned it into a heathen shrine, hence the need for cleansing. Therefore, Hanukkah originated as the festival of the dedication or cleansing of the Temple.
Yeshua used the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22) to proclaim Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1ff). In the Jewish writings shepherds frequently represented the leaders of Israel, both good and bad. (The Maccabees, for example, would have been considered among the good shepherds.) Yeshua therefore announced Himself as the good shepherd par excellence.
The book of Daniel predicted the rise of Antiochus and his defiling of the Temple (Dan. 8 & 11). Daniel also used Antiochus to represent a figure in the future whom Christian theologians call the Antichrist (Antimessiah), who will also defile the Temple (in this case, the Third Temple which is not yet built). The Antimessiah will cause great persecution for the Jewish people, a time known as Jacob's trouble (Jer. 30:4-7; cf. Zech. 13:8-9). At this time Yeshua the Messiah, as the great shepherd-leader (Zech. 12-14; cf. I Peter 5:4), will come and win a tremendous victory, greater than that won by Yehudah the Maccabee. He will save Israel and establish His worldwide rule.
Hanukkah looks back to a victory and the preservation of the Jewish people when they were in the land. For us it looks forward to a time when our Jewish people will be preserved despite intense suffering. This preservation, again while the Jewish people are in the land, will culminate in the victory won by the Great Shepherd, Yeshua.
Thus Purim pictures our preservation from our enemies while we're in exile, and Hanukkah pictures our preservation while we're in the land. And, both anticipate the reign of Messiah.
The Jewish calendar has tremendous significance for us. It recalls the great actions of God in our history and reminds us of all He has done for us. He is the Lord of history.
The holidays possess tremendous Messianic significance as well and highlight all that Yeshua has and will accomplish for us. They serve as excellent reminders for both Jews and Gentiles. But God has also used the holidays to preserve us as a people, a preservation in which we should actively participate by continuing to observe the Jewish calendar.
"These are THE FEASTS OF THE LORD..." Leviticus 23:4