Ancient Torah Scroll

Biblical and Post-Biblical Jewish Holidays

Ancient Torah Scroll

Beginning with Hanukkah, 2013, we have been posting brief explanations of the Jewish holidays on our home page at the time they are celebrated. Most are biblical holidays in the sense that they are observances required of Israel in the Old Testament. However, one is post-biblical, meaning that it originated after the close of the Old Testament canon. Hanukkah is a post-biblical feast because it commemorates the dedication of the Second Temple in 165 B.C. after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes.

The dates of these holidays are fixed on the Jewish calendar. For example, Passover always begins on the 15th of Nisan. However, the Jewish year is not the same length as a solar year, and thus the dates of the Jewish holidays shift from year to year on the standard solar calendar used in the Western world. It is also important to remember that in the Jewish world a new day begins at sunset.





Hanukkah Menorah

Hanukkah and Christmas are often thought of together. What is Hanukkah? Is it simply a Jewish substitute for Christmas? Hardly! Hanukkah (Hebrew, "dedication") is a post-biblical Jewish feast mentioned in the New Testament (John 10:22). The Second Temple had been completed in 516 B.C. after the return from the Babylonian captivity. Many years later, however, it was desecrated in 167 B.C. by the Greek king, Antiochus IV ("Epiphanes"). Led by Mattathias and his sons, called the Maccabees, a small group of Jews revolted against Antiochus and prevailed against overwhelming odds. Thus Hanukkah, or the Feast of Dedication, celebrates the cleansing and eight-day rededication of the Second Temple in 165 B.C. According to Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud, at the rededication there was only enough oil for the lampstand to burn one day, but by a miracle from God it burned for eight days. Thus Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights. Part of the celebration today involves lighting a nine-branch Menorah. Hanukkah is a feast that celebrates God's protection and provision for Israel. We can all reflect on the ways in which the Lord continues to protect and provide not only for his people Israel but for Christians as well. Here is a special Hanukkah verse, Isaiah 52:7::

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion,

"Your God reigns!"

This year Hanukkah runs from sunset December 10 to sunset December 18, 2020.


Purim Image

Purim is one of the most joyous holidays in the Jewish calendar. It celebrates how the Jewish people in the Persian Empire were saved from extinction during the reign of Xerxes (486-465 B.C). The telling of this whole event is the subject of the Book of Esther. The hero and heroine in the story are Mordecai and his younger cousin, Esther, a beautiful young girl whom he had raised as his own daughter. Through a fascinating series of events, Esther becomes Xerxes' queen, her identity as a Jewess unknown. The villain in the story is Haman, who hated Mordecai and therefore plots to destroy all the Jews throughout the empire. Mordecai tells Esther of the plot, and she tells the king. The result is that the Jewish people were saved, and this "vile Haman" was hung on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. "Purim" is the plural of pur, the Hebrew word meaning lot. Haman had cast a lot to pick the day for the destruction of the Jews (Esther 3:7), and Esther 9:18-28 directs that the day the Jews gained victory over Haman's plot should be called Purim and celebrated yearly as a joyous feast. This year Purim begins sunset, February 25; it lasts one day.


Passover Plate

Passover is the first of the three pilgrimage festivals in which all males in Israel were to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem (Exod. 23:14-17; Deut. 16:16). (The second pilgrimage was Shavuot or Feast of Weeks (also called Pentecost), and the third pilgrimage was Sukkot or Feast of Booths.) The deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage is the central redemptive act in the Old Testament, and Passover commemorates this event. That first Passover meal was eaten the night that the tenth and final plague fell upon Egypt--the death of every firstborn male. The Israelites were protected ("passed over") by the blood of the paschal lamb smeared on the lintel and side posts of their doors. "Passover" (Hebrew, Pesach) comes from the verb meaning "to pass over." The lamb was to be slain at twilight on the 14th of Nisan just before sunset and the beginning of the 15th of Nisan. Thus, the Passover meal was actually eaten then, as now, on the 15th of Nisan. Passover is followed immediately by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and today both feasts are subsumed under the name Passover. It is to be "a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to Yahweh; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance" (Exod. 12; Lev. 23; Deut. 16). However, since the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the sacrificial lamb could no longer be part of the service. The picture shows a dish for the modern Passover Seder. This year Passover begins sunset March 27 (the 15th of Nisan), 2021; it lasts eight days, ending sunset April 4. Christians should not only be aware of the Passover and its meaning; they should also know that it was the Passover that Jesus ate with his disciples in the upper room just before his crucifixion and that it will be the Passover that he celebrates with them at his Second Advent (Luke 22:7-16).



Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks (Deut. 16:10), is one of the five feasts in Leviticus 23 and the second of the three pilgrimage festivals in which all males in Israel were to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). (The first was Passover/Unleavened Bread, the third Sukkot or Feast of Booths.) Historically, Shavuot celebrated the barley and wheat harvests provided by the Lord. The word Shavuot is the plural of the Hebrew word meaning period of seven or week. Leviticus 23:9-22 states that the offering of the first harvest sheaves was brought the day after the Sabbath on the festival of Passover. From that Sabbath they were to count exactly seven weeks plus one day, making 50 days. Thus the Feast of Weeks celebrated the wheat harvest seven weeks after the firstfruits of the barley harvest. Shavuot is also called the Feast of Pentecost, the Greek word for fiftieth. After the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the celebration of Shavuot changed. According to Jewish tradition dating back at least to the second century A.D., Shavuot is also the anniversary of the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai (cf. Exod. 19:1), and that is the emphasis of the holiday today. Many Jews observe Shavuot by staying up all night studying the Torah, the five books of Moses. Synagogues are often decorated with branches and flowers. Shavuot and all the other feasts were designed to illustrate and celebrate aspects of God's redemption for his people Israel. They served as memorials of God's saving acts in the past, celebrations of his provision in the present, and pictures of the ultimate salvation of Israel in the future. Paul states that the Passover was a type of the sacrifice of Christ (1 Cor. 5:7), which is the basis of salvation for both Israel and the Gentiles. It is also of interest that on Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover when Christ was crucified, the Holy Spirit was given, indeed a mighty act of God's provision (Acts 2:1-4). This year Shavuot begins at sunset, May 16, and ends at sunset, May 18, 2021.

Rosh Hashanah


Rosh Hashanah is Hebrew for head of the year and is the beginning of the High Holy Days. It is the Rabbinic name for the beginning of the new year on the Jewish calendar. However, this name is not used in the Bible for this holiday. Also, it is easy for confusion to enter here. In the Bible (Ex. 12:2), the first month of the year is Abib, or using the Babylonian name, Nisan (a Spring month, running roughly from the middle of March to the middle of April). Also according to the Bible (Lev. 23:23-25; Num. 29:1-6), the holiday which is now called Rosh Hashanah (often Feast of Trumpets in Christian circles) occurs on the first day of the seventh month, Tishri (a Fall month, from the middle of September to the middle of October). Judaism thus maintains a distinction between the civil or fiscal year, beginning with Tishri, and the religious year, beginning with Nisan. Many Jewish writers trace this use of two new years to the Babylonian captivity. By the time of Christ, the identification of Tishri and Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the fiscal year and Nisan and the Passover as the beginning of the religious year was well established. Also by that time the blowing of the shofar had become central to Rosh Hashanah, its haunting sound stirring the hearts of the faithful to introspection and repentance. The Ten Days of Awe begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, during which this repentance occurs. The common greeting for Rosh Hashanah is L'shanah tovah ("for a good year"). In 2020 Rosh Hashanah begins sunset September 18 and ends sunset September 20.

Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the Hebrew name for this holiday, is generally translated Day of Atonement. It is the most important holiday of the Jewish year and is the conclusion of the "Days of Awe," which begin with Rosh Hashanah. According to Leviticus 23:26, it is to be observed on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month of the religious calendar and first month of the civil or fiscal calendar, which begins on Rosh Hashanah. The ritual observed on Yom Kippur is given in Leviticus 16. It is the only day of the year that the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, or inner sanctuary of the tabernacle and temple. On this day two goats were used: one was sacrificed as a sin offering, while the other goat (the "scapegoat," "goat of departure," or "escape goat") was released in the desert to carry away the sins of the Israelites (Lev. 16:20-22). "This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before Yahweh" (Lev. 16:29-30). With the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, this ceremony could no longer be performed. Today, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Days of Awe, the Jewish people engage in intense introspection, confession, repentance and prayer for forgiveness for the sins committed during the previous year. Yom Kippur (a fast, not a feast) ends the ten Days of Awe and is the final day to "afflict the soul" to atone for the sins of the previous year. In 2020 Yom Kippur begins sunset September 27 and ends sunset September 28.



Sukkot is the plural of sukkah, the Hebrew word booth. Thus Sukkot, as the name of this holiday, is short for Feast of Booths, or as usually translated in Christian circles, Feast of Tabernacles. However, "tabernacle" is an unfortunate translation because it makes one think of the dwelling place of the Lord in the wilderness. But that word is Mishkan, not sukkah. Sukkot is one of the five feasts in Leviticus 23 and the third of the three pilgrimage festivals in which all males in Israel were to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). (The first was Passover/Unleavened Bread, the second Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks.) Sukkot has a dual significance. Historically, it commemorates the forty years of wandering in the desert, "booths" referring to the temporary dwellings the Israelites lived in (Lev. 23:33-43). Agriculturally, it celebrates the end of fall harvest in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel; Exod. 34:22-24). Today, many devout Jewish people obey the command in Leviticus 23:42-43 by building and living in booths for seven days "so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God" (Lev. 23:42-43). Sukkot is one of the most joyous holidays, and during the services branches are waved and fruit is eaten. It is very likely that the holiday of Thanksgiving, begun by the American pilgrims, was based on Sukkot, because the Pilgrims looked to the Bible for an appropriate way to give thanks to the Lord for their survival and for the harvest. In 2020 Sukkot begins sunset October 2 and ends sunset October 9.

© Copyright 2020 Rediscovering the Bible. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us | Email Webmaster