Festivals and Seasons
An Invitation to the Feasts
A Feast of Seasons invites you to come on a journey through the festival year of the Bible. The path is a Jewish one and we will explore traditions that began in Old Testament times. Most of these festivals were also celebrated in the New Testament period and would have been familiar to Jesus and his early Jewish followers. By understanding them more fully we will understand the background to the Bible and our faith. As we go through the seasons we get a feel for the rhythm of the year that Jesus himself knew from childhood. Let's travel with him on a journey through time.
Different types of time
There are two types of time in Judaism.1 There is historical time that moves on to different things every year. We all need this type of time to grow and change as we go through life, but it is not the only type of time. There is also cyclical time, which goes through the rhythm of the seasons. Whatever our background, it is likely that there are festivals we associate with these different times of year. Maybe they evoke the aromas of traditional foods, the laughter of games or the melodies of songs. We need this type of time just as much as our linear time. Cyclical time gives us our regularity in life. The festivals are havens where we each can pause for a while to take a breath before moving forward again. For children they make up the landscape of the year and are full of excitement and expectancy. For older people they are anchors to happy memories and familiar companions as life grows slowly towards eternity.
When many of us think of traditional festivals, we are transported back to childhood. This was when our views of these events were formed and this was where we learnt the traditions that shaped our later lives, usually from our parents.
Jesus' parents were particularly devout for their generation.2 Mary went to the Temple to offer a sacrifice and give thanks for the birth of Jesus though it was not obligatory for her to go in person.3 One of the few stories that we have of Jesus' childhood concerns a journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (Luke 2:41-50). Luke explains that Mary and Joseph went up to Jerusalem every year for this festival. This would not have been the case with all Jews living in the Galilee and the impact of these regular trips was apparent in Jesus' later life, not least in his familiarity with the city and with the Temple. The disciples in contrast were quite overwhelmed by the Temple on their visit to Jerusalem with him (Mark 13:1).
When he visited Jerusalem at the age of twelve Jesus (like many children who have a passionate interest that takes over on a holiday) was drawn like a magnet to the Temple courts and the rabbis. This was probably not the only Passover Jesus spent with these scholars and again this showed in adulthood through his knowledge and ability in rabbinic debate. His teachers were the Pharisees who believed in the resurrection and were very devoted to the Bible, with a developing oral interpretation that had been handed on to them for generations. They did not preach a sermon or give a lecture but, sitting down, they would invite a question to begin a dialogue with their students. This question and answer method of teaching continued in Judaism and is also a feature of many of the New Testament debates.4 Christians often see the Pharisees very negatively as people obsessed with the details of the law. Although Jesus challenged the excesses of the more severe and had a distinct agenda from them, he was probably nearer to this group in his views than to any other. Some of his teaching shows the direct influence of Rabbi Hillel, one of the senior rabbis teaching at the Temple when Jesus was a child.5
Stages in the cycle
As the cycle of the feasts has developed so new festivals have been added. The core festivals are those of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Leviticus 23 sets out the festivals of: Sabbath (Shabbat); Passover (Pesach) and First Fruits (Bikkurim); Pentecost (Shavuot); Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah); Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Tabernacles (Sukkot). Each of these has a Hebrew name (given in brackets) and both names may be used for each festival. The last three of these festivals (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot) come together and are known as the High Holy Days. In Temple times these developed into the three times in the year when it was commanded to go up to Jerusalem. These `pilgrimage festivals' were Passover, Pentecost Tabernacles. The next two festivals to be added, Hanukkah and Purim, probably came from the time just after the Hebrew Bible was completed. They complete the number of festivals that would have been known in the New Testament. All of these festivals have a chapter of their own in A Feast of Seasons.
A further layer of festivals came with Lag b'Omer and Tishah b'Av. Lag b'Omer comes between Passover and Pentecost. This is an intense waiting period when many mourning practices are kept. Tu b'Shvat, the New Year for trees, came from biblical roots but was not celebrated as a festival until about the tenth century AD. It is the only later festival that given a chapter in A Feast of Seasons because of the positive biblical teaching that it provides about Creation. After that there was another very long gap until the twentieth century when two new memorial days were added to the Jewish calendar. Both are in the time between Passover and Pentecost. The first is Yom ha Shoah or Holocaust Memorial Day. This commemorates the six million Jewish people who were murdered in Nazi Europe between 1939 and 1945. It is appropriate to have this day in a mourning period in the calendar. The second occurs eight days later and is called Yom h'Atzmaut or Israel Independence Day. This celebrates Israel's declaration of independence on 14 May 1948, which was 5 Iyar in the Jewish calendar. This completes the Hebrew calendar of the year. I would like to invite you to discover these biblical feasts and enjoy the richness of the seasons that await you.
1. Strassfeld, M., The Jewish holidays, A Guide and Commentary (Harper and Row: New York, 1985), p106.
2. Safrai, C. `Jesus' Jewish Parents', Jerusalem Perspective, vol 40 (Sept./Oct. 1993): pp.10-11, 14-15.
3. Luke 2:23, Leviticus 12:8.
4. See for example Matthew 12:1-14.
5. See for example the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12. Hillel was once asked to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one leg. He said `whatever is hateful to you do not do to others.'
This page contains edited extracts from the introduction to A Feast of Seasons. The full chapter also has information about the different groups in the first century, the development of festivals in Judaism and how the Mishnah and Talmud were developed.