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The Jewish Calendar

By: Bruce Scott

The feasts of Israel are unequivocally unique. They are unique because they were established by the Word of God. They are unique because they belong to a unique people—the Jewish people. They are unique because they picture and foreshadow the person and work of the promised Messiah.

Introduction

A study of the feasts or holidays of Israel helps to understand the biblical and historical underpinnings of modern-day Jewish culture. It also helps bring to light an intricate, spiritual tapestry woven by the hand of God, a tapestry illustrating the marvelous plan of salvation that He has designed.

Referred to hundreds of times in Scripture, the holidays of Israel are described as “the feasts of the Lord” (Lev. 23:2), “holy convocations” (Lev. 23:4), “solemn feasts” (Num. 15:3), and “holyday[s]” (Ps 42:4). At the behest of God, they were to be dutifully proclaimed “in their seasons” (Lev. 23:4).

This study attempts to play a part in that proclamation by showing what the festivals are, how they are observed (primarily by Orthodox Jews), how they fit into biblical prophecy, and, finally, how they may be applied to our personal lives. The Jewish calendar and the major festivals will be examined, as well as each of the minor festivals, both biblical and nonbiblical. Throughout the book, key words will be italicized on the first occasion of their use. These words may also be found in the glossary.

The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah has been written primarily with Christian readers in mind. Nevertheless, all are welcome to read it. God invites everyone to come and sit at His spiritual table, open the menu, and discover the sumptuous feast He offers through Jesus the Messiah.

A blessing often recited on Jewish holidays is appropriate for the beginning of this hopefully soul-satisfying repast: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast kept us in life, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”   Amen.

Now, let’s partake of our feast from God’s Word.

The Jewish Calendar

One day I saw a gray hair in my head;
I plucked it out, when thus to me it said:

“Think, if thou wilt, that thou art rid of me,
I’ve twenty friends who soon will mock at thee.”

Despite all the creams and ointments that claim otherwise, the aging process cannot be stopped. Time marches on, as they say, and it slows for no one. We are reminded of this adage whenever we turn a page of the calendar. The days and months go as quickly as they come.
 

The cadence of time’s relentless march is set by the sun, moon, and stars. By these celestial bodies we measure time’s passing and thus determine our calendar; God has purposed it to be so (Gen. 1:14–19).
 

Over the centuries numerous cultures have formed their own calendars. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Babylonians each had their own way of reckoning the days, months, and years. Our present calendar is taken from the one established by Pope Gregory XIII in the year 1582. This Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, as opposed to the lunar calendar, because it is based on the movements of the sun rather than the moon.

Description of the Jewish Calendar

The Jewish people also have their own calendar. It has both lunar and solar components. The months are determined by the moon, the years by the sun. Based on the creation account, the Jewish day begins at sunset with 12 hours of darkness and 12 hours of daylight. When a Jewish holiday is listed on the Gregorian calendar, therefore, the holiday actually begins at sundown the previous evening.

There are 12 months in the Jewish calendar, each consisting of 29 or 30 days. Every second or third year is a leap year in which an extra month is added, thus insuring that the festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot(Tabernacles) remain in their proper seasons—Pesach in spring, Shavuot in summer, and Sukkot in autumn.
 

Development of the Jewish Calendar

Since biblical times, the Jewish calendar has retained its essential elements. The seasons are determined by the moon (Ps. 104:19), and there are 12 months (1 Chr. 27:15). Over the years, however, the names of the months have changed, as well as the process by which the calendar is determined or fixed.

Before the Babylonian exile, the Israelites most likely gave their months common Semitic names. After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish calendar evidenced signs of Persian influence. Babylonian names were assigned to the months, and these names are still used in the present-day Jewish calendar.

In addition to the names of the months, the Jewish calendar has changed in yet another way. We may approach the Jewish calendar with great confidence, knowing that it has been determined by precise astronomical calculations. But it has not always been so.

In the days of the Sanhedrin (the 71-member governing body of Jewish religious leaders, ca. 63 b.c.-425 a.d.) the calendar was determined each month by the sighting of the new moon. The new moon was important because it established the timing of the observance of the Jewish festivals.

Under the law of Moses, the new moon was marked by blowing two silver trumpets (Num. 10:10) and sacrificing a burnt offering and a sin offering (Num. 28:11–15). Later, the beginning of each month took on additional characteristics. The people feasted (1 Sam. 20:5), closed their businesses (Amos 8:5), and some went to the prophet of God for inquiry and instruction (2 Ki. 4:23).

By the time of the Second Temple, the sighting of the new moon had become a festival in itself. Because only the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had the authority to set the calendar, the sighting of the new moon was reported to them.

Sumptuous meals were prepared in a large courtyard to encourage the people to serve as witnesses to the sighting. They gathered and waited their turn to be interviewed by the religious leaders. Upon examination of two reliable witnesses, the Sanhedrin declared, “The new month is sanctified—it is sanctified!” The celebration then began. The people were jubilant as the prescribed sacrifices were offered.

Meanwhile, the high priest lifted his hands and blessed the people: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his contenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:24–26). The Sanhedrin also gave three blessings: one over the holiday wine; one thanking God for revealing the Jewish calendar; and one expressing the desire that the Messiah come, along with His forerunner, Elijah the prophet.

Today, without the Temple or the Sanhedrin, the new moon holiday, called Rosh Hodesh (Head or First of the Month), has changed somewhat. In the synagogue, the date of the forthcoming new moon is announced to the congregation. When the first of the month arrives, a special prayer is recited to replace the Temple sacrifices. There are readings from the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy, the five books of Moses) and the Psalms. With the blessing of the day, it is customary for each congregant to greet three people with the phrase Shalom Aleichem (Peace be unto you), to which the recipients of the greeting reply in reverse terminology,Aleichem Shalom.

When Jesus the Messiah returns to the earth, the Scriptures indicate that, with slight modifications, the festival of the new moon will be observed in His kingdom. Appropriate sacrifices will be offered, accompanied by regular worship of God at the Temple (Ezek. 46:6–7). This observance will most likely serve as a memorial, as well as a proper and complete fulfillment of the law of Moses.

In the days of ancient Israel, the celebration of the new moon festival was not to be kept within the confines of Jerusalem. Once the sighting of the new moon had been confirmed, the people were commanded to relay the news from one community to the next, which was accomplished by lighting bonfires atop lookout hills.

Trouble came when the historical Jewish nemesis, the Samaritans, attempted to confuse the Jewish lookouts by lighting their own bonfires at the wrong time of the month. As a result, a new system of communication was developed. Instead of lighting bonfires, trusted and reputable messengers were sent throughout theDiaspora (Jewish communities outside of the land of Israel). Although this eliminated the difficulty with the Samaritans, a new problem arose. The messengers were delayed because of the distances between communities, raising doubts as to the proper days on which to observe the appointed festivals. To compensate, the Sanhedrin decreed that Jewish people outside of the land of Israel could celebrate the holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah (New Year), and Sukkot for one extra day. Modern Jewry still follows this custom, while Israelis keep the extra day for Rosh Hashanah only.

Out of concern for the Diaspora, the Jewish calendar was later fixed solely by calculations under the leadership of Rabbi Hillel II in the fourth century. By the tenth century, the modern Jewish calendar had fully developed and included the formation of two Jewish calendars.

In Exodus 12:2 God told Moses and Aaron, “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.” The month spoken of was Abib o__Nisan (Ex. 13:4). By so designating the month of Nisan as the beginning of months, God created a new calendar for the Israelites. They were to reckon time differently from that point onward. The major reason for this change was to highlight their redemption from Egypt. Every new year was to remind them of their God-given freedom from slavery.

The calendar instituted in Exodus 12:2 was Israel’s first and was used to determine festivals. By Jesus’ day, however, another Jewish calendar was in use for civil affairs. This second calendar began with the month Tishri. The first of Tishri therefore was considered the Jewish civil New Year. It is this second calendar and second New Year (Rosh Hashanah) that Jewish people follow today.
 

Seasons of the Jewish Calendar

God created the lights in the heavens to reckon not only days and years, but also seasons. The seasons of the land of Israel in biblical times were much the same as they are today—warm, dry summers (Ps. 32:4) and cool, wet winters (Song 2:11). The summer season is from about May to October, and winter is from November to April. While Israel has spring and autumn, the Scriptures refer mainly to the dominant seasons of summer and winter (Ps. 74:17).

During Bible times, the seasons in Israel determined the agricultural activities of sowing and reaping, planting and harvesting. Generally, planting was done in winter months (Prov. 20:4), harvesting in summer months (Prov. 10:5). The crops gathered at the beginning of the harvest season were called “first fruits” (Ex. 23:16). Crops gathered at the end of the harvest season were known as “summer fruit” (Amos 8:2). Two of Israel’s major festivals were divinely integrated with the time of harvest. Shavuot (Pentecost) celebrated the beginning of harvest, and Sukkot (Tabernacles) the end (Ex. 23:16).
 

About Bruce Scott

Bruce Scott is the Field Ministries director for The Friends of Israel.

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