Festivals formed an integral part of the true worship of God, being prescribed by Jehovah for his chosen people Israel by the hand of Moses. The Hebrew word chagh, which is translated “festival,” possibly comes from a verb that denotes circularity of motion or form, dancing around in circles, and hence, celebrating a periodic festival or feast. Moh·ʽedhʹ, also rendered “festival,” basically refers to a set time or place of assembly.
The festivals, and similar special days, might be outlined as follows:
FESTIVALS IN ISRAEL
BEFORE THE EXILE
1. Passover, Abib (Nisan) 14
2. Unfermented Cakes, Abib (Nisan) 15-21
3. Weeks, or Pentecost, Sivan 6
4. Trumpet Blast, Ethanim (Tishri) 1
5. Day of Atonement, Ethanim (Tishri) 10
6. Booths, Ethanim (Tishri) 15-21, with a solemn assembly on the 22nd
1. Weekly Sabbath
2. New Moon
3. Sabbath year (every 7th year)
4. Jubilee year (every 50th year)
AFTER THE EXILE
1. Festival of Dedication, Chislev 25
2. Festival of Purim, Adar 14, 15
The Three Great Festivals. The three primary “seasonal festivals,” sometimes called pilgrimage festivals because of the assembling of all males at Jerusalem, occurred at appointed times and were designated by the Hebrew word moh·ʽedhʹ. (Le 23:2, 4) But the word often used when referring exclusively to the three great festivals is chagh, which connotes not only a periodic occurrence but also a time of great rejoicing. These three great festivals are:
(1) The Festival of Unfermented Cakes (Ex 23:15). This festival began the day after the Passover and ran from Abib (Nisan) 15th through the 21st. Passover was on Nisan 14 and was really a day of observance to itself, but since it was so closely connected in time with the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, the two were often spoken of together as the Passover.
(3) The Festival of Booths (Tabernacles) or Ingathering. This took place in the seventh month, Ethanim (Tishri) 15th through the 21st, with a solemn assembly on the 22nd.
The time, the place, and the way they were to be conducted were all fixed by Jehovah. As the expression “seasonal festivals of Jehovah” implies, they were associated with various seasons of the sacred calendar year
Observances Common to These Festivals. The Law covenant required that all males appear “before Jehovah your God in the place that he will choose” every year, during each of the three great annual festivals. (De 16:16) The place eventually chosen for a festival center was Jerusalem. No specific penalty for individual nonattendance was stated, with the exception of the Passover; failure to attend it brought the penalty of death. (Nu 9:9-13) Nonetheless, neglect of any of God’s laws, including his festivals and sabbaths, would bring national judgment and distress. (De 28:58-62) The Passover itself had to be observed on Nisan 14 or, in certain circumstances, one month later.
Although women were not under obligation, as were the males, to make the annual festival journeys, yet there are examples of festival attendance by women such as Hannah the mother of Samuel (1Sa 1:7) and Mary the mother of Jesus. (Lu 2:41) Israelite women who loved Jehovah attended such festivals whenever possible. In fact, not only did Jesus’ parents attend regularly but their relatives and acquaintances went along with them.
Jehovah promised, “Nobody will desire your land while you are going up to see the face of Jehovah your God three times in the year.” (Ex 34:24) Even though no men were left to guard the cities and the land, it proved true that no foreign nation ever came up to take the land of the Jews during their festivals prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. However, in 66 C.E., which was after the rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation, Cestius Gallus slew 50 persons at Lydda during the Festival of Tabernacles.
None of the male attenders were to come empty-handed; they were to bring a gift “in proportion to the blessing of Jehovah your God that he has given you.” (De 16:16, 17) Also, at Jerusalem the ‘second’ tenth part (in contrast with that given to maintain the Levites [Nu 18:26, 27]) of the current year’s grain, wine, and oil, as well as the firstborn of the herd and the flock were to be eaten; these were to be shared with the Levites. However, in case the journey to the festival place was too far, the Law provided that such goods could be turned into money; then this money could be used to buy food and drink for use while at the sanctuary. (De 14:22-27) These occasions were opportunities for demonstrating allegiance to Jehovah and were to be celebrated with joy; the alien resident, the fatherless boy, and the widow were to be included. (De 16:11, 14) This was providing, of course, that the males among such alien residents were circumcised worshipers of Jehovah. (Ex 12:48, 49) Special sacrifices were always offered in addition to the daily offerings, and while the burnt offerings and the communion sacrifices were made, trumpets were blown.
Just before the building of the temple the priesthood was reorganized by King David, who arranged for the immense staff of hundreds of Aaronic priests to be divided into 24 divisions, along with Levitical assistants. (1Ch 24) Each division of trained workers later served twice each year at the temple, a week at a time, the necessary arrangements being made by the head of the paternal house. Second Chronicles 5:11 indicates that the 24 divisions of priests all served together at the dedication of the temple, which took place during the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles. (1Ki 8:2; Le 23:34) Alfred Edersheim says that on festival days any priest was welcome to come up and assist in the temple service, but during the Festival of Tabernacles (Booths) all 24 divisions were required to be in attendance.
During these festival occasions a tremendous amount of work fell to the priests, the Levites, and the Nethinim serving with them. An example of the work they did is indicated in the description of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes held by King Hezekiah after he had cleansed the temple, which celebration, on this occasion, was extended for another seven days. The account states that Hezekiah himself contributed for sacrifice 1,000 bulls and 7,000 sheep and that the princes contributed 1,000 bulls and 10,000 sheep.
Certain days of these festivals were solemn assemblies or holy conventions; these were sabbaths, and similar to the weekly Sabbaths, they required a complete cessation of ordinary business. No secular work at all was to be done. An exception to the regular Sabbath arrangement was that work such as the preparing of food, unlawful on the weekly Sabbath days, was permitted in connection with the preparation for the festival observances. (Ex 12:16) A distinction exists in this respect between “holy conventions” of the festivals and the regular weekly Sabbaths (and the Sabbath on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement, a time of fasting), on which days no work whatsoever was allowed, not even the lighting of a fire “in any of your dwelling places.”
Importance of Festivals in Life of Israel. Festivals played a very important part in the national life of the Israelites. While they were still in Egyptian bondage, Moses told Pharaoh that the reason for demanding that the Israelites and their livestock be allowed to leave Egypt was that “we have a festival to Jehovah.” (Ex 10:9) The Law covenant incorporated many detailed instructions regarding the observance of festivals. (Ex 34:18-24; Le 23:1-44; De 16:1-17) In keeping with God’s commands, the festivals helped all the attenders to keep their minds on the word of God and not to become so involved in their personal affairs that they would forget the more important spiritual aspect of their daily life. These festivals also reminded them that they were a people for Jehovah’s name. Traveling to and from the festive gatherings would naturally give much opportunity to talk about the goodness of their God and the blessings they were daily and seasonally enjoying. The festivals afforded time and opportunity for meditation, association, and the discussion of Jehovah’s law. They broadened knowledge of the God-given land, increased understanding and neighbor love among the Israelites, and promoted unity and clean worship. The festivals were occasions of happiness. The minds of the attenders were filled with God’s thoughts and ways, and all who participated in sincerity received a rich spiritual blessing. Consider, for example, the blessing to thousands who attended the Festival of Pentecost at Jerusalem in 33 C.E.
The festivals symbolized happiness to the Jews. Before the exile in Babylon, by which time the nation in general had lost sight of the true spiritual purpose of the festivals, the prophets Hosea and Amos linked the coming foretold desolation of Jerusalem with the cessation of these joyous and happy observances, or the turning of them into occasions of mourning. (Ho 2:11; Am 8:10) After Jerusalem’s fall Jeremiah lamented that “the ways of Zion are mourning, because there are none coming to the festival.” Festival and Sabbath were now “forgotten.” (La 1:4; 2:6) Isaiah described in advance the happy condition of the returned exiles from Babylon in 537 B.C.E., saying: “You people will come to have a song like that in the night that one sanctifies oneself for a festival.” (Isa 30:29) However, it was not long after their restoration to their God-given land that they again corrupted Jehovah’s festivals, so that, through the prophet Malachi, God warned the priests that the dung of their festivals would be scattered upon their faces.
The writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures make several references and allusions to the festivals, sometimes giving them a happy, symbolic, and prophetic application to Christians. However, the keeping of these festivals in a literal way was not enjoined upon Christians.