This festival began Nisan 15, the day after Passover, and continued for seven days through Nisan 21. (See PASSOVER.) Its name is derived from the unfermented cakes (Heb., mats·tsohthʹ), the only bread allowed during the seven days of the festival. Unleavened bread is kneaded with water but without yeast. It has to be hurriedly prepared if fermentation is to be prevented.
The first day of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes was a solemn assembly, also a sabbath. On the second day, Nisan 16, a sheaf of the firstfruits of the barley harvest, the first crop to ripen in Palestine, was brought to the priest. Prior to this festival no new grain, bread, or roasted grain from the new harvest could be eaten. The priest offered such firstfruits to Jehovah symbolically by waving a sheaf of the grain to and fro, while a sound ram in its first year was offered as a burnt offering along with a grain offering moistened with oil and a drink offering. (Le 23:6-14) There was no command to burn any of the grain or its flour on the altar, as was practiced later by the priests. Not only was there a public or national firstfruit offering but provision was also made for each family and every individual who had a possession in Israel to offer thanksgiving sacrifices during this festive occasion.—Ex 23:19; De 26:1, 2; see FIRSTFRUITS.
Significance. The eating of unfermented cakes at this time was in harmony with the instructions Moses received from Jehovah, as recorded at Exodus 12:14-20, which includes the strict injunction, at verse 19: “Seven days no sourdough is to be found in your houses.” In Deuteronomy 16:3 the unfermented cakes are called “the bread of affliction,” and they were a yearly reminder to the Jews of their hurried departure from the land of Egypt (when they did not have time to leaven their dough [Ex 12:34]). They thus recalled the state of affliction and bondage from which Israel had been delivered, even as Jehovah himself said, “that you may remember the day of your coming out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” The realization of their present freedom as a nation and their acknowledgment of Jehovah as their Deliverer set a fitting background for the first of the three great annual festivals of the Israelites.—De 16:16.
Preexilic Observances. There are three accounts recorded in the Scriptures of the keeping of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes following the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land and prior to their Babylonian exile. But the fact that no other observances are mentioned should not be taken to mean that such were not held. Rather, in the first account, there is a general reference to all the festivals and Solomon’s arrangements to observe them.—2Ch 8:12, 13.
In the other two instances the circumstances are outstanding. One is the revival of the observance of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, after a time of neglect. This revival was during the first year of faithful King Hezekiah’s reign. Interestingly, in this case there was not enough time to prepare for the annual festival on Nisan 15, because the work of cleaning and repairing the temple took until Nisan 16. So, advantage was taken of the Law to celebrate the festival during the second month. (2Ch 29:17; 30:13, 21, 22; Nu 9:10, 11) It was such a joyous occasion and resulted in such a religious revival that the celebration of seven days proved to be just too short, and so another seven days were set aside. King Hezekiah and his princes contributed generously, giving 2,000 bulls and 17,000 sheep to supply food for the multitudes attending.—2Ch 30:23, 24.
The festival observance was the start of a great campaign against false religion, and in many cities this was carried out before the worshipers returned to their homes. (2Ch 31:1) The keeping of this Festival of Unfermented Cakes brought about Jehovah’s blessing as well as freedom from demon worship, and it is a fine example of the beneficial effects that the keeping of these festivals had upon the Israelites.
The last recorded account of preexilic observance of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes was its celebration during the reign of King Josiah when he made a courageous effort to restore the pure worship of Jehovah in Judah.—2Ch 35:1-19.
Although these are the only observances specifically mentioned, prior to the kings the faithful judges and priests of Israel were doubtless concerned with keeping the festivals. Later, both David and Solomon made extensive arrangements to keep the priesthood functioning properly, and other kings of Judah must have seen to it that the festivals were regularly observed. Also, the Festival of Unfermented Cakes was kept quite regularly in postexilic times.
Postexilic Observance. Following the Jews’ release from Babylon and their return to the Promised Land, the temple at Jerusalem was rebuilt and completed under the vigorous encouragement given by Jehovah’s prophets Haggai and Zechariah. (Ezr 5:1, 2) In 515 B.C.E. the rebuilt house of Jehovah was inaugurated with great joy and with all the appropriate sacrifices attending the Festival of Unfermented Cakes. The record at Ezra 6:22 states: “And they went on to hold the festival of unfermented cakes seven days with rejoicing.”
The book of Malachi shows that in time, notwithstanding the zealous start toward restoration of true worship when the exiles returned from Babylon, the priests became careless, proud, and self-righteous. The temple service became a mockery, even though the festivals were kept in a formalistic way. (Mal 1:6-8, 12-14; 2:1-3; 3:8-10) Jesus found the scribes and Pharisees scrupulously keeping the details of the Law, besides their added traditions. They zealously observed the festivals, including the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, but Jesus condemned them, for, because of their hypocrisy, they had lost sight of the real significance of these fine arrangements of Jehovah for their blessing.—Mt 15:1-9; 23:23, 24; Lu 19:45, 46.
Prophetic Significance. Jesus Christ gave the interpretation as to the symbolic significance of ferment, or leaven, as recorded at Matthew 16:6, 11, 12, when he warned his disciples: “Keep your eyes open and watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” When his disciples reasoned incorrectly among themselves as to what he meant, he spoke plainly: “‘How is it you do not discern that I did not talk to you about loaves? But watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they grasped that he said to watch out . . . for the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Also, Luke reports that Jesus stated specifically on another occasion: “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”—Lu 12:1.
The apostle Paul applies a similar significance to leaven in connection with the Festival of Unfermented Cakes when he describes the course that Christians should take. At 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, he gives this counsel to his Christian brothers: “Do you not know that a little leaven ferments the whole lump? Clear away the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, according as you are free from ferment. For, indeed, Christ our passover has been sacrificed. Consequently let us keep the festival, not with old leaven, neither with leaven of badness and wickedness, but with unfermented cakes of sincerity and truth.”
On Nisan 16, the second day of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, the high priest waved the firstfruits of the barley harvest, which was the first crop of the year, or what might be called the first of the firstfruits of the land. (Le 23:10, 11) It is significant that Jesus Christ was resurrected on this very day, Nisan 16, in the year 33 C.E. The apostle compares Christ with others who are resurrected, saying: “However, now Christ has been raised up from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death. . . . But each one in his own rank: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who belong to the Christ during his presence.” Christ is also called “the firstborn among many brothers.”—1Co 15:20-23; Ro 8:29.