The symbolical character which is to be traced in all the
institutions of the Old Testament, appears also in the arrangement of its festive
calendar. Whatever classification of the festivals may be proposed, one general
characteristic pervades the whole. Unquestionably, the number seven marks in
Scripture the sacred measurement of time. The Sabbath is the seventh of days; seven weeks
after the commencement of the ecclesiastical year is the Feast of Pentecost; the seventh
month is more sacred than the rest, its 'firstborn' or 'New Moon' being not only devoted
to the Lord like those of the other months, but specially celebrated as the 'Feast of
Trumpets,' while three other festivals occur within its course— Day of Atonement, the
Feast of Tabernacles, and its Octave. Similarly, each seventh year is Sabbatical, and
after seven times seven years comes that of Jubilee. Nor is this all. Seven days in
the year may be designated as the most festive, since in them alone 'no servile work' was
to be done, * while on the so-called minor festivals (Moed Katon), that is, on the
days following the first of the Passover week and of that of Tabernacles, the diminution
of festive observances and of restrictions on labour marks their less sacred character.
The Three Cycles
Besides this general division of time by the sacred number
seven, certain general ideas probably underlay the festive cycles. Thus we may mark two,
or else three, such cycles; the one commencing with the Paschal sacrifice and ending on
the Day of Pentecost, to perpetuate the memory of Israel's calling and wilderness life;
the other, which occurs in the seventh month (of rest), marking Israel's possession of the
land and grateful homage to Jehovah. From these two cycles the Day of Atonement may have
to be distinguished, as intermediate between, applying to both, and yet possessing a
character of its own, as Scripture calls it, 'a Sabbath of Sabbatism,' * in which not only
'servile work,' but as on the weekly Sabbath, labour of any kind was prohibited.
* The term is rendered in the Authorised
Version, 'Sabbath of rest,' Leviticus 16:31; 23:32.
In Hebrew two terms are employed— one, Moed, or
appointed meeting, applied to all festive seasons, including Sabbaths and New Moons; the
other, Chag, from a root which means 'to dance,' or 'to be joyous,' applying
exclusively to the three festivals of Easter, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, in which all
males were to appear before the Lord in His sanctuary. If we might venture to render the
general term Moadim by 'trystings' of Jehovah with His people, the other would be
intended to express the joyousness which was to be a leading characteristic of the
'pilgrim-feasts.' Indeed, the Rabbis expressly mention these three as marking the great
festivals: Reiyah, Chagigah, and Simchah; that is, presence, or appearance
at Jerusalem; the appointed festive offerings of the worshippers, which are not to
be confounded with the public sacrifices offered on these occasions in the name of the
whole congregation; and joyousness, with which they connect the freewill offerings
that each brought, as the Lord had blessed him, and which afterwards were shared with the
poor, the desolate, and the Levite, in the joyous meal that followed the public services
of the Temple. To these general characteristics of the three great feasts we ought,
perhaps, to add in regard to all festive seasons, that each was to be a 'holy
convocation,' or gathering for sacred purposes; the injunction of 'rest' from 'servile,'
or else from all work; and, lastly, certain special sacrifices which were to be brought in
the name of the whole congregation. Besides the Mosaic festivals, the Jews celebrated at
the time of Christ two other feasts— of Esther, or Purim, and that of the Dedication
of the Temple, on its restoration by Judas the Maccabee. Certain minor observances,
and the public fasts in memory of the great national calamities, will be noticed in the
sequel. Private fasts would, of course, depend on individuals, but the strict Pharisees
were wont to fast every Monday and Thursday * during the weeks intervening between the
Passover and Pentecost, and again, between the Feast of Tabernacles and that of the
Dedication of the Temple. It is to this practice that the Pharisee in the parable refers
(Luke 18:12) when boasting: 'I fast twice in the week.'
* Because on a Thursday Moses had gone up
to Mount Sinai, and came down on a Monday, when he received for the second time the
Tables of the Law.
Three Annual Visits to Temple
The duty of appearing three times a year in the Temple
applied to all male Israelites—, the deaf, dumb, and lame, those whom sickness,
infirmity, or age rendered incapable of going on foot up the mountain of the house, and,
of course, all in a state of Levitical uncleanness, being excepted. In general, the duty
of appearing before the Lord at the services of His house was deemed paramount. Here an
important Rabbinical principle came in, which, although not expressed in Scripture, seems
clearly founded upon it, that 'a sacrifice could not be offered for any one unless he
himself were present,' to present and to lay his hand upon it (Lev 1:3, 3:2,8). It
followed that, as the morning and evening sacrifices, and those on feast-days were
purchased with money contributed by all, and offered on behalf of the whole congregation,
all Israel should have attended these services. This was manifestly impossible, but to
represent the people twenty-four courses of lay attendants were appointed, corresponding
to those of the priests and the Levites. These were the 'stationary men,' or 'men of the
station,' or 'standing men,' from 'their standing there in the Temple as Israel's
representatives.' For clearness sake, we repeat that each of these 'courses' had its
'head,' and served for one week; those of the station on service, who did not appear in
Jerusalem, meeting in a central synagogue of their district, and spending the time in
fasting and prayer for their brethren. On the day before the Sabbath, on the Sabbath
itself, and on the day following, they did not fast, on account of the joy of the Sabbath.
Each day they read a portion of Scripture, the first and second chapters of Genesis being
for this purpose arranged into sections for the week. This practice, which tradition
traced up to Samuel and David (Taan. iv. 2), was of ancient date. But the 'men of
the station' did not impose hands on either the morning or evening sacrifice, nor
on any other public offering. *
* The only public offerings, with
'imposition of hands,' were the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, and the bullock when
the congregation had sinned through ignorance.
Their duty was twofold: to represent all Israel in the
services of the sanctuary, and to act as a sort of guide to those who had business in the
Temple. Thus, at a certain part of the service, the head of the course brought up those
who had come to make an atonement on being cleansed from any impurity, and ranged them
along the 'Gate of Nicanor,' in readiness for the ministry of the officiating priests. The
'men of the station' were dispensed from attendance in the Temple on all occasions when
the 'Hallel' was chanted, * possibly because the responses of the people when the
hymn was sung showed that they needed no formal representatives.
* This happened therefore on eighteen days
of the year. These will be specified in a subsequent chapter.
Difficulties of the Calendar
Hitherto we have not adverted to the difficulties which
those who intended to appear in Jerusalem at the feasts would experience from the want of
any fixed calendar. As the year of the Hebrews was lunar, not solar, it consisted
of only 354 days 8 hours 48' 38". This, distributed among twelve months, would in the
course of years have completely disordered the months, so that the first month, or Nisan
(corresponding to the end of March or the beginning of April), in the middle of which the
first ripe barley was to be presented to the Lord, might have fallen in the middle of
winter. Accordingly, the Sanhedrim appointed a Committee of three, of which the chief of
the Sanhedrim was always president, and which, if not unanimous, might be increased to
seven, when a majority of voices would suffice, to determine which year was to be made a
leap-year by the insertion of a thirteenth month. Their resolution * was generally taken
in the twelfth month (Adar), the additional, or thirteenth month (Ve-Adar), being inserted
between the twelfth and the first.
* Tradition has it, that neither
high-priest nor king ever took part in these deliberations, the former because he might
object to a leap-year as throwing the Day of Atonement later into the cold season; the
king, because he might wish for thirteen months, in order to get thirteen months' revenue
in one year!
A Sabbatical year could not be a leap-year, but that
preceding it was always such. Sometimes two, but never three, leap-years succeeded each
other. Commonly, every third year required the addition of a month. The mean duration of
the Jewish month being 29 days 12 hours 44' 3 1/3", it required, during a period of
nineteen years, the insertion of seven months to bring the lunar era in accordance with
The New Moon
And this brings up yet another difficulty. The Jews
calculated the month according to the phases of the moon, each month consisting of either
twenty-nine or thirty days, and beginning with the appearance of the new moon. But this
opened a fresh field of uncertainty. It is quite true that every one might observe for
himself the appearance of a new moon. But this would again partly depend on the state of
the weather. Besides, it left an authoritative declaration of the commencement of a month
unsupplied. And yet not only was the first of every month to be observed as 'New Moon's
Day,' but the feasts took place on the 10th, 15th, or other day of the month, which could
not be accurately determined without a certain knowledge of its beginning. To supply this
want the Sanhedrim sat in the 'Hall of Polished Stones' to receive the testimony of
credible witnesses that they had seen the new moon. To encourage as many as possible to
come forward on so important a testimony, these witnesses were handsomely entertained at
the public expense. If the new moon had appeared at the commencement of the 30th
day— would correspond to our evening of the 29th, as the Jews reckoned the day from
evening to evening— Sanhedrim declared the previous month to have been one of
twenty-nine days, or 'imperfect.' Immediately thereon men were sent to a signal-station on
the Mount of Olives, where beacon-fires were lit and torches waved, till a kindling flame
on a hill in the distance indicated that the signal had been perceived. Thus the tidings,
that this was the new moon, would be carried from hill to hill, far beyond the boundaries
of Palestine, to those of the dispersion, 'beyond the river.' Again, if credible witnesses
had not appeared to testify to the appearance of the new moon on the evening of the 29th,
the next evening, or that of the 30th, according to our reckoning, was taken as the
commencement of the new month, in which case the previous month was declared to have been
one of thirty days, or 'full.' It was ruled that a year should neither have less
than four nor more than eight such full months of thirty days.
The Seven Messengers of the New Moon
But these early fire-signals opened the way for serious
inconvenience. The enemies of the Jews lit beacons to deceive those at a distance, and it
became necessary to send special messengers to announce the new moon. These were, however,
despatched only seven times in the year, just in time for the various feasts— Nisan,
for the Passover on the 15th, and in the month following, Iyar, for the 'Second
Passover,' kept by those who had been debarred from the first (Num 9:9-11); in Ab
(the fifth month), for the fast on the 9th, on account of the destruction of Jerusalem; in
Elul (the sixth month), on account of the approaching solemnities of Tishri; in Tishri
(the seventh month), for its festivals; in Kislev (the ninth month), for the Feast
of the Dedication of the Temple; and in Adar, for Purim. Thus, practically,
all difficulties were removed, except in reference to the month Elul, since, as the
new moon of the following month, or Tishri, was the 'Feast of Trumpets,' it would
be exceedingly important to know in time whether Elul had twenty-nine or thirty
days. But here the Rabbis ruled that Elul should be regarded as a month of
twenty-nine days, unless a message to the contrary were received—, indeed, since the
days of Ezra it had always been so, and that accordingly New Year's Day would be the day
after the 29th of Elul. To make, however, assurance doubly sure, it soon became the
practice to keep New Year's Day on two successive days, and this has since been
extended into a duplication of all the great feast days (of course, with the exception of
fasts), and that, although the calendar has long been fixed, and error is therefore no
Names of the Hebrew Months
The present Hebrew names of the months are variously
supposed to be derived from the Chaldee, or from the Persian language. They certainly do
not appear before the return from Babylon. Before that, the months were named only after
their numbers, or else from the natural phenomena characteristic of the seasons, as Abib,
'sprouting,' 'green ears,' for the first (Exo 13:4; 23:15; Deut 16:1); Ziv,
'splendour,' 'flowering,' for the second (1 Kings 6:1); Bul, 'rain,' for the eighth
(1 Kings 6:38); and Ethanim, 'flowing rivers,' for the seventh (1 Kings 8:2). The
division of the year into ecclesiastical, which commenced with the month Nisan
(the end of March or beginning of April), or about the spring equinox, and civil,
which commenced with the seventh month, or Tishri, corresponding to the autumn
equinox, has by many likewise been supposed to have only originated after the return from
Babylon. But the analogy of the twofold arrangement of weights, measures, and money into
civil and sacred, and other notices seem against this view, and it is more likely that
from the first the Jews distinguished the civil year, which began in Tishri, from
the ecclesiastical, which commenced in Nisan, from which month, as the first, all
the others were counted. To this twofold division the Rabbis add, that for tithing the
herds and flocks the year was reckoned from Elul to Elul, and for taxing
fruits often from Shebat to Shebat.
The Eras Used By the Jews
The earliest era adopted by the Jews was that which was
reckoned to commence with the deliverance from Egypt. During the reigns of the Jewish
kings, time was computed from the year of their accession to the throne. After their
return from exile, the Jews dated their years according to the Seleucidic era, which began
312 BC, or 3,450 from the creation of the world. For a short time after the war of
independence, it became customary to reckon dates from the year of the liberation of
Palestine. However, for a very long period after the destruction of Jerusalem (probably,
till the twelfth century AD), the Seleucidic era remained in common use, when it finally
gave place to the present mode of reckoning among the Jews, which dates from the creation
of the world. To commute the Jewish year into that of our common era we have to add to the
latter 3,761, always bearing in mind, however, that the common or civil Jewish year
commences in the month of Tishri, i.e. in autumn.
The week was divided into seven days, of which, however,
only the seventh— Sabbath— a name assigned to it, the rest being merely noted by
numerals. The day was computed from sunset to sunset, or rather to the appearance of the
first three stars with which a new day commenced. Before the Babylonish captivity, it was
divided into morning, mid-day, evening, and night; but during the residence in Babylon,
the Hebrews adopted the division of the day into twelve hours, whose duration varied with
the length of the day. The longest day consisted of fourteen hours and twelve minutes; the
shortest, of nine hours forty-eight minutes; the difference between the two being thus
more than four hours. On an average, the first hour of the day corresponded nearly to our
6 a.m.; the third hour (when, according to Matthew 20:3, the market-place was full), to
our 9 a.m.; the close of the sixth hour, to our mid-day; while at the eleventh, the day
neared its close. The Romans reckoned the hours from midnight, a fact which explains the
apparent discrepancy between John 19:14, where, at the sixth hour (of Roman calculation),
Pilate brings Jesus out to the Jews, while at the third hour of the Jewish, and hence the
ninth of the Roman and of our calculation (Mark 15:25), He was led forth to be crucified.
The night was divided by the Romans into four, by the Jews into three watches. The Jews
subdivided the hour into 1,080 parts (chlakim), and again each part into seventy-six
For the convenience of the reader, we subjoin a calendar,
showing the occurrence of the various festive days—
Spring Equinox, end of March or beginning of April.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 14. The preparation for the Passover and the Paschal Sacrifice.
Day 15. First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Day 16. Waving of the first ripe Omer.
Day 21. Close of the Passover.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 15. 'Second,' or 'little' Passover.
Day 18. Lag-le-Omer, or the 33rd day in Omer, i.e. from the presentation of the first ripe
sheaf offered on the 2nd day of the Passover, or the 15th of Nisan.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 6. Feast of Pentecost, or of Weeks? weeks, or 50 days after the beginning of the
Passover, when the two loaves of first ripe wheat were 'waved,' commemorative also of the
giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 17. Fast; taking of Jerusalem on the 9th by Nebuchadnezzar (and on the 17th by Titus).
If the 17th occur on a Sabbath, the Fast is kept on the day following.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 9. Fast—(threefold) destruction of the Temple.
Day 1. New Moon.
Beginning of Civil Year
Day 1 &2. New Year's Feast.
Day 3. Fast for the murder of Gedaliah.
Day 10. Day of Atonement; Great Fast.
Day 15. Feast of Tabernacles.
Day 21. Close of the above.
Day 22. Octave of the Feast of Tabernacles. (In the Synagogues, on the 23rd, Feast on the
annual completion of the Reading of the Law.)
8— or Cheshvan
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 25. Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, or of Candles, lasting eight days, in
remembrance of the Restoration of the Temple after the victory gained by Judas Maccabeus
(BC 148) over the Syrians.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 10. Fast on account of the Siege of Jerusalem.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 1. New Moon.
Day 13. Fast of Esther. If it fall on a Sabbath, kept on the Thursday preceding.
Day 14. Purim, or Feast of Haman.
Day 15. Purim Proper.
* The Megillath Taanith ('roll of
fasts'), probably the oldest Aramean post-biblical record preserved (though containing
later admixtures), enumerates thirty-five days in the year when fasting, and mostly also
public mourning, are not allowed. One of these is the day of Herod's death! This
interesting historical relic has been critically examined of late by such writers as
Derenbourg and Gratz. After their exile the ten tribes, or at least their descendants,
seem to have dated from that event (696 BC). This appears from inscriptions on tombstones
of the Crimean Jews, who have been shown to have descended from the ten tribes. (Comp.
Davidson in Kitto's Cycl. iii. 1173.)