The Fall Feasts, from A Handbook of the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, 2019
By Noam Hendren
The feasts of the Lord, as laid out in Lev 23, can have agricultural, historical, or religious-prophetic significance; and sometimes a combination of all of these. The three fall festivals (although one of these is a fast day) reflect all three areas of significance, with an emphasis on the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes.
The Feast of Trumpets / Rosh Hashanah
The fall feasts begin on the first day of the seventh month with “a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets” (Lev. 23:24, ESV). The significance of this special day is originally laid out rather laconically in Lev 23:23–25. Numbers 29:1–6 adds a list of special sacrifices to be offered on this day, but there is no further discussion of the significance or practice of “the Feast of Trumpets.” In fact, nowhere in the Scriptures is there any indication that the day was actually commemorated in biblical times. Nevertheless, in rabbinic Judaism this day has become one of the most sacred days of the religious calendar, the beginning of the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah (literally: the head of the year), the Jewish New Year. According to Jewish tradition, on this day God judges every human being to see if they are worthy to be inscribed in the “Book of Life” for the coming year. There is, however, no evidence that a fall new year festival was ever celebrated during the First or Second Temple periods. (See Safrai 1974, 2:843-44. Also NIDOTTE 3:1019-20, s.v. “ראש השנה”)
Later tradition aside, what is the most likely significance and intent of the Feast of Trumpets as given in the Torah? It must be related to the act of blowing the trumpet as a memorial and, secondly, to the placement of this holiday in the divine calendar. Though later rabbinic tradition specifies that the instrument must be a shofar (a ram or goat horn), Lev 23 makes no mention of a specific instrument. The first questions are: Why were instruments trumpeted in biblical times, and who is the object of this “memorial” or reminder?
Numbers 10 gives four reasons for blowing trumpets:
- To assemble the people at the tent of meeting (10:2-3).
- To cause the tribes to break camp andset out during the desert wanderings (10:2, 5-6).
- To call for God’s help in threat of war: “that you may be remembered before the LORD your God” (10:9).
- To call for God’s attention at appointed times—including new moons and the feasts—to witness the nation’s obedience in fulfilling his ordinances: “They shall be a reminder of you before your God” (10:10).
The feast of trumpets is designated “a holy convocation”; thus, the assembling of the people before the Lord is clearly intended. Similarly, in view of the coming Day of Atonement, an appeal to God for his attention and help is significant. The special sanctity of that day and the serious repercussions for not fulfilling its precise requirements were clear: improper approach to the presence of God in the holy of holies could result in instant death (Lev 16:1–2, 13). Similarly, the failure of a person to properly “humble himself” on this day would cause him to be “cut off from his people” (Lev 23:29–30). Thus, while the Day of Atonement carried great promise, it also threatened severe judgment for disobedience.
On Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath day that falls between Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Joel 2:15–27 is read in every synagogue. This passage captures the significance of the blowing of trumpets on Rosh Hashanah as a preparation for the coming Day of Atonement. The chapter opens with the call to “blow the trumpet in Zion” as a warning of the coming judgment of God upon his people. To avert this judgment, the trumpet is again blown to summon the people to national repentance and as an appeal to God to “spare your people!” (Joel 2:12–17; cf. NIDOTTE, 1:1080, s.v. “זכר”).
Maimonides, the medieval Jewish rabbi and philosopher, summarizes:
Although the blowing of the trumpet on the New Year’s Day is an ordinance of Scripture, it also bears a symbolical significance, as if calling: Ye sleepers, awake from your sleep; and ye who are in a deep slumber, arise; search into your actions, turn with repentance, and remember your Creator! (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3:3–4)
Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement
In contrast to Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Atonement is given detailed treatment in the Torah. Leviticus 23:26–32 summarizes the requirements of the day for the people and states its purpose: “to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.” Leviticus 16 goes much further, giving precise, step-by-step instructions for the high priest’s actions—and the people’s participation—on this unique day.
The Day of Atonement constitutes the climax of the sacrificial system detailed in the book of Leviticus. The sacrifices mandated in Lev 1–7 were necessitated by God’s taking up residence in the midst of his people in the tabernacle (Exod 40:34–38; cf. 25:8–9). As the most holy God, the Lord would not dwell in the midst of a sinful people. Following the golden calf episode, God had declared, “You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you” (Exod 33:5). His presence in the tabernacle therefore required daily sacrifices, both communal and personal, in order to maintain or restore a right standing before God.
The sin and guilt offerings in particular (Lev 4–5) made atonement for unintentional sins. Openly rebellious sins could only be atoned for—and thereby not “defile the land/sanctuary”—by the death of the perpetrator (Num 15:22-36; 19:13; 35:31–34). But whether through oversight or neglect, many personal and community sins would not have been properly atoned for, which allowed for an accumulation of guilt and moral uncleanness resulting in God’s judgment or even withdrawal from his people (Lev 15:31; 20:3; Num 19:13, 20; Ezek 5:11; 36:17). Yom Kippur provided yearly atonement for the nation and a cleansing of God’s dwelling place from the defilement of a sinful people (Lev 16:16).
The procedure of the Day of Atonement parallels that for the ceremonial cleansing of a man or a house which has been healed from ‘leprosy’ (Lev 14:1–8, 48–53). In the latter, two birds are used: the first is slain and its blood is used to sprinkle the person being cleansed; while the other bird is set free alive, symbolizing the total removal of defilement. On the Day of Atonement two goats are chosen (Lev 16:7–10): One goat is slaughtered and its blood is used by the high priest to sprinkle and thereby cleanse the tabernacle and its furniture, beginning with the “mercy seat” or “atonement cover” (kapporet) resting on the ark of the covenant (Lev 16:15–19, 32–33). The high priest lays his hands upon the second goat and confesses the sins of the nation, symbolically making this goat the nation’s sin-bearer. He then sends the “scape-goat” into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the nation and thus completing the atonement ritual (16:20–22).
For their part, the people of Israel were full, though passive, participants in the events of the day. While the high priest represented them in the atonement rituals, the people expressed their sincere repentance and earnest appeal for God’s mercy by “afflicting their souls” and abstaining from all work (Lev 16:29; 23:29–30). This self-deprivation would include fasting (cf. Isa 58:3, 10; Ps 35:13) and perhaps the wearing of sackcloth. The book of Jonah, which is traditionally read in the synagogue on this day, describes the repentance of the people of Nineveh in similar terms (Jon 3:5-9). According to the Mishnah, washing, anointing with oil, wearing sandals, and marital relations were also forbidden (Yoma 8:1; see Hartley 1992, 242).
No descriptions of the commemoration of Yom Kippur are found in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. The only sign that the day was kept is found in the oblique reference in the book of Acts 27:9: “The voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over.” But the central elements of the Day of Atonement are highlighted in Heb 9–10, as a limited foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice provided by Jesus.
In parallel to the earlier spring festivals, the Day of Atonement seems to prefigure another event in God’s redemptive calendar. The prophets speak of a day in which the nation’s sins will be cleansed in preparation for Israel’s inheritance of God’s kingdom promises. In Zech 3, this future cleansing was prefigured by prophetic pre-enactment, with the high priest, Joshua ben Jehozadak, representing the sinful nation (Zech 3:3-5). Zechariah 3:9–10 summarizes the result, “I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day. In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”
Similarly, the new covenant promise in Jer 31:31–34 states, “‘They will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’” This ultimate “Day of Atonement” will enable Israel to enjoy the fulfillment of God’s eternal covenant with Abraham: a holy nation walking in relationship with her God and enjoying his blessing to the full in the land of promise (see Jer 31:1-14; cf. Rom 11:25-29).
Sukkot: The Feast of Booths
The feast of Booths, or Tabernacles (Sukkot) was the final pilgrimage feast in the religious calendar and the preeminent holiday of the seventh month, perhaps even of Israel’s entire sacred year (Hartley 1992, 381). Leviticus 23:39 designates it as “the feast of the Lord” and later it is referred to simply as “the feast” (1 Kgs 8:2; cf. John 7:1). Israel was commanded to keep the feast “to the Lord” with singular rejoicing (Deut 16:14-15) and it was chosen as the holiday at which the law of Moses would be read to all the people—men, women, and children—every sabbatical year (Deut 31:10-13). This was most likely because it was the best-attended pilgrim feast and ideal for entire families. It followed the work-intensive harvest season, and usually occurred during good travel conditions: the roads were baked dry by the long, rainless summer, and moderate fall temperatures were the norm.
The Feast of Booths has multiple associations in the Scriptures. The book of Exodus emphasizes the agricultural significance of the holiday, naming it “the feast of ingathering” (23:16–17; 34:22–23), and similarly Deuteronomy recognizes it as a feast of thanksgiving and joy following the harvest, celebrating the abundant provision of the Lord (16:13-15). While recognizing its links to the harvest season, Lev 23:41–43 calls the holiday “the Feast of Booths” and emphasizes the historical rationale for dwelling in booths for seven days; namely, as a reminder of God’s care and provision for Israel during the wilderness wanderings (Hartley 1992, 381). The addition of a “solemn assembly” immediately following the holiday gave it its eight–day character (23:36; cf. Neh 8:18).
God himself had dwelt in a temporary dwelling in the midst of his people during the wilderness wanderings. This fact, as well as subsequent historical developments, gave the Feast of Booths unique religious and prophetic significance. Both the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs 8:1–2) and of the rebuilt altar following the Babylonian exile (Ezra 3:1–4) coincided with this holiday, giving it a temple association. Later still, Ezra read the Torah in the vicinity of the temple,which moved the people to resume the celebration of the feast, even erecting booths in the temple courts (Neh 8:14-18). It is likely that the later eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, the rededication of the temple, was styled after the feast of booths, as indicated in 2 Maccabees 10:6–8 and 1:18–36 (Moore 1971, 2:46-50; Edersheim 1958, 334-35).
The prophetic promises of the Lord’s return to dwell among his people with the establishment of his kingdom on earth were naturally linked with this feast. In the Torah, God had promised that if Israel would truly walk in his ways, “I will put my tabernacle in your midst and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you, and I will be your God and you will be my people” (Lev 26:11–12 NET). The language used shows an intentional allusion to the garden of Eden, God’s original “tabernacle” on earth, where he walked with Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8). John picks up this theme when he writes, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…”(John 1:14), using the Greek term skenoo , “take up residence,” derived from the noun skene, “temporary quarters,…tent, hut” (BDAG). The prophet Zechariah echoes this promise and the wilderness experience in Zech 2:4–5, 10. The fulfillment of this promise with the establishment of the kingdom is predicted in Zech 14, where also the kingdom association of the Feast of Booths is made explicit.
“And the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one…. Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (Zech 14:9, 16).
The New Testament agrees emphatically, anticipating God’s rule in the midst of his people: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them” (Rev 21:3).
By the first century, a number of ceremonies had developed which expressed the people’s prayer that the kingdom associations of the feast would be realized in their day. The first was the illumination of the temple, which began on the evening following the first day of the feast. Huge candlesticks were set up in the courts of the temple, illuminating the entire city and symbolizing the light of the coming kingdom of God. The roots of this ceremony may be connected with the Shekinah, the manifest glory of God, which filled the temple at its dedication under Solomon (1 Kgs 8:10-11), was removed prior to the destruction of the first temple (Ezek 10–11), and will be restored to the temple with the establishment of the kingdom of God (Ezek 43:1–9; cf. Zech 2:4–5, 10–11).
While the Levites played music on the steps leading down to the court of women, sages and other leading men danced until dawn before the crowds. Concerning the nightly spectacle, the Mishnah remarks, “Whoever has not seen the rejoicing of the water-drawing [Beit HaShoeva] has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukk 5:1).
As morning came, the water libation was performed (Sukk 4:9–5:1). Having filled a golden flagon with water drawn from the pool of Siloam, at the time of the morning sacrifice the priest would pour out the water at the base of the altar, to the cheers of the masses who had accompanied him. This act constituted a prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Israel at the inauguration of the kingdom of God, in accordance with the verse from Isaiah, “And you shall draw forth water with joy from the well of salvation” (Isa 12:3; J. Sukkah 5:1; 55a).
Immediately the crowds began a recitation of the Hallel Psalms, Pss 113–118, and, waving palm branches, they circled the altar chanting the words from Psalm 118:25–26, “Hosanna! Save us, we pray, O LORD!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” In Jesus’ day, languishing under the Roman occupation, the people were desperate for the coming of God’s kingdom and the Messiah who would liberate them. Each day of the feast the spectacle would be repeated, but on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah—the “great Hosanna”—they circled the altar seven times. In a final, desperate appeal, with one voice they cried out for God’s salvation now!
On that last, great day of the feast, John tells us,
Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive… (John 7:37–39).
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