Major Jewish Religious Festivals

Jesus of Nazareth was born into a Jewish family and brought up as a Jew. Later, he taught in the Temple in Jerusalem as a Jewish rabbi (religious teacher). It’s important to remember that he lived his whole life as a Jew, and all his early followers were Jews. Like all his Jewish friends, he observed the weekly day of rest (Sabbath or Shabbat) on Saturdays, and the annual Jewish religious festivals according to the traditions of his day.

The festivals, whose precise dates are based on lunar months, were laid down in the Law of Moses (see Exodus 23:14-17 & Leviticus 23:1-44). There were three main annual Jewish religious festivals – 1. Unleavened Bread (Passover / Firstfruits); 2. Weeks (Pentecost); and 3. Ingathering (Tabernacles) (see Fig. 3).


1. The Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover or Pessah) was held in the first month of the Jewish religious calendar. It was initiated to commemorate the Exodus (the ‘going out’) from Egypt in 1447BC when God led his chosen people out of slavery (see Exodus 12:1-20). The Jews were to eat unleavened bread (bread made without yeast) to remember that the Israelites didn’t have time to let their bread rise before leaving Egypt.

The first day of the festival is often referred to as Passover or Pessah because the Israelites smeared blood on their doorposts so the Angel of Death would pass over and not harm their first-born. In commemoration of the Passover, each family killed and roasted a sacrificial lamb whose blood saved them from death. The festival was celebrated between mid-March and mid-April. The final day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread was called Firstfruits. On this day, the first sheaves of the barley harvest were presented to God.

Jesus attended the Passover festival in Jerusalem in the spring of 27AD (see John 2:13-25). The Last Supper, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place during the Passover festival in the spring of 30AD (see Matthew 26:17-19).   

  Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39)


2. The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost, Harvest or Shavuot) – the main harvest festival celebrating the end of the wheat harvest – was held seven weeks after the first barley harvest (see Exodus 34:22). As it was fifty days after Passover, it became known as Pentecost (‘pentekonta’ means ‘fifty’ in Greek). It usually occurred in late May or early June. Jesus’s early disciples were filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in 30AD.


3. The Festival of Ingathering (Shelters, Tabernacles or Sukkot) celebrated the gathering in of the grapes, figs and olives that had ripened during the dry summer months. It was the autumn harvest festival held in late September or October. Also known as the Festival of Tabernacles, Shelters or Booths, this feast also commemorated the time when the Israelites escaping from Egypt had no permanent homes and pitched their tents (tabernacles) or temporary shelters (called 'sukkah') wherever they found sufficient water or grazing for their livestock (see Exodus 17:1).

It’s usually celebrated between mid-September and mid-October. Jewish families often lived in temporary shelters or ‘booths’ during the festival. Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in October 29AD (see John 7:1-14).


A modern Sukka in New Hampshire (oseh shalom)

A modern Sukka in New Hampshire   (oseh shalom)


Other Jewish Religious Festivals

Over time, other annual religious festivals were introduced:

4. Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) – This festival, usually held in mid-September, celebrated the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of the New Year in the Jewish civil calendar (the beginning of the seventh month in the Jewish religious calendar) (see Numbers 10:10). In an age with no written calendars, trumpets (originally the ‘shofar’ or ram’s horn) were sounded on the first day of each new lunar month (see Psalm 81:3), and as a sign of the new agricultural season. There is no reference to the Feast of Trumpets in the New Testament.


Shofar - Blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah (slgckgc)

Blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah   (slgckgc)


5. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – This solemn festival, at the end of September, was a time for remembering past sins (wrongdoings) and for making amends. It was the only day of fasting decreed in the Bible. Traditionally, the High Priest ‘atoned’ for the sins of the people once a year. He took a goat (the ‘scapegoat’) and symbolically heaped the sins of the people upon it before driving it out into the desert to take away their sins (see Leviticus 16:5-10 & 20-22).

The Letter to the Hebrews contrasts this annual ceremony of atonement performed by the High Priest with the once-for-all forgiveness of sins achieved by Jesus on the cross at Calvary (see Hebrews 9:6-7 & 23-28).


6. Purim – this festival commemorated the actions of Queen Esther whose quick thinking and decisive action saved the Jewish exiles in Babylon and Persia from being massacred in 473 BC (see Esther 3:1-6 & 9:23-32). It takes place in February or March. There is no reference to this festival in the New Testament.


Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland (Kotoviski)

Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland   (Kotoviski)


7. Lights (Dedication or Hanukkah) – this festival was initiated to commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple by Judas Maccabaeus in 165BC after its defilement by King Antiochus Epiphanes. This re-dedication is recorded in the apocryphal First Book of the Maccabees (see 1 Maccabees 4:52-59). During the re-dedication, a single flask of olive oil miraculously kept the lamps in the Temple alight for the whole eight-day ceremony. Hanukkah takes place in mid-December. Jesus attended the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in Jerusalem in the winter of 29AD (see John 10:22-24).

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