JEWISH FASTS AND FESTIVALS
396. There is much to admire in the Jewish people. Admittedly wanderers on the face of the globe, they have preserved their national characteristics, their ancient festivals, rites, and ceremonies, in spite of persecutions and the onward march of Time. Though forming only a comparatively insignificant population in the Christian countries. which they inhabit, they are unswerving in the observance of the Sabbath on their own particular day of the week; and notwithstanding their natural addiction for moneygetting, cheerfully lay their occupations aside whenever the Mosaic Law requires them to do so. Even devout Roman Catholics resident in a Protestant country consider their duty sufficiently discharged by hearing Mass on what is called a Day of Obligation, and then quietly pursue their ordinary business. The reason of this religious unanimity of the Jews lies in the fact that they are a distinct race or nation, and not merely the scattered members of a particular creed. We find much the same thing, though in a lesser degree, among the Scotsmen, who, no matter in what remote part of the world they may be, make high holiday on New Year's Day, and pay due honour to their patron saint on the Festival of St. Andrew. The festivals of the Jewish ecclesiastical year were instituted by Moses during the forty years' sojourning in the desert, in order to keep alive the sentiment of their common nationality among the Israelites wherever the Tabernacle of the Lord should be set up. Thus, when the Jews resided in the Holy Land, it was incumbent upon all males to go up to Jerusalem three times every year, there to make their offerings in the Temple on the Feasts of the Passover, of Pentecost, and of Tabernacles respectively.
397. The first festival of the Jewish ecclesiastical year is also one of the most important. This, the Festival of the Passover, occurs in the first month (Nisan) corresponding to portions of March and April of the Christian year. In Biblical times all males were bound to go up to Jerusalem to keep the Passover and make their offerings to God in the Temple. The Paschal lamb was slain on the fourteenth day of Nisan, in commemoration of the lamb which God commanded the Israelites to slay when about to deliver them out of the land of bondage, and whose blood they sprinkled on the doorposts of their houses, to protect them from the Destroying Angel. The open selection of a lamb for sacrifice by the Israelites had a meaning all its own. As the lamb was a sacred animal in the eyes of the Egyptians, it indicated that they (the Israelites) dared to do that which during the whole 210 years of their captivity had been impossible in other words, that their deliverance was at hand. Since the destruction of the Temple, sacrifice among the Jews has been abolished; but various symbolical observances there are which serve to commemorate the great event. Commencing on the fourteenth day of Nisan, the Festival of Pesach, or Passover, lasts eight days. During the whole of this period the Jews are forbidden to eat anything leaven, or even to have anything leaven in their houses. Hence Passover is also known as The Feast of Unleavened Bread. To ensure the removal of every kind of fermented food, such as bread, beer, etc., the master of the house is in duty bound to make a strict search throughout the house on the eve of the fourteenth of Nisan. This is therefore called The Eve of Searching for Leaven. What is known to Christians as Passover Bread constitutes the Jewish staff of life during Pesach. This is because on the night of the departure of the Israelites out of the land of bondage, the anxiety of the Egyptians to send them away was so great that they had not time to bake their bread. Their kneading troughs being already bound up with their clothes upon their shoulders, they were obliged to remove their dough before it was leavened, and out of this dough they afterwards baked unleavened bread; for as we read, "it was not leavened." The eve of the Passover (that is to say, the fourteenth day of Nisan, for the Passover proper does not commence until the evening of the fourteenth) bears the name also of The Fast of the First-born, because it is the duty of the first-born male, above the age of thirteen, of every Jewish family to fast on this day, in commemoration of the deliverance of the firstborn of the Israelites from the Destroying Angel. The first two and the last two days of the festival are kept by all Jews as strictly as the Sabbath; but on the four intervening days urgent business may be attended to. On the first two evenings of the festival the household table must be set out with (1), a dish containing part of the shank-bone of a lamb roasted, symbolical of the Paschal offering; (2), a dish containing a roasted egg, the symbol of the generation of the human race, the usual festival sacrifice; (3), a dish containing a mixture of chopped apples, almonds, etc., in allusion to the mortar used by the Israelites in Egypt; (4), a cup of vinegar or salt water, and the green tops of the horse-radish, which, like the chopped apples, etc., are to remind the present generation of the bitter oppression suffered by their forefathers in the land of bondage (see 141). The members of the household having then taken their places, the head of the family recites the "Sanctification of the Festival," followed by the history of the deliverance out of Egypt. The evening meal is next partaken, and the service concludes with a solemn chant of hymns in praise and glorification of God. On the eve of the second evening of Fesack, the Counting of the Orner commences, and is continued for forty-nine days (see 399). This is in remembrance of the offering of an omer (a Hebrew measure equal to half a gallon) of the newly-reaped barley, as commanded in the Bible, in the Temple, when the Israelites dwelt in Palestine. The seventh day of the festival is marked by the recital of that portion of Exodus which describes the passage over the Red Sea by the Israelites, in commemoration of that event, which took place on the seventh day of the Passover. The song chanted by Moses and the children of Israel on that occasion is likewise read.
398. The second month (Iyar) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year contains three minor fast days, viz., the first Monday, the first Thursday, and the second Monday. The object of these fasts is to atone for sins unknowingly committed, or for the neglect of any of the religious exercises enjoined upon all Jews during the Festival of Pesach or Passover. The fourteenth day of Iyar was, during the Biblical era, observed as The Second Passover by such as were unable to keep the festival in its proper season owing to sickness or unavoidable absence on a journey. The eighteenth day of Iyar, corresponding with the thirty-third day of the omer (see 397), is a minor festival kept by school children, and generally described as The Scholars' Feast. This commemorates the sudden cessation of a plague on the thirty-third day of the omer, which, in addition to a large proportion of the general inhabitants of Palestine, carried off many thousands of the Rabbi's pupils.
399. The second of the three great festivals of the Jewish ecclesiastical year occurs on the sixth and seventh days of the third month (Sivan), which rncludes parts of May and June. It is called in Hebrew Shovuos, but more generally The Feast of Pentecost, from the Greek pentekoste, the fiftieth day; since it commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai fifty days after the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt. It was on the sixth day of Sivan that God spoke the Decalogue from the top of Mount Sinai, consequently one of the names for this festival is The Time of Giving the Law. It is called also The Feast of Weeks, because it marks the completion of seven weeks, counted from the second day of Pesach or Passover. On that day the Jews of Palestine presented their omer of newly-reaped barley in the Temple, and counted forty-nine days from it; until on the fifteenth day they celebrated the Feast of Pentecost. This counting of the omer is still observed by the modern Jews (see 397). Two other names for this great festival are The Day of First Ripe Fruits, because the first ears of ripe wheat were offered in the Temple at Jerusalem; and The Harvest Festival, or the period of the wheat harvest in the East. As, among the Western nations, the Festival of Pentecost does not occur during the wheat harvest, but when the flowers are in full bloom, the scattered races of the Jewish people decorate their synagogues with flowers and shrubs, grateful to the eye and fragrant with many perfumes. Strict Jews consider themselves in duty bound to stay up during the first night of the festival to read portions of the Law and excerpta from the prophets. The three days preceding Shovuos, or Pentecost, are styled The Three Days of Setting Bounds, in allusion to the Divine command to Moses to set bounds round Mount Sinai before the giving of the Ten Commandments.
400. The seventeenth day of the fourth month (Tammuz) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year is The Black Fast, or Fast of Tammuz. From sunrise until nightfall on this day no food may be taken, on account of the grievous calamities which befell the Jewish nation on the seventeenth of Tammuz. After withstanding a siege of two years' duration, the walls of Jerusalem gave way before the attacks of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon; the Jewish king was taken prisoner, and after witnessing the slaughter of his two sons, both his eyes were put out. Many years later, again on the seventeenth of Tammuz, the city of Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Emperor Titus, at the head of a Roman army, and a wholesale massacre of its inhabitants took place. Moreover, it was on this day that Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he, in his anger, broke the two Tables of the Law at the foot of the Mount. In punishment for their idolatry Moses, in the name of God, commanded the sons of Levi to pass through the camp, sword in hand, and slay all the wrongdoers, sparing neither friend nor brother. The number who fell on that day, we read, was about 3,000. Truly such a mournful day is fittingly commemorated by a strict fast. For the Jews find comfort in the words of the prophet Zechariah (viii. 19), that their days of sorrow shall he turned to gladness: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts."
401. The fifth month (Av) of the ecclesiastical year contains the most mournful day in the Hebrew calendar. On the ninth day of Av the destruction of Jerusalem, commenced respectively by Nebuchadnezzar and Titus, on the seventeenth of Tamrnuz was completed. By the former victorious monarch the kingdom of Judah was carried into its ever-memorable Babylonian captivity; by the latter its dispersion over the face of the earth was accomplished. In commemoration of these events the descendants of the Israelites observe the day with fasting and sorrow. The fast called The Fast of Av is of longer duration than that which occurs in Tarnmuz, viz., from sunset on the eighth until nightfall on the ninth day. The synagogues present a scene of desolation. All the usual ornaments are removed, the Ark is stripped of its curtain, the light of day is excluded, and in its place two or three candles emit a feeble light. Instead of in their allotted places, the worshippers are seated on the ground, and the service is chanted in a low and mournful key. In addition to the Book of Lamentations, special dirges, descriptive of the sufferings of their ancestors, and the woe and destruction that fell upon the city are recited. The fifteenth day of Av is observed as a minor festival in remembrance of the reconciliation of the Israelites and the Benjamites, which took place on this day, after two sanguinary battles had been fought between them. The circumstances which occasioned their warfare are related in judges xix. and xx.
402. The sixth month (Alul) is the only one out of the twelve that contains neither fast nor feast. Nevertheless, it is regarded as a month of preparation for the New Year and other important days which follow closely upon it. On all the days except the Sabbath the ram's horn is sounded in the synagogues to give warning; and during the fourth week, which immediately precedes the New Year, special propitiatory prayers are offered up (see 403).
403. The seventh month (Tishri) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year is the first month of the civil year. As two great festivals in addition to the solemn Day of Atonement occur therein, this is considered by far the most important month of the whole twelve. The first and second days of Tishri constitute the Festival of the New Year; or, as it is properly expressed in the Hebrew tongue, The Head of the Year. It has also three other names: The Day of Memorial, because the Jews believe that all their sins committed during the past year are on these days remembered by God; The Day of Judgment, for the sins of His people being remembered by God, they are naturally reviewed and subjected to His judgment on these days; and The Day of Sounding the Horn, on account of the ram's horn being sounded several times during the service in the synagogues as a solemn warning that the Day of Atonement is drawing near. The use of the ram's horn at this season is appropriate, since, according to tradition, it was on the first day of Tishri that a ram was offered up instead of Isaac on Mount Moriah. The first ten days of Tishri are called The Ten Days of Penitence, and also The Days of Awe; they are spent by all good Jews in serious meditation and solemn preparation for the sacred Day of Atonement. The third day of Tishri is a fast day, called The Fast of Gedaliah. This is in memory of the good Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, governor of the humbler classes left by Nebuchadnezzar to cultivate the soil and tend the vineyards after the major portion of the inhabitants of Judah were carried into captivity to Babylon. His rule in the Holy Land only extended over seven months, for he was treacherously murdered by Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, of the royal seed, who coveted the supreme power in Palestine. The Sabbath between the New Year and the Day of Atonement is styled The Sabbath of Repentance. The dread Day of Atonement is at once the most solemn day of the whole Jewish year; it is the Sabbath of Sabbaths. From sunset on the ninth of Tishri until nightfall on the tenth a strict fast is enjoined upon all Jews without exception. In contradistinction to the Black Fast of Tammuz, and on account of the purity of heart with which it should be embraced, it generally bears the name of The White Fast. Its conclusion is announced by the sounding of the Shofor, or ram's horn, on the termination of the sacred days' observances in the synagogues, where all the congregants are expected to assemble from sunrise until nightfall on this dread day. The third and last of the important festivals commanded in the Bible-The Feast of Tabernacles, or, in Hebrew, Succous-commences on the fifteenth of Tishri, and continues for nine days. This is kept in commemoration of the Israelites who dwelt in portable booths or tabernacles (taberna, a hut), formed of branches of trees and covered with leaves, during their forty years' wandering in search of the promised land. Even at the present day strict Jews build for themselves temporary tabernacles roofed with leaves, and though they may not entirely dwell, they at least take their meals in them during the festival. In accordance with the Biblical command they also take branches of the palm, the myrtle, of the willow of the brook, together with the fruit of the citron, and rejoice with them before the Lord. These various branches are tastefully bound together, and with them and the citron in their hands they recite the hymn of praise, and afterwards walk round the synagogue in procession chanting the hosanna. The ceremony in the synagogues on the seventh day of the festival is very impressive. This particular day is styled The Great Hosanna, from the prayers uniformly recited throughout the whole Jewish world. The seven scrolls of the Law are taken out, and the palm-bearing worshippers walk seven times round the synagogue chanting the hosannas. Then, towards the conclusion of the service, the leaves are beaten off the willow branches in remembrance of the ceremonial in the Temple, when the Jews with joyful song strewed the altar with the willow twigs which they had used during the festival. The eighth day of Succous is styled The Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly, special prayers being offered in the synagogues supplicating God to send both wind and rain in due season. The ninth and concluding day of the festival is called the The Rejoicing of the Law. On each Sabbath throughout the year a portion of the Law is read in the synagogues, but on this particular day the last portion of Deuteronomy, narrating the death and burial of Moses, is read, and at once a return is made to the creation in Genesis.
404. The eighth month (Cheshvan or Marcheshvan) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, corresponding to portions of October and November of the Christian year, contains three minor fasts similar to those which occur in Iyar, and for a similar intention, viz., to make amends for any sins committed or religious duties neglected in the course of the preceding festival (see 398).
405. The Festival of Chanukah, or Dedication, commences on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month (Kislive) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, and continues for eight days. This is in solemn commemoration of and thanksgiving for the purification of the Temple on this day by Judas Maccabus, after it had been polluted by Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, about the year BC. 170. The Scripture relates that when the perpetual lamp was about to be relit, it was discovered that but one flask of holy oil, sufficient for that day, only remained, but by a miracle wrought by God, the oil lasted for eight days, by which time a further supply was forthcoming. In memory of this miracle at the re-dedication of the Temple, the modern descendants of the people of Jerusalem employ in their synagogues and houses on the first night of the festival one light, on the second two lights, on the third three, and so on until the end of the festival.
406. The tenth day of the tenth month (Tivise) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year is observed as a fast, in sorrowful remembrance of the siege of Jerusalem, commenced by King Nebuchadnezzar on this day. This is one of the fasts referred to by the prophet Zechariah (see 400).
407. On the fifteenth day of the eleventh month (Sh'vat) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, corresponding to parts of our January and February, what is called The New Year Festival for the Trees occurs, because just about this time the sap begins to rise in the trees. In Palestine the rgours of the winter are now past, the weather is commencing to get warmer, the spring is at hand, and it behoves mankind to be grateful to God for having been spared through the winter months to enjoy the prospect of the approaching season of fruit and flowers. On the last Sabbath of this month, if it is an ordinary year, that portion of Exodus which relates to the children of Israel who were numbered being commanded to give "every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord," to the amount of a half shekel, the same to be devoted to the service of the Tabernacle, is read. For this reason the Sabbath is called The Day of the Section of the Shekels. When the year is intercalary, this Sabbath occurs on the first day of Adar, or the month following. The collection in all the synagogues which, in commemoration of the offering of the half shekel of the Israelites, is made for the poor, does not, however, take place until the first night of Purim (see 408).
408. The twelfth month (Adar) of the Jewish ecclesiastical year contains, on the thirteenth day, what is called The Fast of Esther, and on the fourteenth day, The Festival of Purim. The origin of both these observances is set forth in the Book of Esther. Briefly stated, when Ahasuerus, King of Persia, put away his wife Vashti, and took in her place Esther, a Jewish maiden who had been brought up by her cousin Mordecai, Haman, the king's minister, conceived such a deadly hatred against the Jewish population in Persia, consequent on the sudden advancement of Mordecai, and because he would not bow down to him, that he resolved to put all the Jews to death. Unfortunately, the king was very weak-minded, and granted his minister everything he asked of him. The latter, therefore, cast lots to determine in what month he should carry out his cruel design. The lot fell upon Adar, so on the thirteenth of that month Haman sent messengers into all parts of the kingdom to put the Jews of all ages to the sword, sparing none, not even children. In this extremity, Mordecai begged Queen Esther to intercede for her own people. Now, according to olden custom in Persia, any person whatsoever who ventured into the king's presence without a previous intimation of the king's desire to see him or her, was at once put to death, unless the king held out to him or her his golden sceptre as a token of his favour. Knowing this, the queen, nevertheless, undertook to endanger her own life for her people. But, first of all, she commanded all the Jews residing in Shushan, the Persian capital, to fast for three days. She fasted herself, also, during this period. Then, attired in her royal robes, she approached the king, who immediately held out to her his golden sceptre, whereupon the queen pleaded her cause so earnestly and so eloquently that the king ordered Haman and his ten sons to be hanged, and gave all the Jews full liberty to defend themselves against their enemies. The slaughter of their enemies by the Jews of Shushan took place on the fourteenth day of Adar, which is known as The Feast of Purim, or of casting lots; and is regarded as a day of rejoicing for their miraculous deliverance. On the night and morning of this day, the Megillah, a parchment scroll upon which the Book of Esther is written, is read in the synagogues. The fifteenth day is also a day of rejoicing, of giving presents to one another, and alms to the poor. This is styled The Purim of Shushan, for the reason already stated. The Fast of Esther, therefore, on the eve of this festival, in remembrance of the three days' abstinence imposed on her people by the queen is a suitable preparation for the rejoicings which follow upon it. The Sabbath preceding Purim is called The Sabbath of Remembrance, because Haman, having been descended from the tribe of Amalek, that portion of Deuteronomy (xxv. 17-19), which begins, "Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt," is read in the synagogues. The last Sabbath of Adar, which is the one just before the new moon of Nisan, bears the name of The Sabbath of the Month, i.e., of the month Nisan. On this Sabbath the twelfth chapter of Exodus, which according to the Divine command fixes Nisan to be the beginning of months, or the first month of the year, is read in the synagogues.