Sacred feasts and festivals punctuated the calendar of ancient Israel. New moons were a function of a lunar system in which the month functioned as the basic unit for measuring time. The Pesaḥ festival (Passover) in the spring, on which unleavened bread was eaten, was historical in character, a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. By contrast, the spring and autumn harvest festivals were seasonal celebrations linked to the agricultural economy of ancient Israel. All three annual festivals were occasions for pilgrimage (Hebr. ḥag).

How feasts and new moons were celebrated depended in great measure on where sacrifices could be offered. Israelites seeking to celebrate these occasions fully were required to do so at a proper cult site, in other words, to undertake a pilgrimage to an altar (bāmâ) or temple. The Bible records a protracted movement toward cult centralization and the elimination of all local and regional cult sites. The doctrine that all sacrifice should be restricted to a central temple was to have serious practical implications for the scheduling of pilgrimage festivals and all occasions when sacrifices were offered.

In 622 BCE King Josiah of Judah issued a series of edicts, recorded in 2 Kings 22–23, forbidding all sacrificial worship outside the Temple of Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 12 restricts the offering of sacrifice to a single cult place (māqôm) to be selected by the God of Israel. It has recently been argued that the policy of cult centralization originated in the northern Israelite kingdom of the mid‐ to late‐eighth century BCE before its fall to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The Judean king Hezekiah had attempted to implement this policy (2 Kings 18.3–4,22), but since he was succeeded by Manasseh, the heterodox king who ruled throughout most of the seventh century BCE, no progress was made in eliminating the bāmôt before the time of Josiah. A young king who had returned to the Lord sincerely (2 Kings 23.25), Josiah acted effectively to eliminate places of worship throughout the land.

It is logical, therefore, to conclude that most of the significant changes in the celebration of Israelite festivals went into effect only after Josiah's edicts were promulgated and that most of them were heralded in Deuteronomy. Some scholars dispute this reconstruction, however, and date the priestly codes (P), which reflect basic changes in worship, to an earlier period.

The New Moon.

The new moon (1 Sam. 20.5, 18; 2 Kings 4.23; Isa. 1.13; Hos. 2.11) is sometimes referred to as “the head of the month” (Num. 28.11; etc.). By all indications, the celebration of the new moon was an important occasion in biblical times. This importance may have diminished in time, since the growing importance of the Sabbath eventually reduced reliance on the lunar calendar, introducing the week as a unit of time.

The account in 1 Samuel 20, set in the early monarchy, suggests that the new moon was the occasion of a sacred feast (zebaḥ) celebrated by the family. Fixing the precise time of the moon's “birth” was necessary for scheduling the festivals, whose dates are formulated as numbered days of the month. According to priestly law (Num. 28.11–15), the new moon was to be celebrated in the public cult by a triad of sacrifices—the burnt offering, the grain offering, and the libation, preceded by the purificatory sin offering. The new moon of the seventh month, in the early autumn (Tishrei), enjoyed special status because it heralded the autumn ingathering festival, the main pilgrimage festival of the year (Lev. 23.23–25; Num. 29.1–16; Ps. 81.3). On that new moon, the ram's horn was sounded to announce the autumn pilgrimage. In later Judaism, the new moon of the seventh month became Roʾsh ha‐Shanah, the Jewish New Year.

The Festival of Unleavened Bread and the Passover.

The first pilgrimage festival in the spring commemorated the Exodus from Egypt. In the Book of the Covenant, the earliest of the law codes in the Torah, this festival is called “the pilgrimage festival of unleavened bread” (ḥag hamma⊡⊡ôt; Exod. 23.15). It is preceded on the eve of the festival by the “paschal sacrifice” ([zebaḥ] pesaḥ; Exod. 12.21–13.10).

This festival began on the new moon of the month of ripening grain ears (ʾābîb) and lasted seven days, during which only unleavened bread was to be eaten (see Leaven). The pilgrimage occurred on the seventh day. On the eve of the first day the paschal sacrifice, consisting of a lamb, was offered by the family near its home. According to Exodus 12.8–9, it was roasted whole over an open fire, a practice still followed by the Samaritans. Blood from the sacrifice was poured on the threshold and then spattered on the lintel and doorposts with a twig of hyssop. The application of the blood expressed the theme of protection. The sense of the Hebrew verb pāsaḥ, from which Pesaḥ derives, has been misunderstood to mean “skip, pass over” (whence the name “Passover”), whereas it more properly means “to straddle, stand over,” hence “protect” (Isa. 31.5). The God of Israel was pictured as standing over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt to protect them from the plague of the firstborn.

Egyptian bondage was symbolized by the bitter herbs, eaten together with the unleavened bread and the paschal sacrifice. This festival is a môʿēd, “appointed time,” a term that indicates its observance on the same date annually (Exod. 13.10; 23.15), and the same is true of the other annual festivals.

In Deuteronomy 16.3 a rationale is given for the unleavened bread. It symbolized affliction, and its preparation was reminiscent of the hasty departure of the fleeing Israelites. Most significant in the provisions of Deuteronomy 16.1–8 is the requirement that the paschal sacrifice be offered at the single cult place selected by God and that it be prepared in the usual manner by boiling major portions of the meat in pots (1 Sam. 2.11–17), with the rest of the victim burned on the altar.

The shift of venue from the home to the central sanctuary parallels the provisions of Josiah's edict (2 Kings 23.21–23) proclaiming the celebration of the paschal sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem, something that, we are told, had never occurred before (but see 2 Chron. 30). The paschal sacrifice now did double duty as the festival offering of the first day. This is indicated by the composite term, “the sacred feast of the pilgrimage festival of the Pesaḥ” (Exod. 34.25).

According to Deuteronomy 16, the pilgrimage began with the paschal sacrifice. Israelites would rise the next morning and return home, continuing to eat unleavened bread for the remaining six days of the festival, and observing the seventh day in their settlements as a solemn assembly, on which labor was prohibited. The result of the Deuteronomic legislation was a brief pilgrimage that allowed farmers to return home at the busiest time of the year.

The priestly prescriptions for this festival reveal even further changes in its celebration. The date is the fifteenth of the first month (Nisan), preceded by the paschal sacrifice on the fourteenth, in the late afternoon (Exod. 12.18; Lev. 23.5–6; Num. 28.16–17). From the formulation of these priestly laws it is clear that the paschal sacrifice, like those offered on each of the seven days of the festival, occurred in the Temple. On both the first and the seventh days there is to be a “sacred assembly,” on which labor is forbidden. Numbers 28.19–24 specifies the offerings of the public cult. The difficulty implicit in ordaining a seven‐day pilgrimage to a central sanctuary would be dealt with, as we will see, by deferring the second pilgrimage. Proclaiming both the first and the seventh days as sacred assemblies satisfied the earlier pilgrimage of the Book of the Covenant as well as the Deuteronomic pilgrimage of the first night.

The Spring Harvest Festival of the First Grain Yield.

In the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 23.16) this festival is named “the pilgrimage festival of reaping” (ḥag haqqā⊡îr), that is, of the first yield of the barley crop. No specific date is provided in Exodus, but we may assume that it would occur quite soon after the Pesaḥ early in Iyyar.

In Deuteronomy 16.9–12 we observe the dramatic effects of the Deuteronomic requirement of celebration at a central sanctuary: the spring festival of reaping is deferred seven weeks; thus, the festival is named “the pilgrimage festival of weeks” (ḥag šābūʿōt). The Israelites were to count off a period of seven weeks and then present an offering of first fruits, now consisting of wheat, not barley (Exod. 34.26; Deut. 26.1–11; Lev. 2.14–16).

The most logical reason for the deferral was the anticipated difficulty of undertaking two extended pilgrimages to a central temple at the busiest season of the agricultural year. Priestly law, represented by Leviticus 23.9–22, retains the deferral instituted by Deuteronomy. An earlier desacralization of the new barley crop is, however, ordained for the day of the original festival of reaping, soon after the Pesaḥ festival. In Leviticus 23 the spring festival of reaping is not designated a pilgrimage at all; the first fruits were merely to be delivered to the central temple from the Israelite settlements (v. 17). This celebration, on the fiftieth day of the period of counting, was rendered more elaborate by including the “sacred gifts of greeting” (šĕlāmîm [v. 19; NRSV: “sacrifice of well‐being”]), along with loaves made of semolina wheat. The counting of seven weeks was to commence on a Sunday and end on a Sunday, seven weeks later, so that seven actual sabbatical weeks would have passed, not merely forty‐nine days. The fiftieth day is designated “a sacred assembly,” on which labor is prohibited. Numbers 28.26–31 prescribes a complete regimen of sacrifices to be offered in the Temple and it curiously no longer includes the “sacred gifts of greeting.”

In summary, we observe major changes in the celebration, scheduling, and essential meaning of the spring festival.

The Autumn Pilgrimage Festival of Ingathering.

In the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 23.16) the autumn festival is called “the pilgrimage festival of ingathering” (ḥag hāʾāsîp), namely, “when you gather in your products from the field.” It was to occur “at the outset of the year,” more precisely, soon after the start of the two‐month period of ingathering, corresponding to Tishri‐Marheshvan (September–October). Psalm 81.3 indicates that this festival began on the full moon, at the middle of the month, rather than on the new moon. The pilgrimage lasted one day.

Once again, Deuteronomy (16.13–15) introduces a dramatic change. There this festival is named “the pilgrimage festival of booths” (ḥag hassukkôt) and is scheduled to last seven days. It was to occur somewhat later than the ingathering, at the time when the produce of the fields, vineyards, and groves was processed, in the vat and on the threshing floor.

This autumn pilgrimage was the major event of the year, bringing large numbers of Israelites to the Temple. For this reason it was an appropriate time for the dedication of Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 8.2).

Leviticus 23, in two successive statements (vv. 33–36; 39–42), elaborates on the festival of booths, which was a particularly joyous occasion. A rationale is provided for living in booths, namely, the conditions characteristic of the wilderness experience. Greenery was utilized to symbolize the fertility of the land, and an eighth day with a solemn assembly was added. Like Leviticus, Numbers 29.12–38 specifies sacrifices for all eight days, with the first and eighth days designated as days of rest.

A more realistic approach would seem to suggest that the theme of “booths” was introduced in Deuteronomy as a consequence of the restriction of pilgrimage to one central temple, which also accounts for the extension of the festival to last longer than initially intended. Dwelling in temporary booths became necessary for the numerous pilgrims arriving in the capital from all over the land and, in later times, from the Diaspora as well (Neh. 8.13–18; Zech. 14.16).

The Day of Atonement.

The first reference to the Day of Atonement (yôm hakkippūrîm) is found in Leviticus 16, which sets forth the rites of expiation and purification to be performed by the high priest in the sanctuary. The principal function of this day was the purification of the sanctuary and priesthood, in advance of the autumn pilgrimage festival.

The rites of expiation were quite elaborate, and they included the dispatch of the scapegoat (see Azazel) into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the people. On this day, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies (see Temple) to seek expiation for sins. In Zechariah 7.5 this day is referred to as “the fast‐day of the seventh month,” and its importance seems to have increased during the exilic and postexilic periods, in the wake of the national disaster of 587/586 BCE. The postexilic prophet whose words are preserved in Isaiah 58 emphasizes that the God of Israel wants more than cultic purification and sets down ethical, human goals whose pursuit alone may render the atonement process acceptable to God.


The book of Esther relates the saga of deliverance that accounts for the annual Purim feast on the fourteenth day of Adar (and, in some areas, on the fifteenth day as well). Set in the reign of Ahasuerus (possibly Artaxerxes I), the Persian ruler of the fifth century BCE, the story emphasizes divine providence over Israel, in which Esther, the queen, and Mordecai, the court counselor, foil the conspiracy of Haman, the wicked enemy of the Jewish people residing in the far‐flung provinces of the Achaemenid empire. Jewish custom is to read the Esther Scroll on this occasion and to exchange gifts in celebration of deliverance.


There is an additional festival, unmentioned in the Hebrew Bible, which became part of later Judaism. The generic word ḥănukkâ, “dedication,” occurs in such passages as Numbers 7.10–11; Psalm 30 (title); and Nehemiah 12.27; but the festival of that name is first mentioned in 1 Maccabees 4.59 in its complete form as “the Dedication of the Altar” and referred to simply as “the Dedication” in John 10.22. Hanukkah is an eight‐day festival whose celebration begins on the twenty‐fifth day of Chislev and which was patterned after the Tabernacles festival of the harvest season, as is indicated by statements in 2 Maccabees 1.9, 18; 2.1; 10.6–8.

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 164 BCE by the victorious Maccabees, members of the priestly Hasmoneans of Modein, after its defilement by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, acting with the collaboration of hellenizing Jews. It is the practice to kindle lights on Hanukkah, adding one light each day throughout the eight days of the festival, and to recite psalms of praise, the Hallel (Pss. 113–118).


After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when all sacrificial rites became inoperative, major changes in observance affect virtually all biblical feasts. Yet all biblical feasts continue to be celebrated to this day, both in Israel and wherever Jewish communities exist.

Baruch A. Levine