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Festive Cycles and Arrangement of the Calendar
The Number Seven
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--the 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 labor 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 Passover 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, labor of any kind was prohibited.
In Hebrew two terms are employed--the 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--that 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.'
The duty of appearing three times a year in the Temple applied to all male Israelites--bondsmen, 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. *