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Besides the festivals mentioned in the Law of Moses, other festive seasons were also observed at the time of our Lord, to perpetuate the memory either of great national deliverances or of great national calamities. The former were popular feasts, the latter public fasts. Though most, if not all of them, are alluded to in the Canonical Scriptures, it is extremely difficult to form a clear idea of how they were kept in the Temple. Many of the practices connected with them, as described in Jewish writings, or customary at present, are of much later date than Temple times, or else apply rather to the festive observances in the various synagogues of the land than to those in the central sanctuary. And the reason of this is evident. Though those who were at leisure might like to go to Jerusalem for every feast, yet the vast majority of the people would, except on the great festivals, naturally gather in the synagogues of their towns and villages. Moreover, these feasts and fasts were rather national than typical--they commemorated a past event instead of pointing forward to a great and world-important fact yet to be realised. Lastly, being of later, and indeed, of human, not Divine institution, the authorities at Jerusalem did not venture to prescribe for them special rites and sacrifices, which, as we have seen, constituted the essence of Temple worship.
Arranging these various feasts and fasts in the order of their institution and importance, we have:--
The Feast of Purim
1. The Feast of Purim, that is 'of lots,' or the Feast of Esther, also called in 2 Maccabees xv. 36 'the day of Mordecai,' which was observed in memory of the preservation of the Jewish nation at the time of Esther. The name 'Purim' is derived from 'the lot' which Haman cast in connection with his wicked desire (Esth 3:7; 9:24). It was proposed by Mordecai to perpetuate the anniversary of this great deliverance on the 14th and the 15th of Adar (about the beginning of March), and universally agreed to by the Jews of his time (Esth 9:17-24). Nevertheless, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, its general introduction after the return from Babylon formed a subject of grave doubt and deliberation among the 'eighty-five elders'--a number which, according to tradition, included upwards of thirty prophets (Jer. Megillah, 70 b). *
* The learned Jost (Gesch. d. Judenth., i. 42, note 1) suggests that these '85 elders' were really the commencement of 'the great synagogue,' to which so many of the Jewish ordinances were traced in later times. The number was afterwards, as Jost thinks, arbitrarily increased to 120, which is that assigned by tradition to 'the great synagogue.' 'The great synagogue' may be regarded as the 'constituent' Jewish authority on all questions of ritual after the return from Babylon. Lastly, Jost suggests that the original 85 were the signatories to 'the covenant,' named in Nehemiah 10:1-27.
Even this shows that Purim was never more than a popular festival. As such it was kept with great merriment and rejoicing, when friends and relations were wont to send presents to each other. There seems little doubt that this was the 'feast of the Jews,' to which the Savior 'went up to Jerusalem' (John 5:1), when He healed the 'impotent man' at the Pool of Bethesda. For no other feast could have intervened between December (John 4:35) and the Passover (John 6:4), except that of the 'Dedication of the Temple,' and that is specially designated as such (John 10:22), and not simply as 'a feast of the Jews.'
Ceremonies of the Feast
So far as we can gather, the religious observances of Purim commenced with a fast--'the Fast of Esther'--on the 13th of Adar. But if Purim fell on a Sabbath or a Friday, the fast was relegated to the previous Thursday, as it was not lawful to fast either on a Sabbath or the day preceding it. But even so, there were afterwards disputes between the Jews in Palestine and the much larger and more influential community that still resided in Babylon as to this fast, which seem to throw doubt on its very early observance. On the evening of the 13th of Adar, or rather on the beginning of the 14th, the Book of Esther, or the Megillah ('the roll,' as it is called par excellence), was publicly read, as also on the forenoon of the 14th day, except in ancient walled cities, where it was read on the 15th. In Jerusalem, therefore, it would be read on the evening of the 13th, and on the 15th--always provided the day fell not on a Sabbath, on which the Megillah was not allowed to be read. In the later Jewish calendar arrangements care was taken that the first day of Purim should fall on the first, the third, the fifth, or the sixth day of the week. Country people, who went into their market towns every week on the Monday and Thursday, were not required to come up again specially for Purim, and in such synagogues the Megillah, or at least the principal portions of it, was read on the previous Thursday. It was also allowed to read the Book of Esther in any language other than the Hebrew, if spoken by the Jews resident in the district, and any person, except he were deaf, an idiot or a minor, might perform this service. The prayers for the occasion now used in the synagogue, as also the practice of springing rattles and other noisy demonstrations of anger, contempt, and scorn, with which the name of Haman, where it occurs in the Megillah, is always greeted by young and old, are, of course, of much later date. Indeed, so far from prescribing any fixed form of prayer, the Mishnah (Megill. iv. 1) expressly leaves it an open question, to be determined according to the usage of a place, whether or not to accompany the reading of the Megillah with prayer. According to the testimony of Josephus (Antiq. xi. 6, 13), in his time 'all the Jews that are in the habitable earth' kept 'these days festivals,' and sent 'portions to one another.' In our own days, though the synagogue has prescribed for them special prayers and portions of Scripture, they are chiefly marked by boisterous and uproarious merrymaking, even beyond the limits of propriety.
2. The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, Chanuchah ('the dedication'), called in 1 Maccabees iv. 52-59 'the dedication of the altar,' and by Josephus (Antiq. xii. 7, 7) 'the Feast of Lights,' was another popular and joyous festival. It was instituted by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BC, when, after the recovery of Jewish independence from the Syro-Grecian domination, the Temple of Jerusalem was solemnly purified, the old polluted altar removed, its stones put in a separate place on the Temple-mount, and the worship of the Lord restored. The feast commenced on the 25th of Chislev (December), and lasted for eight days. On each of them the 'Hallel' was sung, the people appeared carrying palm and other branches, and there was a grand illumination of the Temple and of all private houses. These three observances bear so striking a resemblance to what we know about the Feast of Tabernacles, that it is difficult to resist the impression of some intended connection between the two, in consequence of which the daily singing of the 'Hallel,' and the carrying of palm branches was adopted during the Feast of the Dedication, while the practice of Temple-illumination was similarly introduced into the Feast of Tabernacles. *
* In point of fact, the three are so compared in 2 Maccabees x. 6, and even the same name applied to them, i. 9, 18.