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All this becomes the more interesting, when we remember, on the one hand, the typical meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles, and on the other that the date of the Feast of the Dedication--the 25th of Chislev--seems to have been adopted by the ancient Church as that of the birth of our blessed Lord--Christmas--the Dedication of the true Temple, which was the body of Jesus (John 2:19).
The Origin of this Festival
From the hesitating language of Josephus (Antiq. xii. 7, 7), we infer that even in his time the real origin of the practice of illuminating the Temple was unknown. Tradition, indeed, has it that when in the restored Temple the sacred candlestick * was to be lit, only one flagon of oil, sealed with the signet of the high- priest, was found to feed the lamps.
This, then, was pure oil, but the supply was barely sufficient for one day--when, lo, by a miracle, the oil increased, and the flagon remained filled for eight days, in memory of which it was ordered to illuminate for the same space of time the Temple and private houses. A learned Jewish writer, Dr. Herzfeld, suggests, that to commemorate the descent of fire from heaven upon the altar in the Temple of Solomon (2 Chron 7:1), 'the feast of lights' was instituted when the sacred fire was relit on the purified altar of the second Temple. But even so the practice varied in its details. Either the head of a house might light one candle for all the members of his family, or else a candle for each inmate, or if very religious he would increase the number of candles for each individual every evening, so that if a family of ten had begun the first evening with ten candles they would increase them the next evening to twenty, and so on, till on the eighth night eighty candles were lit. But here also there was a difference between the schools of Hillel and Shammai--the former observing the practice as just described, the latter burning the largest number of candles the first evening, and so on decreasingly to the last day of the feast. On the Feast of the Dedication, as at Purim and New Moons, no public fast was to be kept, though private mourning was allowed.
The forms of prayer at present in use by the Jews are of comparatively late date, and indeed the Karaites, who in many respects represent the more ancient traditions of Israel, do not observe the festival at all. But there cannot be a doubt that our blessed Lord Himself attended this festival at Jerusalem (John 10:22), on which occasion He told them plainly: 'I and My Father are one.' This gives it a far deeper significance than the rekindling of the fire on the altar, or even the connection of this feast with that of Tabernacles.
3. The Feast of Wood-offering took place on the 15th Ab (August), being the last of the nine occasions on which offerings of wood were brought for the use of the Temple. For the other eight occasions the Talmud names certain families as specially possessing this privilege, which they had probably originally received 'by lot' at the time of Nehemiah (Neh 10:34; 13:31). At any rate, the names mentioned in the Mishnah are exactly the same as those in the Book of Ezra (Ezra 2). But on the 15th of Ab, along with certain families, all the people--even convert, slaves, Nethinim, and bastards, but notably the priests and Levites, were allowed to bring up wood, whence also the day is called 'the time of wood for the priests.' The other eight seasons were the 20th of Elul (September), the 1st of Tebeth (January), the 1st of Nisan (end of March or April), the 20th of Thammus (save, 'for the family of David'), the 5th, the 7th, the 10th, and the 20th of Ab. It will be observed that five of these seasons fall in the month of Ab, probably because the wood was then thought to be in best condition. The Rabbinical explanations of this are confused and contradictory, and do not account for the 15th of Ab being called, as it was, 'the day on which the axe is broken,' unless it were that after that date till spring no wood might be felled for the altar, although what had been previously cut might be brought up. The 15th of the month was fixed for the feast, probably because at full moon the month was regarded as at its maturity. Tradition, of course, had its own story to account for it. According to one version it was Jeroboam, the wicked King of Israel, to whom so much evil is always traced; according to another, a Syro-Grecian monarch--Antiochus Epiphanes; and according to yet a third, some unnamed monarch who had prohibited the carrying of wood and of the firstfruits to Jerusalem, when certain devoted families braved the danger, and on that day secretly introduced wood into the Temple, in acknowledgment whereof the privilege was for ever afterwards conceded to their descendants.
The Wood used in the Festivals
The wood was first deposited in an outer chamber, where that which was worm-eaten or otherwise unfit for the altar was picked out by priests who were disqualified from other ministry. The rest was handed over to the priests who were Levitically qualified for their service, and by them stored in 'the wood chamber.' The 15th of Ab was observed as a popular and joyous festival. On this occasion (as on the Day of Atonement) the maidens went dressed in white, to dance and sing in the vineyards around Jerusalem, when an opportunity was offered to young men to select their companions for life. We may venture on a suggestion to account for this curious practice. According to the Talmud, the 15th of Ab was the day on which the prohibition was removed which prevented heiresses from marrying out of their own tribes. If there is any historical foundation for this, it would be very significant, that when all Israel, without any distinction of tribes or families, appeared to make their offerings at Jerusalem, they should be at liberty similarly to select their partners in life without the usual restrictions.
Fasts/The Four Great Fasts
4. Fasts--These may be arranged into public and private, the latter on occasions of personal calamity or felt need. The former alone can here claim our attention. Properly speaking, there was only one Divinely-ordained public fast, that of the Day of Atonement. But it was quite in accordance with the will of God, and the spirit of the Old Testament dispensation, that when great national calamities had overtaken Israel, or great national wants arose, or great national sins were to be confessed, a day of public fasting and humiliation should be proclaimed (see for example, Judg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Chron 20:3). To these the Jews added, during the Babylonish captivity, what may be called memorial-fasts, on the anniversaries of great national calamities. Evidently this was an unhealthy religious movement. What were idly bewailed as national calamities were really Divine judgments, caused by national sins, and should have been acknowledged as righteous, the people turning from their sins in true repentance unto God. This, if we rightly understand it, was the meaning of Zechariah's reply (Zech 7; 8) to those who inquired whether the fasts of the fourth, the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth months, were to be continued after the return of the exiles from Babylon. At the same time, the inquiry shows, that the four great Jewish fasts, which, besides the Day of Atonement and the Fast of Esther, are still kept, were observed so early as the Babylonish captivity (Zech 8:19). 'The fast of the fourth month' took place on the 17th Thammus (about June or July), in memory of the taking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the interruption of the daily sacrifice. To this tradition adds, that it was also the anniversary of making the golden calf, and of Moses breaking the Tables of the Law. 'The fast of the fifth month,' on the 9th of Ab, was kept on account of the destruction of the first (and afterwards of the second) Temple. It is significant that the second Temple (that of Herod) was destroyed on the first day of the week. Tradition has it, that on that day God had pronounced judgment that the carcasses of all who had come out of Egypt should fall in the wilderness, and also, that again it was fated much later to witness the fulfilment of Jeremiah 26:18-23, when a Roman centurion had the ploughshare drawn over the site of Zion and of the Temple. 'The fast of the seventh month,' on the 2nd of Tishri, is said by tradition to be in memory of the slaughter of Gedaliah and his associates at Mizpah (Jer 41:1). 'The fast of the tenth month' was on the 10th of Tebeth, when the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar commenced.