Holiday Observance – from a Jewish perspective

Christmas is one of those occasions where us being Jewish comes into play in how we understand and relate to events around us. While we do ‘celebrate’ occasions such as weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Brit Milahs etc., holidays are more a time of observance than a time of celebration.  Of course, round the observance is great food and family gatherings, but how and when we observe is not something left up to us — but set out by God in Scripture.

The Jewish Concept of Observance

God was quite specific as to when and where and how to the Jewish people were to worship Him.  Days of commemoration and how those days are to be observed were appointed by God, rather than chosen by us. Feast days and holy days are times of observance where we remember what God has done for our forefathers.

Observance – remembering God

As you can see, we have lots of holy days and feasts — in addition to the weekly holiday of Shabbat (the Sabbath) and all of them except for Chanukah are established by God as to how they are to be observed and when.

This may come as a huge surprise, but the commemoration of these observances was not restricted by God to Jews!

Under the Law, God set out how the “foreigner among us” (Gentiles) were to be treated — that when we commemorated feasts and festivals, that the “foreigner amongst us” was to partake with us — as equals!  When we celebrated Sukkot (Feast of Booths / Tabernacles), so did the Gentiles who lived amongst us (Deut. 16:4)’

“and you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your towns.

Deut. 16:14

On the Sabbath, the Gentiles who lived amongst us were also to rest, as we did (Deut 5:14). There was no such thing as the “Sabbath Goy” (Gentile) who could do work on the Sabbath while the Jew did not.

“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day”

Deuteronomy 5:13-15

When we commemorated Passover, the Gentiles who lived amongst us were not to be excluded — Numbers 9:14 says that there is “one statute, both for the alien and for the native of the land” and ‘if an alien sojourns among us, he is to observe the Passover to the LORD the same as we do‘.

[In exception to other commemorations, to celebrate the Passover, Exodus 12:48 specifies that the Gentile must first be circumcised but Exodus 12: 49 reinforces that “the same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you“.]

Contrary to what many think, Gentiles who lived amongst Jews were to be considered no different than native born Jews! 

‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. ‘You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity.”

Leviticus 19:34

Doing and Not Doing – Positive and Negative Commandments

God not only defined how we were to worship and when we were to worship — but also how we were NOT to worship!

God instructed us not to worship foreign gods or bow down to them, or course — but more than that, He told us not to imitate the practices of the nations around us in how we worship;

“You must not bow down to their gods or worship them. Do not imitate their practices. Instead, demolish them and smash their sacred pillars to pieces”

Exodus 23:24

Furthermore, God specifically instructed us that we are not to worship Him — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the manner that the nations around us worship their gods (Deut. 12:4) but were to seek Him the way He said;

You shall not act like this toward the LORD your God. “But you shall seek the LORD at the place which the LORD your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come..”

Deuteronomy 12:4

Gentiles,  living amongst Jews under the Law were to be treated no differently than the native born Jew and were to participate with us as equals in the observance of the feasts.

For Gentiles under the New Covenant, the Jerusalem Council determined that as Christians were not required to keep any of the feast-days.  Acts 15 makes it clear that Gentiles that came to faith in Jesus did not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep the dietary laws or any of the other commands of the Law except for abstaining (1)  from things polluted by idols (2) from sexual immorality (3) not eating anything that has been strangled and (4) and “from blood” (Acts 15:20).

There are no specific ‘feast days’ or ‘holy days’ for Gentile Christians outlined in Scripture – except the observance of His death for both Jewish believer and Gentile Christian which Jesus Himself, instituted (more on that below).

As Gentile Christians, you can observe (or not) any day you wish as you feel is appropriate.  As Jews, we are called to remember the specific days that God established “throughout our generations”. This does not merit us anything — it does not “save us” — but it honours God as God and honours Him in what He did for our forefathers.  And so we observe…

This brings up something that would be good for us to mention here. When Gentile Christians tell Jewish believers that under the New Covenant they no longer should acknowledge the days of remembrance as proscribed by God, as well-meaning as it is, it’s actually asking us not to acknowledge something He has done for us, and limits the glory due His Name.

Not remembering God and what He has done is as significant as remembering Him.

In Jeremiah 18, God said through the prophet that not only had the Jews gone after foreign gods and engaged in the practices of the nations around them, but they had forgotten Him;

“Yet My people have forgotten Me. l
They burn incense to false idols
that make them stumble in their ways m
on the ancient roads
and walk on new paths, not the highway.”

Jeremiah 18:15

Not doing is as important to God, as doing.

Positive commandments (to ‘do’) go hand in hand with negative commandments (to ‘not do’).

He has called us as Jews to ‘do things so that we remember’… piling up stones in a river, commemorating feast days, resting on the Sabbath. 

It may come as a surprise to you, but God calling us to “do this in remembrance of Me” is not something that started in the New Testament; it continued from the older covenant, which leads us to our next point.

New Covenant Observance

The one observance that Jesus required of all of us (Jewish believers and Gentile Christians) is to remember is His death;

“And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”

Luke 22:18-20

Jesus was referring to remembering His death during the commemoration at Passover — which explains the practice of Polycarp, an early Church Father (80-167 CE) that we mentioned in an earlier post.  Polycarp commemorated the Lord’s death on the Feast of Passover as he said the Apostle John had taught him to “and the other apostles with whom he had associated”  [Irenaeus, “Letter to Victor” (bishop of Rome), quoted in Eusebius (chapter 24), in Schaff, Church History]. For the first two centuries of the early Church, both Jewish believers and Gentile Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch, including Polycarp continued to commemorate the Lord’s death (the Paschal Supper) on the Jewish feast of Passover. The celebration of “Easter” on the first Sunday after Passover was instituted by the Church around the time of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE [Eusebius, “24”, in Schaff, Church History, book V, CCEL; cf].

However in the largely Gentile church of Corinth, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 refers to the practice of “the Lord’s Supper” where the Christians would remember His death when they gathered.

” For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

1 Cor 11:23-26

The Difference between Observance and Celebrating

The difference between “celebrating” a holiday and “observing” it is significant.  The end-goal of celebrating is a time of enjoyment and festivity stemming whereas the end-goal of observance is remembering and commemoration. Of course, as Jews we enjoy gathering to observe the feast days as set out by God, but that is not our focus.  Our focus is  remembering the things God has done.

The difference between these two views is rooted in the fundamental difference between the cultural background of Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’s day. In Greco-Roman Hellenism, holidays are celebrated with revelry. In second-temple Judaism, feast days are commemorated with reverence. This does not necessarily change what is done — but how and why.

Relating Observing and Celebrating to Christmas

We were called to commemorate His death — both when we celebrate the Passover and when we remember it together, as we gather. We were never called to remember or commemorate the anniversary of His birth.

There is nothing in Scripture that indicates that “Jesus’s birthday” was celebrated at all – or even known commonly, outside of perhaps His family members — but certainly the anniversary of Jesus’ birthday was inconsequential for the disciples to celebrate because there is no mention of it in Scripture.

The Passover Lamb

Let us give you an analogy that we think will be helpful..

In the commemoration of the Passover, the Jews were required to choose a lamb from their flock, a perfect lamb, a male without blemish and set it aside until the 14th day of the month, at which time, it would become the Passover lamb .  The choosing of the lamb and the requirements of it are set out in Scripture (Ex. 12:3-7).  That is, when the lamb was to be chosen and when the lamb was to die, was established by God, but there is nothing about the day the lamb was to be born.  It was to be a certain age (“a year-old” male) but the precise day of its birth isn’t important.

Scripture says of Jesus that “He was chosen before the foundation of the world“(1 Peter 1: 20)  and the time of His death was according to the “the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), but there is no mention of the date He was born.

Just as you could derive the approximate date or time period in which the Passover lamb was born by it being a year old and working backwards, the date is implicit rather than explicit.  Likewise, the date of Jesus’ birth is implicit, rather than explicit. In Matthew 2  (the famous so-called “nativity” passage) it says;

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king”

Matthew 2:1

The only fact that is mentioned is that it was during the reign of King Herod, not even the year, the day or even the season.

In contrast, when the Passover lamb was to die (14 day of Nisan), just as the Passover that Jesus was to die was explicit — and spoken of in great detail beforehand. In Matthew 26 it reads;

“Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?” And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is near; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.”

Matthew 26:17

While the year is not specified, the season, holiday and exact day of the holiday is explicitly specified. Based on the amount and type of detail that is given in the Scriptural accounts,  when He died is important. When He was born is not.  There is no information about the date or timing of His birth, other than it occurred during the census of Herod.

Certainly scholars have taken the events of Herod’s census, when Elizabeth conceived John, when Zecharias served as High Priest and worked backwards to derive the date of Jesus’ birth (falling at the feast of Sukkot).  While interesting, it is still not significant for us to celebrate His “birthday”.

[for more on this, read http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/jesus-born-at-sukkot-festival-of-booths/]

December 25th as Christmas

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th.  It is not “His birthday”. December 25th is a day that was set aside by the Church based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo, who around 400 CE came upon a splinter Christian sect called the Donatists who kept a festival on December 25th to honour Jesus’ birth. Since the Donatists emerged during the persecution of the Church under the ruler Diocletian in 312 CE, Augustine thought that this group may have established that Jesus was born on that date.

We do know that the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast on December 25th celebrating the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus ) in 274 CE – so perhaps the Donatists sought to reclaim this date to celebrate the birth of the Son. However it came about, it is not a Biblical festival.

There is nothing in Scripture indicating that we should celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.  As Jews, the importance is that He came, in fulfillment of hundreds of Messianic prophecies, not what day it occurred on.

That does not mean that it is somehow “wrong” for you as Gentile Christians to pick a day to commemorate His birth.  You are free to do so!  But please understand, that for us as Jewish Believers the idea of picking a day and choosing a celebration is foreign to us.

Christmas and Sukkot

As mentioned earlier, our holy days and observance of them are established God.  Remembering the the great things He did our forefathers brings honour to His Name and continues to set us apart as a distinct people. We have no need to create a celebration around the anniversary of His birth or to put undue emphasis on the date that many scholars believe He was born .  At the same time, we have no objections to you celebrating His birth — by all means!

In addition, as Jews we feel it it is important that we continue not to worship God in a manner of the nations around us.

We have many days of commemoration, that we as Messianic Jews continue to observe.  We feel that if it were important to God for us to commemorate the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, He would have set that day apart in Scripture. In the absence of that, we are content not to create one — or even to observe the one we believe it occurred on in any grand manner, apart from how God instructed us to observe it.  We do find it amusing however, that the only feast that Gentiles will be required to celebrate in the age to come, is Sukkot.

Then all the survivors from the nations that came against Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths.     Should any of the families of the earth not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, rain will not fall on them. And if the people of Egypt will not go up and enter, then rain will not fall on them; this will be the plague the Lord inflicts on the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Booths.

Zechariah 14:16-19

Why Sukkot?

Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles (also called the Feast of Booths) – is when many historians believe that the Son came and dwelt (tabernacled) amongst us (John 1:14). We won’t elaborate on that here, as we dealt with this at length in an earlier article.

2 Corinthians refers to our bodies as “earthly tents” or “tabernacles” (literally “sukkahs”). Jesus came and tabernacled amongst us — laying aside the privileges of His deity and came and

“…made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

He humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death –

even death on a cross!”

Philippians 2:6-8

Given the evidence that He was born at Sukkot – do you see how different commemorating His incarnation in association with Sukkot is from celebrating His birthday? It is not the celebration of the anniversary of His birth that we focus on — but the fact that He came!

It is God having come in the form of a man — taking on the same frail “tabernacle” (sukkah) as we have!  It is His coming, in fulfillment of hundreds of Messianic prophecies in the Tanakh (Old Testament) that we commemorate.

Which brings us back to Christmas…

A Messianic Jewish perception of Christmas

“Christmas” is one of those times that is awkward for us, as Messianic believers.  We don’t celebrate December 25th as “Jesus’ birthday” because it wasn’t – and while we remember His incarnation during Sukkot, no special celebration needed.

Please also understand that God did not want us as Jews to worship Him in the ways that the nations around us worshipped, so we are not endeared to Christmas trees or mistletoe.

As mentioned above, we have absolutely no issue with you as Gentile Christians having these in your celebrations because there is no requirement on you to worship God in a specific way — or not to worship Him in a specific way. Please understand that it is important for us to continue to bring honour to His Name in the manner He gave us.

We understand many Christians make Christmas “all about Jesus’s birthday” and forgo anything to do with Santa Claus — but for us, the whole idea of creating a holiday to celebrate something is foreign.

Christmas trees, Advent candles and sweet songs about the ‘sweet baby Jesus’ being born in a stable with light beams radiating from His face and cattle mooing is detached from Jesus coming in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  In fact, we relate more to the Scripture verses read during “Advent” then we do the celebration of Christmas, itself.

We have been puzzled why the only time we every hear about Jesus being “King of Israel” is at Christmas and Him being “King of the Jews”, is at “Easter”.  It seems these are overlooked the remainder of the year.

Advent and Easter Egg Hunts

We thought you might find it interesting to view Advent and Easter-egg hunts from a Messianic perspective.

The Church tradition of counting the 5 Sundays before Christmas as Advent is a little amusing to us. It is somewhat reminiscent of the “counting of the omer” that occurs between Passover and Pentecost. We don’t mind if you want to ‘count’ something, that’s fine with us and you are certainly free to do so, but we hope you can understand that by starting to sing Christmas carols and light “Advent” candles 5 weeks in advance of the date, extends the period by which we as Jewish believers feel out of place.

Like Advent is to the “counting the omer” so “Easter egg hunts” seem like a pale reflection of the Jewish custom of searching for the Affikomen.  You see, at Passover, children under the age of 13 years old search for the Affikomen (the broken piece of the middle matzoh at Passover, that is wrapped in a white linen cloth, ‘buried’, searched for by the children present and once found, redeemed). We understand it is fun and all for kids to participate in and makes the “celebration” of “Easter” festive, but we hope you will also understand if we continue to commemorate His death in association with the Passover.

“One Day Above Another / Each Day the Same”

In the book of Romans, after Paul established that God has allowed a “partial hardening” to come to our people “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Romans 9:23) and has not rejected Israel (Romans 11) — both covered in earlier articles, he talks about the different ways in which believers approach ‘special days’, in Romans, Chapter 14.

“One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord”

Romans 14: 5-6

As Paul exhorts earlier in that same chapter, we don’t “look down on” Gentile Christians for celebrating Christmas. We are totally fine with this being a day where you celebrate the birth of Jesus in however manner you feel is appropriate to do so.

We hope as family, you won’t mind that we don’t.