God set apart 3 specific times of commemoration for the Jewish people that were occasions that all the men were required to appear before Him in Jerusalem. These 3 days also coincide to significant days to the Church — namely (1) the day of the “Last Supper” of Jesus and His disciples, where He instituted the New Covenant, (2) the day the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost and (3) the date that many Biblical scholars believe to be the date of Jesus’ birth.
Jewish ‘holidays’ are not simply nice traditions that we celebrate as part of our cultural identity — but dates of commemoration set by God Himself for a specific purpose. Of the holidays set apart by Him as His “appointed times” — three were occasions that all the men were required to appear before Him in Jerusalem. These are often called the “pilgrim festivals”. These three are of significance to the Jewish people of course, but also have a great deal of importance to the Church.
Before getting into what these three occasions are and what they signify to both to the Jews and the Church, we need to provide some background on the calendar, itself. The Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles (not solar cycles, like the Western calendar); specifically, on the timing of the “new moon“.
At the beginning of the moon’s cycle, it appears as a thin crescent shape. This is the “new moon” and signals the beginning of a new Jewish month. The first day of the month is called Rosh Chodesh (gutteral “ch” sound) — the “Head of the Month”. During the remainder of the lunar cycle, the moon grows until it is a “full moon” (of no special significance in Judaism) in the middle of the month, and then it begins to wane, until it cannot be seen at all. It remains invisible for approximately two days until the “new moon” reappears, and the cycle begins again. The entire cycle takes approximately 29½ days and since a month needs to consist of complete days, some months are twenty-nine days and some thirty days. Knowing exactly when the month begins is very important to the Jewish people, as God set the dates of Jewish observances according to the phases of the month.
Before God delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt, God told Moses and Aaron that this month shall be to you the “beginning of months” — that “it shall be the head of months” for you.
“And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: ‘This “chodesh” (new moon) shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the head of months (first of the months) for you.'”
God tells Moses that the year will begin on that month — for the purpose of counting months…but not for the purpose of counting years. “New Years” is a different time, see below.
The “first month” referred to above is the first month of the Biblical Calendar.
Months in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar are numbered, with the first month being the one with the commemoration of God’s delivery of the Jews from bondage (Passover). This month is called Nisan by Jews today, and used to be called “Aviv” before the Babylonian exile. It is the start of the Biblical Calendar.
Years are counted from Rosh Hashanah — the Civil New Year, which occurs in the seventh month of the Biblical calendar and which according to Rabbinic tradition commemorates when Adam and Eve were created. Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the year” — in contrast to the first month which is the “head of months“.
Rosh Hashanah is what Jews celebrate as “New Years” and is set out in Scripture in Exodus 34 where it is referred to as “the turn of the year“;
“Observe the feast of Pentecost with the first-gathered produce of the wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year.”
The feast “at the turn of the year” is after Pentecost, and is the “feast of Ingathering” — also called Feast of Booths (Sukkot) or Feast of Tabernacles and is one of the three pilgrim festivals. The other two are Passover (Pesach) and Pentecost (Shavuot) and coincide with very important dates to the Church, as well as to the Jews.
It is important to keep in mind that it is the sighting of the “new moon” that signals the beginning of a new Jewish month (Rosh Chodesh) and the sighting of the “new moon” on the first month which begins a new calendar of months. The timing of Passover is set as being on the 14th day of this month.
There are several challenges to setting the beginning of any new month relative to the timing of the “new moon”. Firstly — what if it isn’t visible? What if it is overcast? It does happen in Israel; what then?
Multiply those challenges with the need to confirm the sighting of the “new moon” before a new year can begin – by which the date of Passover is set. Remember, Passover is one of the three times a year all the men of Israel had to go to Jerusalem. There was no way to know when Passover would be — until the sighting of the “new moon” occurred, and then all the men and their families had 14 days to get packed and to arrive in Jerusalem. Quite the “road trip”!
To put this in context, that means that none of the disciples knew in advance when the “Last Supper” would take place until 14 days earlier, when the “new moon” was sighted.
The Pilgrim Festivals
None of the Jewish ‘holidays’, including the pilgrim festivals of Feast of Booths (Sukkot), Passover (Pesach) and Pentecost (Shavuot) are “holidays” in the same way commonly thought of by non-Jews. These are times of commemoration that God Himself set apart in Leviticus 23, along with Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), Firstfuits (which we touch on below) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). He calls these “My designated (or “appointed” times)”
“Tell the people of Israel: ‘The designated times of the LORD which you are to proclaim as holy convocations are My designated times.’ “