Festive Cycles and Arrangement of the Calendar
The Number 7
This symbolic number can be traced in all of the Old Testament and also appears in the arrangement of its festive calendar. Without question, the number seven marks in Scripture the sacred measure 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, because its ‘firstborn’ or ‘New Moon’ was specially celebrated as the ‘Feast of Trumpets,’ while the three other festivals occurred within its course – The Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles – its first and last day. Similarly, every seventh year was Sabbatical, and after seven times seven years came the Jubilee. There were also seven days in the years that could be designated as the most festive, since during them there was ‘no servile work’ that was to be done. They were called the minor festivals, and they occurred on the days following the first of the Passover week and that of Tabernacles. These days had a less sacred character because of the restrictions on labor and the diminished labor that was done.
Besides the general division of time by the sacred number seven, certain general ideas may have underlain the festive cycles. The following are the main divisions; the first commenced with the Pascal sacrifice and ended on the Day of Pentecost to help them remember Israel’s calling and wilderness life; the other occurred in the seventh month of rest, and marked Israel’s possession of the land and grateful homage to Jehovah.
Three Annual Visits to the Temple
All male Israelites had the duty of appearing three times a year in the Temple. The exceptions to this were: bondsmen, the deaf, dumb, and lame, those whom sickness, infirmity or age rendered them incapable of climbing all the stairs to the top of the hill where the Temple Mount stood, and of course those who were unclean. Generally, though, the duty of appearing before the Lord at the services of His House was deemed incredibly important. It must have been from this that an important Rabbinical principle came into being. Leviticus 1: 3; 3:2, 8 says that ‘a sacrifice could not be offered for any one unless he himself were present to lay his hands upon it.’
During the Feast Times there were a huge number of people that came to offer sacrifices. During many of these times, people just gave money toward the purchase of their sacrifice and then it was offered as a whole on behalf of the whole congregation. It would have been impossible during the Feast Times for each person to have offered an individual sacrifice, except under certain conditions when it was deemed necessary. At the Feast Times, all the priests were on duty and they still needed extra help to handle all the sacrifices from the people.
In order to represent the people 24 ‘courses’ of lay attendants were appointed that corresponded to those of the priests and the Levites. These were the ‘stationary men’, or ‘standing men’, named so because they stood there in the Temple as Israel’s representatives. Each ‘course’ had its ‘head’ and served for one week during the normal times in the year. Those who were not chosen to appear in Jerusalem met in a central synagogue of their district, and spent the time in fasting and prayer for their fellow brothers who were working in the Temple.
On the day before the Sabbath and on the Sabbath itself, they did not fast on account of the joy of the Sabbath. Each day they read a portion of the first and second chapters of Genesis, with it being arranged into sections to last the whole week.
This tradition had its roots traced all the way back to Samuel and David. The ‘stationary men’, though, did not actually lay hands on either the morning or evening sacrifice or on any other public offering. Their duty was twofold: to represent all Israel in the services of the sanctuary, and to act as a sort of guide to those who had business in the Temple. They were to use their organizational skills and get all the people organized into groups so that things would proceed efficiently. At a certain part of the service, the head of the course brought up those who had come to make an atonement to be cleansed from any impurity. He lined them up along the Nicanor Gate so that they would be ready for the priests. Basically, their job was just to keep things flowing smoothly so that the priests and Levites could do their job of getting all the sacrifices ready.
For more on the ‘courses’ of the priests, go to my archives page by clicking on the home page at the top of this text, and go to Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah 5-2004 No. 10. This goes into detail about the manner that things were done as God appeared to Zacharias as he was doing his duties in the Temple and told him about the birth of John the Baptist.
Difficulties of the Calendar
The year of the Hebrews was lunar, not solar. It consisted of only 354 days 8 hours 48 minutes 38 seconds. Distributed among 12 months, this method would have completely disordered the months as the years passed, making many of the Feast Times come at the wrong time of the year. As they realized this problem, the Sanhedrim appointed a committee of three people, with the chief of the Sanhedrim as being the president. If the vote was not unanimous, then they would appoint a committee of 7, of which just a majority would suffice. They decided to make a whole leap year by inserting a 13th month. This would be between the first and last months, and could not be on a Sabbatical year. Commonly, every third year required the addition of a month. The Jewish month was 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes 3 1/3 seconds. During a period of nineteen years, they had to insert 7 extra months to bring the lunar era into accordance with the Julian.
The New Moon
This brought up yet another difficulty. The Jews calculated the month according to the phases of the moon, with each month consisting of either 29 or 31 days, and beginning with the appearance of the new moon. Doing things this way, though, created much uncertainty. It was true that every person could observe the new moon themselves, but what about if it were cloudy and they couldn’t see the moon. At the time, the first of every month was to be observed as ‘New Moon’s Day’, but the feasts took place on the 10th, 15th, or other day of the month of which none could be certainly determined without a certain knowledge of its beginning.
To solve this important question, the Sanhedrim sat in the ‘Hall of Polished Stones’ and heard the testimony of credible witnesses that had seen the new moon. They encouraged as many as possible to come forward and testify, and to get plenty of people they lavishly entertained them at public expense.
The Jews thought of a day as being from evening to evening, so if the new moon had appeared at the commencement of their 30th day (our 29th evening), the Sanhedrim declared that the previous month was one of 29 days and therefore was “imperfect.”
Immediately upon finding out the news, men were sent to a signal-station on the Mount of Olives where beacon-fires were lit and torches waved. A kindling flame on a hill in the distance indicated that the signal had been perceived. In this way, the good news would be carried from hill to hill and would go far beyond the boundaries of Palestine. If credible witnesses had not appeared to testify to the appearance of the new moon on the 29th, the next evening was taken as the commencement of the new month. Then the previous month was declared to have been 30 days, or a “full” month. It was ruled that a year should neither have less than four nor more than eight such full months of 30 days.
The Seven Messengers of the New Moon
The early signal-fires open the way for more inconvenience, though. The enemies of the Jews lit beacons that were able to easily deceive them from a distance. To resolve this, they sent special messengers to announce the new moon. More detail will be given on this in the next text.