Today's passage covers further rules for priests, what constitutes an unacceptable offering, and a catalogue of the holidays the Israelites were expected to observe.
Pop quiz: what's the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar? If you guessed Chanukah, please pick up your Bible right now and flip to Lev. 23, which lists the holidays of the ancient Israelites. Note that Chanukah is not on the list. While Chanukah is the best-known Jewish holiday to gentiles, it is not one of the holidays passed down in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). In fact, we have a list here of five holidays which could all be considered more important than the "Jewish Christmas." (Another misconception, incidentally, as Chanukah has absolutely nothing to do with the Christ.)
What are these five holidays, I hear my readers asking. They are:
- the Passover (Lev. 23:4-8)
- the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-22)
- the Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh Hashana (Lev. 23:23-25)
- the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur (Lev. 23:26-32)
- the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot (Lev. 23:33-36 and 23:39-43)
Instead of devoting an entire essay to a glorified summary, I would like to look at two common features listed in all these holidays. The first is sacrifice. It shouldn't be a surprise, given how much space in Leviticus is devoted to laws regarding sacrifices, that each of the most important holidays on the calendar is marked by sacrifices and offerings. In fact, Lev. 23:37-38, summarizing the chapter, read as follows in the NIV:
(37) These are the LORD's appointed feasts, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies for bringing offerings made to the LORD by fire—the burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings required for each day. (38) These offerings are in addition to those for the LORD's Sabbaths and in addition to your gifts and whatever you have vowed and all the freewill offerings you give to the LORD.
It seems, reading this passage, that the holidays exist for the sole purpose of giving sacrifices to God!
Generally, the sacrifices are of grains or animals. The Passover has a burnt offering (Lev. 23:8), as does Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:25), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:36). The Feast of Weeks is even more precise, listing the required animals and grains: two loaves of flour, seven yearling lambs, one bullock, and two rams as a burnt offering; a kid goat for a sin offering; and two yearling lambs for peace offerings. (Lev. 23:17-19)
Living as we are in the days after the destruction of the Temple, Israelites today (ie: Jews) cannot offer these sacrifices. There is no longer a high priest of the Hebrews, and nowhere for him to receive them, even if there were. Despite the precision of the text, these laws are moot today.
On the other hand, there is another unifying feature of the holidays, which is that no Hebrew could do work during them. This is a common commandment and applies to the first and seventh day of Passover (Lev. 23:7-8), the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:21), the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:25), and the first and eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:35-36). The laws regarding the Day of Atonement go so far as to say that anyone who does work during that holiday, "the same soul will I destroy from among his people." (Lev. 23:30, KJV) Clearly, this was not the sort of law a prudent Israelite should ignore.
This commandment not to work should be familiar to anyone who knows the laws of the Sabbath, which also outlaws working. In fact, there is a reminder in this very chapter that the Israelites must not work on the Sabbath, either. (Lev. 23:3) What this meant, therefore, is that in addition to their weekly rest days, the Israelites also had seven extra feast days every year. Decadent! Compared to their servile existence in Egypt, this calendar of holidays must have seemed the height of luxury.
To this day, observant Jews do not work on the aforementioned holidays. Unlike the requirement for sacrifices, which can no longer be applied, the proscription against work can still be upheld today.
However, the two commandments -- to offer sacrifices and to abstain from work -- were clearly meant to complement each other. On the one hand, the Israelites did not work to further their own position. On the other, they brought sacrifices to glorify God. They were, essentially, neglecting their own estates to enhance God's. They had a weekly reminder during the Sabbaths, and an occasional further reminder during the holidays, that everything they had was due to God's intervention. A Christian might say they were shifting their focus from the material world to the celestial one, from the transitory to the eternal. Of course, Christians do not celebrate these holidays, but the sentiment remains.
What can we learn from this chapter? First of all, be grateful if you happen not to be a farmer and therefore don't have a plentiful supply of animals for offerings. Next, rejoice that if you follow the Bible, you have so many holidays in which you can relax. And finally, once more for good measure, Chanukah is not an important Jewish holiday.