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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 17

The Festivals.

"Were the Hebrew festivals like those of the heathens, times of general licentiousness, and for this reason superstitious and injurious; or were they dedicated to the honor of God and the improvement of the people, by inciting them to virtue, and in consequence, reasonable, useful, and even necessary?"

To answer this enquiry, we have but to consult the institutions of Moses themselves, to pronounce in favor of the usefulness of our festivals. — The first in order that presents itself, is the Passover feast (פסח Pesach), or the annual celebration of the redemption from Egypt; it commences on the evening after the fourteenth, which, according to our mode of reckoning time, is the commencement of the fifteenth day of Nissan or Abib, the fifteenth day of this month being always the first full-moon-day after the spring equinox; and all the subsequent holy days are (at present) regulated by the Passover. — I have said that this feast is the annual celebration of the Exodus; we have thus again, in our institutions, a confirmation of the truth of the Mosaic history. For this reason. The Passover was instituted to celebrate a certain event, and the reason stated to those very persons, who ought to have known if the reason assigned by Moses was founded upon truth or not, i.e. they ought certainly to have known (for this is the reason given,) if they themselves had been slaves in Egypt or not. Suppose a man were to arrive in this or some other city, and tell the inhabitants thereof: "You must celebrate annually the victory which you gained over the enemy, who besieged your city for so many weeks," when, in point of fact, no such enemy had been seen, nor such a siege had taken place. What does every one think would be the fate of such an imposture? Either the imposter would be laughed at, as a madman, or, if he should be attended to, it would argue the greatest ignorance and the most unaccountable credulity in those who chose to obey such an impudent imposter. — But the Jews did keep the Passover in commemoration of their redemption; is there not now every reason to believe that that event actually did take place?

But to return to the subject under discussion: — The feast was annually ushered in by sacrificing, on the fourteenth day of Nissan, the Passover-lamb, in the same manner (with some slight exceptions) the first one had been prepared in Egypt. — The feast itself was celebrated seven days, commencing with the fifteenth day. The first day was a day of holy convocation, that is to say, no work was done except in the preparing of food; the law was read publicly, additional sacrifices were offered, and the whole male population of the Israelites was assembled to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. The seventh was also a day of rest; and during the whole feast of the Passover unleavened bread was eaten, to remind the Israelites that their ancestors had been hurried out of Egypt in so great a haste, that they could not prepare their bread even in the customary manner. — On the second day of the Passover, being the sixteenth of Nissan, an omer-full of new barley was offered in the temple, with appropriate sacrifices and ceremonies; and from this day it was lawful to eat of the new fruit, and this day was considered the commencement of the harvest.

The time of rejoicing had now arrived, and hill and valley were covered with the ripening treasures of the husbandmen. This was the time of general activity throughout Palestine, and whilst the highminded daughters of Israel were superintending the household, the male population applied themselves to the labors of the field. The reaper's song was heard throughout our land, when they bound in sheaves the rich blessing of God which fell in rows before their sickles. The poor, the widow, the orphan, and the houseless stranger, were permitted to gather all that had fallen down accidentally, been forgotten, or left purposely for them. No one dared to disturb them, but they shared, without being made to feel it, the blessings bestowed on their more opulent neighbors.

Fifty days from the fourteenth of Nissan had passed away, and again the streets of Jerusalem were filled with the gladsome shout of the men of Israel, as each company came with music, and the ox with gilded horns, bringing the first fruit of their delightful land to the temple of their God. For the sixth day of Sivan had arrived; and the Israelites therefore were assembled before the altar of their God, on the day on which the law, under which they so happily lived, had been proclaimed to their ancestors as they stood trembling at the foot of Sinai! O days of happiness, days of joy, you have indeed passed away, and Israel linger in a land not their own. No more in the vineyards on Israel's mountains are the daughters of Zion seen to dance, and the sons of Levi no longer chant the songs of praise on thy hill, Moriah! Woe to us, that we have sinned! Woe to us, that in the land, where the glory of God once shone, the stranger lives forgetful of our God's power, and the Eternal's glory!

On the first day of the seventh month is the commencement of the civil year; the day, on which, as our wise men teach us, the Most High holds judgment over all the inhabitants of the earth, and apportions to each man his annual share of prosperity and woe. O dread day, when mortal man is to be judged by his Maker! What good deeds has he done to justify himself in judgment? Can the sinful worm yet speak loudly then, when he contemplates the fearful distance between him and the HOLY ONE of Israel? Therefore did God command us to blow the cornet on that day — to let the signal trumpet be heard — to call up the latent energies of His people, to exhort them to a speedy and sincere repentance. — There is also another reason for the blowing of the cornet. In the eastern countries it is the custom to receive the king with music, particularly wind-instruments; we therefore blow the cornet to show, that we acknowledge the Creator, on the day on which the world was created, our King, amid the fervent prayer of the people and the sound of the trumpet. — The Day of Atonement at length approaches, and we go to the temple of God, and abstain from all earthly food and drink from evening to evening, and only live in the contemplation of God, His greatness, His kindness, and His mercy! And happy are we, if we come well prepared, well fortified in faith and firm reliance upon God's mercy — happy, if we have forgiven all our enemies sincerely and truly — happy, if our frail body alone separates us from the Deity! If we come thus before Mercy's throne — the purity and whiteness of our garments a true emblem of the purity and sacredness of our souls — of the voice of the שופר (cornet) has had its intended effect upon us — if the nine days of preparation have not been misspent: then may we be assured, that on that day all our sins will be forgiven, and that, cleansed from our iniquities, we shall stand pure and unspotted before the Eternal!

When the temple yet stood, the high-priest walked on that day into the holy of holies, whilst the cloud of incense filled the place, where the ark of the covenant was, and here he sprinkled on that day alone the blood of the sacrifices, and here he also prayed a short prayer for the welfare of the people. Before he killed his sacrifice and that of the people, he confessed his sins and the sins of the congregation, imposing at the same time his hands upon the heads of the animals, and when he pronounced the name of the Eternal, all the priests and people, who were standing by, fell upon their faces and exclaimed: "Praised be the name of the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever!" — But, no longer is our temple standing — no longer are the descendants of Aaron graced with the sacerdotal robes — and the holy of holies is no longer the dwelling place of the ark! The fat of oxen is no more seen burning upon the altar — no longer are its sides sprinkled with the blood of the sin-offering — and the incense no more curls upwards under the hands of the Cohen! Mayest Thou, O holy God, receive our prayers — the offering of the contrite heart — in the place of the offerings of beasts, and let our lips pay for cattle which, in days of yore, were led to thy temple in atonement for our sins!

The year had terminated, and the sun had entered Libra, and thus produced the autumnal equinox; the grapes hung in rich clusters along the vines, and the golden fruit glistened among the dark foliage of the fruit trees. Here and there autumn had already changed the hue of the leaves, and some lay scattered under the trees, which they had graced during the spring and summer. Every husbandman was busied with gathering in the bounteous blessings of his God, to provide himself sustenance for the coming winter. The heart of man was raised high, when he contemplated the manifold blessings showered upon him, though unworthy he might be. Gratitude would naturally then fill his bosom, and he would feel more inclined to obey the will of God, because of His great kindness to him. — In this time of general joy, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, were we commanded to celebrate the feast of Succoth or Tabernacles. On the Day of Atonement our sins had been forgiven, and immediately after we were commanded to build tabernacles סוכות for our residence during the first seven days of the feast. Though the chill of autumn had already arrived, yet was it our duty to prove ourselves worthy of having our sins forgiven to us, by placing entire confidence in God, and obeying His will to the letter, though it might be a little inconvenient to our bodily ease, and we were obliged to dwell in booths for seven days in the chilly time of year, to commemorate that He caused our ancestors to dwell in booths, when He brought them out of Egypt. — The dwelling in tabernacles was therefore a symbol of our placing ourselves under the shadow of God's protection, and withdrawing from the cares and enjoyments of life. — This feast was also a time for all the men of Israel to meet at the city God had chosen for His residence, and the first and eighth days were, like the Passover and Pentecost, days of holy convocation and suspension of labor. (All the ceremonies, except the sacrifices, relative to the holy days are yet observed by us at the present time, as commanded by Moses.)

On the first day of the feast of Tabernacles we were to take the fruit of the citron tree, the palm branch, the myrtle and the willow. These four productions of the vegetable kingdom were in old times, and even now, used in the following manner: the palm, the myrtle, and the willow, being united in one bunch, are taken in the right hand, and the citron in the left, and thus held, they are waved three times each towards the east, west, north, and south, upwards and downwards, in certain parts of the prayers. "But what is the meaning of this?" — Let us consider the shape and formation of these various products, and we shall find them symbolical of ourselves. — The palm branch is tall and erect, and its leaves are branching out from it on both sides; it is like the stature of man erect, it is like his backbone, from which the ribs branch out on either side; the oval myrtle is like the eye of man — and the willow like his lips compressed — the citron is pointed like the man's heart; all these are taken for the worship of God, and thus shall our body, our eyes, our lips, and our heart all be united in the worship of God.

Or perhaps they may be symbolical of the nation of the Israelites. The citron is a fragrant fruit and delightful to the taste; the palm bears fine fruit, but has no fragrance; the myrtle has fragrance, but a bitter taste; and at last, the willow has neither taste nor fragrance. Thus are amongst Israel, men of good learning and good works — men of good works without learning; men of learning without good deeds; and at last, others who have neither learning nor virtue. But although one is superior to the other in virtue and learning, yet do we find that God commanded us to join the citron, the palm, the myrtle, and the willow, thus showing, that however exalted we may be, though our brother be ignorant and sinful, yet shall we not cast him off; but unite him with us in the bonds of love, and induce him to worship, no less than we do, our common Creator. — We wave the four kinds mentioned to all the four corners of the compass, towards heaven and downwards to the earth, to indicate that we acknowledge God, "who formed the corners of the world, made the heavens, the earth, and all that is in them;" we wave the palm branch in our prayers, to thank God for His bounty with the plants He has given us for our use and sustenance; we hold up the palm branch and pray Him to continue His kindness to us, and to save us from evil, and to give us prosperity in all our doings!

When we have dwelt seven days in the tabernacles, when on the seventh we have laid by the palm, the myrtle, the willow, and the citron, when we have said the last grace in the Succah (tabernacle): we are yet to celebrate another day more, a closing day of festivity to the honor of God. Then we pray for the blessing of timely and abundant rain, and a year of plenty, of cheerfulness, and of peace; that we may all have as much as we stand in need of, without our being obliged to beg for our bread from a brother or a stranger, but receive it immediately from the Supporter of all!

Some of our wise men have compared our festivals to the three stages of the human life. Passover is our youth, when all before us is yet happy expectation, and when we enter the rugged path of life with a buoyant heart and smiling countenance; we only look at the surface of things, and seeing amid the fine flowers and verdant hills no obstacle to our onward march in virtue and worldly prosperity, we dream not of disappointments we may have to encounter, and of trials that await us. — Next comes the Pentecost, the middle age of man, when we have been already obliged to work under a hot sun; we have perhaps been often overcome by faintness in our daily toil, we have heard the thunder roll over our heads, and seen the lightning rend the green forest trees — to drop the figurative language, we have, as we grow older, been forced to undergo many fatigues and disappointments to procure an honest livelihood; we have seen our best hopes foiled, and we have discovered how firmly we have been forced to withstand that temptation, which has drawn so many others around us from the path of virtue. — At last comes the feast of Tabernacles, when the autumn begins to scatter the yellow leaves round the tree; the time when age is already encroaching upon our strength of body and vigor of mind; when our hairs begin to grow white, and we are at last thinking of enjoying the fruit of our labor through a life mixed with sorrow and gladness — and we begin to look forward to the winter, to the grave, which must at length receive us, and which, when it closes over us, hides all our cares, all our earthly joys — and leaves the soul free to enjoy that blessing, to deserve which she has so nobly acted here below, in withstanding sin, subduing the passions, and dispensing good to all around us! O happy old age! — When with such thoughts and feelings we see death approach; and we need not then fear the temporary dissolution, which must forever join us to our Father in heaven, in bliss, joy, and everlasting peace!

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