Pilgrimage Festivals

The major holidays mentioned in the Torah

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A major category of Jewish holidays is the pilgrimage festivals. Described in the Hebrew Bible as celebrating both agricultural festivals and historical events in the history of the Jewish people, these three holidays were set aside in biblical times for people to travel to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to. These three holidays are Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

According to the Torah, God commanded the Israelites: “Three times a year shall all your men appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16).

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Essentially, in this passage, God expresses a desire for all of the male Israelites to travel to Jerusalem (this is why they are called "pilgrimage" festivals) and have the priest offer the animal sacrifice that was incumbent on each of them. It is important to note that the Torah refers only to men in this passage, because in ancient times women were not accorded the same legal or religious status as men. Despite this omission, women did have the same religious and spiritual obligations as men in offering personal sacrifices for thanksgiving and the expiation of sins.

The three pilgrimage festivals are:

(a) Passover, which celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, as well as the beginning of the new planting season after the winter rains in Israel, since it falls in the early spring.

(b) Shavuot, biblically, is solely an agricultural celebration. Falling exactly seven weeks after Passover, which places it occurs at the time of the late spring harvest.  [Shavuot as a celebration of the giving of the Torah is a post-biblical development.]

(c) Sukkot, which celebrates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years, when they had to rely only upon God for food and protection. This also celebrates the last harvest festival before the onset of the winter rains in the land of Israel. It falls five days after Yom Kippur, usually in mid-autumn. At the conclusion of Sukkot the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.