עַם פֶּסַח

The Hebrew calendar guiding the Jews of 1st century

Have you ever sat on a cliff-top on Midsummer’s day June 21st, watching the sun set? After hanging so long above, seemingly motionless, come the end of the day it suddenly falls quite quickly. It hits the horizon and, not bouncing, goes on down until suddenly, gone.

The sky begins to change colours toward rich red and pretty pinks, clouds sometimes turning gold.

In the first century during the second Temple1 period, when Ye’shua2 still walked in Judah, Samaria and Galilee, the moment when the sun disappears, signalled the end of each day. For them the days of the calendar did not roll over at midnight according to a digital clock, they had none. So they relied on the sunset of the created world. Consider also the instructions of the Most High God of Yisra’el in the Tora, eg Exodus 12:1-6, Leviticus 23:1-8.

Living in an agrarian society clouds do not matter, there are no street lights to mislead the eye. A lifetime with this light of the sun and the clouds equipped them to notice when the light changes. Whether they were watching or not, or if there were clouds, they still noticed.

The often beautiful skies of Twilight – the period between sunset and darkness – was used: for walking home from the field (especially at Harvest), calling in the children for their evening meal, ritually washing hands before the evening meal, saying the evening prayers3 and, on their haunches4, eating whatever had been prepared, before going to bed. Burning oil every evening was for winter only; otherwise it would be a luxury. Thus the new day began.

Dawn – rise, ablutions, shake and hang the bedding. Then morning prayers, a drink, probably water and some leftovers from the previous evening’s meal and off to work until sunset and another day ended.

Such was, the day of a Jew in Judah/Galilee at that time. We can be pretty sure that after six days of such a routine, the Sabbath was very welcome. A whole day of rest, with no work.

The passing of days was related to Sabbath, the last day of the week, the seventh day. The next day, when another week of labour began, was the first of the week, next the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth until sabbath arrived again.

The new moon gave unerring evidence of each new month arising. The full moon announced that the month was halfway done. Each new moon was noted because it signalled the beginning of a new month of the calendar

One New Moon marked the year’s beginning in spring. During Adar, the last month of the year, everybody watched the Barley fields for signs that the Barley was out of the ground. This was important because it indicated that the next new Moon was the beginning of the New Year. Even if everyone in the village had forgotten or lost track of the days they could rely on the rabbi at the local synagogue to know how to do the calculation for the next festival.

The first festival of each year, pesach5, took place on the fourteenth day of the first month of each New Year. For this day, all of Yisra’el went to keep pesach in Jerusalem. Ye’shua and his followers among them.

According to Leviticus 23:5, pesach6 is to be kept on the fourteenth day of the first month, during the night, ie “between the two twilights” (Ben Ha.arbayim, in Hebrew). Following the day of Pesach, on the fifteenth, the Festival of Unleavened Bread began.

By the time of Ye’shua there had been some important changes which will be explained in the Annotations to the Calendar.

On occasion, the barley was late and the next new moon had to be ignored. This gave rise to an extra moon cycle – a leap month7 – in order to give the barley time to get out of the ground and then the next new moon was the beginning of the year. The name of the month, at the beginning of each New Year was Aviv8.

As you have seen here, for the Jews of the First Century, when Ye’shua was walking on the earth, twilight was the beginning of each new day9, including the day of Pesach.

* A calendar follows separately, showing how all this worked out in the year Ye’shua was executed. Some important detail is included there.

Note:

While the Hebrew calendar described here would have been in use among Jews, the Romans were using a different calendar which after several changes gave rise to the calendar we use in the West, today. However, it would not be useful to attempt to relate those two calendars. You can easily find out the day on which Pesach falls each year, by checking the calendar here.


  1. The first Temple was built by Solomon in 966 bce, 1Kings 5:5 and following. The first Temple was burned in 586 bce and later pillaged, 2 Chronicles 36:19. The second Temple was begun on the instructions of Cyrus of Persia, book of Ezra and finished in 516bce. Although the King Herod undertook substantial reconstruction, in the First Century bce, that Temple was not regarded as the third Temple. Ye’shua lived in the second Temple period of the First Century ce. By 70ce, the Temple had again been wrecked and this time by the Romans. Jews today look to a day when the Temple is rebuilt physically in Jerusalem on Solomon’s site. Readers of the New Testament will find that most followers of Ye’shua are regarded as the Temple and the home of God on earth, ie they do not expect a third stone built Temple.
  2. Ye’shua, see About
  3. Daily prayers were repeated morning, noon and night. It is thought that these prayers are based upon a set of prayers known as the 18 Benedictions. For more on this see David Instone – Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis in the New Testament Era, Eerdmans, Vol. 1, Tractate Berakhot. A tractate is a section of the Mishnah dealing with a particular aspect of the Law, eg Tractate Pesachim – Passover, Tractate Peah – leftovers.
  4. The field worker who struggled to live on his daily wage (a Denarius), often led a poor life, his wife and children joining the other “gleaners” in the fields during the day while their husbands were at work in the fields. Artisans might well have been able to afford stools, or better, handed down from parents and even a table of the day. Furniture represented stable family life over generations and money to spare. Such people might own an ox and more than a sheep or two to graze. A lamb would have been slaughtered for high days and holidays such as the non-pilgrimage Festivals in the Calendar. Pesach is a pilgrimage festival and according to scripture, the lamb was to be slaughtered in the Temple and eaten, roasted, within the City walls of Jerusalem. See Judaism, Sanders EP, SCM Press, London Chapter 8 Op. cit Tractate Peah, p122. It is clear from these authors that poverty was institutionalised, widespread and ingrained.
  5. In English, Pesach is called Passover and refers to the event in Egypt 12 Here when the first born of the Egyptians were killed during the night so that Yisra’el was sent away by the Pharaoh. God instructed it be kept on the same date in perpetuity as a Memorial to His mighty acts in rescuing them.
  6. and also Exodus 12:6,18; Numbers 9:3.
  7. The last month of the year is called Adar. In a leap year, Adar becomes Adar 1 and is followed by Adar 2 (the leap month). Adar 2 gives time for the barley to get out of the ground. This process helps to keep Pesach at more or less the same time each year in the Hebrew Calendar.
  8. Aviv is now called Nisan.
  9. On the Sabbath, the sun having set on the Sixth day, Sabbath began immediately following the Sunset. During the evening of Sabbath, Jews as far as possible made that evening meal a little more special than the routine. This evening equates to the western Friday evening and Jews continue to eat a special meal on Friday evenings.
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