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Why Does the Day of Atonement Never Occur on Friday or a Sunday?

For members of the Church of God who have been attending services for many years, they may recall that they have never observed the Day of Atonement on a Friday or a Sunday. It does not matter whether they attended the Worldwide Church of God, the Global Church of God, the Church of the Eternal God, or most other Church of God fellowships. In fact, in examining a calendar listing dates between 1845 and 2072, the Day of Atonement has not and will not occur on a Friday or a Sunday in any of these years.

This may seem strange seeing how, in our Gregorian calendar, a fixed date can occur on any day of the week. And, in fact, with a solar-lunar calendar, a fixed date would normally be expected to occur on any day of the week. And yet it does not. This is a feature of God’s sacred calendar, of which the basics will be described below.

At the time of the exodus, God informed Moses and Aaron in which month the year was to begin (Exodus 12:1-2).  Remember that each month in a solar-lunar calendar begins approximately on the new moon. This is basically at the conjunction of the earth, moon and sun, when they are aligned. At this time the moon is not visible, as the moon is directly between the earth and the sun. In calendar terms, this is called a Molad, meaning birth.

Further on in Exodus chapter 12, God also established His Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. Early after they left Egypt, God revealed through Moses to the people on which day was His Sabbath rest (Exodus 16:23). In the book of Leviticus, chapter 23, God listed all of His Holy Days in order and He commanded them to be kept as a statute forever.

Now for us to be able to observe this beginning of the year, the Sabbath and these Holy Days today, someone had to preserve when they were to occur for future generations. Otherwise there would be no possible way to know from the Bible which days to observe in obeying God. Therefore, a calendar had to exist and to be preserved.

To begin to answer the question asked at the beginning, we need to acknowledge who God has chosen to preserve His calendar. We can read in Romans 3:1-2; “What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” According to Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, “Unto them were committed – Or were intrusted, were confided. The word translated ‘were committed,’ is what is commonly employed to express ‘faith’ or ‘confidence’ and it implied ‘confidence’ in them on the part of God in intrusting His oracles to them, a confidence which was not misplaced, for no people ever guarded a sacred trust or deposit with more fidelity than the Jews did the sacred scriptures.” Romans 3:3-4 reminds us that even if some Jews did not believe, God would still be true and would have His oracles preserved.

As we should realize, the oracles also include the calendar, and no one else in the world has preserved God’s sacred calendar like the Jews have. Unless the Jews had preserved God’s calendar, we would not be able to obey God by keeping His Holy Days because we would not know when to correctly observe them. After all, the Bible does not inform us of how many days are in each month, which years have thirteen months or exactly when the year should start. The Bible does not even inform us of which day is God’s Holy Sabbath.

In our Q&A, titled, “Why do you use the current Hebrew Calendar for establishing the dates of God’s annual Holy Days?” we explain in detail why the Church of God has decided more than 70 years ago that we must follow the Hebrew calendar in order to be able to observe the weekly and annual Holy Days at their proper times.

This calendar that the Jews have the responsibility for preserving, has a number of features and it is calculated around the Feast of Trumpets each year, named by the Jews as Rosh Hashana. In the calendar calculations, it is called the Molad of Tishri. As stated above, it is calculated approximately at the time of the new moon or Molad with certain modifications and delays (called Postponements).

The first and obvious modification is due to the fact that twelve lunar months are shorter than twelve solar months by approximately 11 days. In order to ensure the Passover falls in its correct season each year, the Feast of Trumpets is postponed by one month seven times every nineteen years. So, in a nineteen-year time cycle, twelve years have twelve months and seven years have thirteen months. The years with thirteen months are the third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth years in the nineteen-year cycle. The Hebrew term for these years translates into English as “Pregnant Years” as opposed to the western calendar term leap years.

Adding this extra month does not affect, on which day of the week Holy Days occur, but it was necessary to ensure that there was enough barley to be harvested so that the required wave sheaf offering could be presented (Leviticus 23:10-11). (See below.) However, there are four other postponements which do affect, on which day of the week Holy Days occur. These four postponements are concerning other calendar rules regarding the time of day of the Molad of Tishri, the permitted starting days for the year and the minimum and maximum number of days of each year.

The first postponement logically to be considered is the time of day of the occurrence of the Molad of Tishri. If it were to occur at noon or later, the Feast of Trumpets is to be postponed to the next day. Traditionally, this postponement was considered necessary to ensure the visibility of the New Moon on the Feast of Trumpets. However, this postponement sometimes could result in the Feast of Trumpets occurring on a day of the week that the second postponement does not allow. If this were to happen the Feast of Trumpets is to be postponed a second day.

The second postponement logically to be considered requires that if the Molad of Tishri were to fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday, then the Feast of Trumpets is to be postponed to the next day. This rule was for ritual convenience. Excluding Wednesday and Friday is to prevent the Day of Atonement from occurring on either side of the Sabbath. If this were to happen it would be ritually inconvenient with regard to the burial of a corpse of a person who died on the Day of Atonement before the Sabbath or died on the Sabbath before the Day of Atonement. Excluding Sunday is to prevent the need for a ceremony of beating willow branches on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles from occurring on the Sabbath. (While we do not partake of this practice, the Jews who maintain the calendar have added this requirement, even though they do not fully understand why it is done now).

Of course, these ritual considerations alone would not be a compelling reason for us to follow the Jewish “lead.” (The same would be true for the sometimes false counting of Pentecost by mainstream Judaism today, which leads them to keep Pentecost at times on a wrong date. See our Q&A. Another example would be their false observance of Passover, see below.) In fact, nothing would prohibit us today from conducting a funeral on the Day of Atonement, if there is no other option. (This has happened in the Church of God in the past.) However, there are further considerations regarding the postponement affecting the Day of Atonement, which are compelling for us. We point out in our Q&A, “Can you explain some of the peculiarities of the Hebrew Calendar?”:

“When the new moon (more accurately, the ‘Molad’ or ‘birth’; that is, when the moon is directly between earth and sun and it is therefore invisible) occurs on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday, the Feast of Trumpets is postponed to the following day. The reason is that the Day of Atonement [which is to be kept 9 days after the Feast of Trumpets, on the tenth day of the month] should not occur on the day before or after the weekly Sabbath, and the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles should not occur on a weekly Sabbath, as it is followed by an annual Sabbath—the Last Great Day.

“In his article, ‘The Hebrew Calendar—Authoritative for God’s Church Today,’ Dr. Herman L. Hoeh wrote:

“‘Why do God’s festivals fall when they do? Have we ever asked why… the fast of the Day of Atonement does not occur on Friday or Sunday? Or why the seventh day of the Festival of Tabernacles does not fall on the weekly Sabbath—but the eighth day commonly does?… If Atonement were to fall on Friday, housewives would have to prepare food for the weekly Sabbath on a Thursday…

“‘Hillel II realized that … the Day of Atonement should not fall on Friday, the preparation day of the Sabbath. The rule, therefore, is that if the new moon of a seventh month could occur on a Wednesday (beginning the previous evening), that day is not to be declared the new moon. It is to be postponed. But the day following is to be declared the new moon… that is, a Thursday (beginning the previous evening) is the first day of the seventh month. That Thursday is consequently the Feast of Trumpets… and the Day of Atonement, which is the 10th day of the month, falls in such a year on the weekly Sabbath.’”

The third postponement is to ensure that twelve-month years never have 356 days as those years are only allowed to have 353, 354 or 355 days.

The fourth postponement is to ensure that thirteen-month years never have  382 days as those years are only allowed to have 383, 384 or 385 days.

Therefore, from these modifications and postponements, it can be seen that the sacred calendar is quite complicated. When the mathematics required to perform the calculations are taken into account, it becomes even more complicated. We know that at the time of Christ, an extra month had to be added from time to time to ensure the Passover was celebrated in its correct season. We state in our above-mentioned Q&A, quoting from an article by Raymond F. McNair:

“… in order to be able to offer the ‘wave sheaf’ (Hebr. Omer) of ripened barley during the Days of Unleavened Bread, it was sometimes mandatory that the high priest in ancient Israel postpone the beginning of Nisan 1 by a whole month… the Feast of Unleavened Bread [must] fall in the spring (thereby necessitating certain one-month postponements to the beginning of the sacred year). There is no record of Christ and His disciples objecting to the calendar or instituting a different one.”

When Christ walked on the earth, He observed the existing calendar that the Jews had preserved till then. He may not have interpreted it in the same manner they did and in some cases with the strictness that they did, but He observed the same Holy Days. One obvious example of Him interpreting their practices differently is that He kept the Passover on the beginning of the fourteenth day of the first month, whereas the Pharisees in Jerusalem kept it at the end of the day into the beginning of the fifteenth day (John 18:28). However, the Sadducees kept it at the right day, and they sacrificed the lamb at the beginning of the 14th day of Nisan, as prescribed in the Bible, unlike the Pharisees who did so at the end of the 14th. As we follow the Bible, the Church of God keeps Passover on the beginning of the 14th day, even though most Jews don’t today.

Please see our Q&As, “Why does the Church of God keep the annual Passover one day earlier than the Jews?” and “Why was the religious establishment usually at odds with Jesus?” (Part 2). There, we say: “Jesus recognized that the Sadducees were in charge of the Temple service, and that they were correct in their understanding as to when to sacrifice the Passover lamb. While they did so at the beginning of the 14th of Nisan, the Pharisees sacrificed it one day too late, at the end of the 14th or the beginning of the 15th of Nisan. Most Jews follow today the wrong lead of the Pharisees and keep the Passover one day too late, by confusing it with the Night to Be Much Observed.”

It is believed that in the Old Testament, the priests used observation and calculation to determine when the new moons were to occur. We can notice from some of the events mentioned that it was known in advance when the next new moon would occur. In 1 Samuel 20:5, David knew the next day would be the new moon, which obviously had to be calculated rather than observed.

This was satisfactory while there was a priesthood and Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, but with the scattering of the Jews into many countries, and the prohibition by the Romans preventing the Sanhedrin from meeting or disseminating Jewish information, Patriarch Hillel II in 358 A.D. publicised the system of calendar calculations so the Jews everywhere in the world could observe the same Holy Days without any confusion. His calendar calculations are still being used by the Jews all over the world and therefore by most members of God’s Church to this day. They are expected to continue to be used unless a properly constituted Sanhedrin is established and they see a genuine need for a revision.

Therefore, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this Q&A is this: Because the Jews, and only they, have God’s authority to preserve His Sacred calendar, and they have determined that the Day of Atonement will not occur on a Friday or a Sunday, we also do not observe it on either of those two days.

Lead Writers: Paul Niehoff (Australia) and Norbert Link