The Hebrew etymology of the biblical pilgrimage festivals


Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus provides descriptions of the different holidays in the biblical calendar. In this list we find the three pilgrimage festivals, in which it was customary to come to the Temple in Jerusalem: Passover, ‘Shavuot’ {שבועות} (‘Pentecost’) and ‘Sukkut’ {סוכות}(‘Tabernacles’).

The original Hebrew name of the three pilgrimage festivals is ‘Shalosh Regalim’ {שלוש רגלים} and because of a fascinating turn of events this name creates misunderstanding and mix-up among the Hebrew speakers.

If you were to ask a Hebrew speaker to say the word for ‘foot,” the answer would be ‘Regel.’ {רגל} That is the reason why for many Israelis (as well as other Hebrew speakers) it makes sense that the Hebrew name of these three main holidays comes from the long walk (by foot) to Jerusalem during biblical times.

In fact, the Hebrew term for ‘Pilgrimage’ is ‘Aliya La-Regel’ {עליה לרגל} which literally means ‘to ascend or go up by FOOT.’ Even though this interpretation makes perfect sense in Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible actually uses this term in its OTHER meaning of ‘time’ or ‘beat’ as can be found in the following example:

“Three TIMES in the year you shall keep a feast to me” (Exodus 23:14)

So why is the word for ‘foot’ and the word for ‘time’* the same in Hebrew?

*To clarify: this is the Hebrew word for ‘time’ in the sense of one time (or once), two times (or twice) and so forth. This word for ‘time’ is NOT in the sense of a clock, the passage of time, or the concept of time as in ‘what is the time?’.

The answer lies in the cultural perceptions of biblical times, before the developments of different instrument that measured time. In other words, they used the time it took them to walk ONE step to describe the concept of ONE moment!

Interestingly, the word ‘foot’ is used in English as a distance or height unit while in biblical Hebrew it is used as a time unit.