Nineteen Day Feast
by Moojan Momenpublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica
New York: Columbia University, 2014
The Nineteen Day Feast (żiāfat-e nuzdah-ruza) is a gathering of the Bahai community every nineteen days that has devotional, administrative, and social aspects and is the core of community life.
The origins of the observance go back to the Bāb, who established what eventually became the Bahai calendar, consisting of nineteen months of nineteen days each, and ordained that each Bābi should invite nineteen others every nineteen days as guests, even if only water be served and even if it be fewer than nineteen guests (Bayān al-ʿarabi 9:17). Bahāʾ-Allāh confirmed this injunction in the Ketāb-e aqdas (sec. 57; tr., p. 40), explaining that its purpose is “to bind hearts together, albeit through both earthly and heavenly means,” although in Questions and Answers (no. 48), this command is stated not to be obligatory. However, in the case of both the Bāb and Bahāʾ-Allāh, these appear to be injunctions to the individual rather than a command to establish a community institution. No further instructions regarding this command appear in the published writings of Bahāʾ-Allāh, possibly because elsewhere he states (Entešārāt-lajna XXXI, p. 31) that he did not want the Bahais to gather in large numbers, which might attract attention. But developments did occur, since the German Christian missionary Pastor Christian Közle (d. 1895), who was stationed at Urmia, reports that the main meeting of the Bahai community occurs on the last day of each Bahai month (Momen, pp. 74-75).
ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ evolved both the concept and the practice of the Nineteen Day Feast. Both in his dealings with the American pilgrims who began to arrive in ʿAkkā and in his correspondence, he encouraged the new North American communities to hold meetings every nineteen days, at which prayers were said and hospitality provided. As early as 1901, “Nineteen-Day Teas” for women were being held in Chicago. During 1905-07, the feast became formalized, regular, and country-wide, largely through the efforts of Isabella Brittingham, and were based on a feast hosted by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ in 1905 (Stockman, pp. 50, 244-45; Walbridge). They also became community events rather than private gatherings. For these Western Bahaʾis, ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ linked the Nineteen Day Feast with the Lord’s Supper (ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, p. 149; II, p. 421), interpreting the Qurʾanic reference to a banquet (māʾeda) descending from heaven (Qurʾan 5:112-14) as indicating that this should be both a physical and spiritual repast. He emphasized in particular the creation of an atmosphere of unity and spirituality, calling it a “confluence of holy souls” (The Universal House of Justice, I, p. 429). However, in Iran, there were still dangers for the Bahais from gathering in large numbers, at least in the early part of ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ’s ministry, and so ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ continued Bahāʾ-Allāh’s instructions that the meetings of the Bahais for prayers be in small groups only, and that they be on personal initiative, but he also indicated that they would eventually become formal community gatherings (Fāżel Yazdi, I, pp. 353-54).
The next major development of the Nineteen Day Feast came with Shoghi Effendi’s instructions in the early 1930s that, in addition to the devotional (prayers and readings from scripture) and social (food and conversation) sections of the feast, there should be an administrative section, where there would be consultation about the affairs of the community. Shoghi Effendi gave many other instructions about the feast, including: that it should be held, if possible, on the first day of the Bahai month; that in order to facilitate freedom of discussion during the administrative portion of the feast, only enrolled Bahais may attend; that only scripture (mainly Bahai but also from the Qurʾan and the Bible if desired) should be read in the devotional part, but messages from the Bahai institutions and other material may be read in the administrative section; and that music may form part of the devotional section. The local spiritual assembly (maḥfel-e ruḥāni) is to be responsible for organizing the feasts, although it may delegate this task to individuals or committees. In areas where there is no spiritual assembly, the Bahais may nevertheless hold feasts.
Read the rest of this article online at iranicaonline.org/articles/bahaism-xiv-nineteen-day-feast.