The Torah of Voting - Even When Election Day Falls on a Jewish Holiday
This year, Canada’s federal election will take place on October 21, at the same time as the holidays of Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The overlap of the holiday with Election Day offers an opportunity to consider the relationship between our civic rights and obligations and Torah.
Sh’mini Atzeret comes after Sukkot, set by Leviticus 23:36 and Numbers 29:35 as a “sacred occasion” during which we are to “hold a solemn gathering” and “not work at [our] occupations.” As with many other holidays, Sh’mini Atzeret is observed as a two-day festival in traditional Jewish communities in the Diaspora, but as a one-day festival in Israel and in many Reform/progressive Diaspora communities.
In the Middle Ages, Sh’mini Atzeret also became associated with marking the end of a yearly Torah-reading cycle and beginning a new one, and the second day of the holiday evolved into what we now celebrate as Simchat Torah. Thus, in traditionally observant Diaspora communities, Simchat Torah falls the day after Sh’mini Atzeret, whereas in Reform and other progressive Diaspora communities, it coincides with the celebration of Sh’mini Atzeret.
Canada’s election days are determined based upon previsions outlined in the Canada Elections Act, but the chief electoral officer (who administers federal elections) may recommend an alternate day if the original date set for the election is “not suitable” – for example, if it’s “in conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance.”
Holding the federal election on Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah can be a challenge for many in Canada’s Jewish communities, as the Jewish prohibition from work on the holidays can be interpreted as a barrier to be able to vote, campaign, or volunteer on Election Day.
In fact, the chief electoral officer’ decision not to recommend changing this year’s election date because of “cultural or religious significance” was challenged in the Federal Court of Canada: A political candidate and campaign volunteer said religious observance of Sh’mini Atzeret would limit them from participating meaningfully in the election, violating their constitutional rights to democratic participation as set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A judge agreed that holding the election on Sh'mini Atzeret would pose problems for some Jewish Canadians and asked the chief electoral officer to reconsider recommending a date change. However, given the challenges of running an election and ensuring sufficient accessibility of voting locations, the chief electoral officer determined that “it would not be advisable to change the date of the election at this late stage.”
Instead, Elections Canada and Jewish community organizations have worked to ensure that Jewish Canadians have ample opportunities to exercise their voting rights on alternate days, including setting up special early voting kiosks (i.e. in synagogues and JCCs) to provide them more voting options. Voters have also been able to vote in advance polls, at local Elections Canada offices, and by mail – until the week before the election. Indeed, more than 4.7 million Canadians have voted early, an increase of 29 percent from the previous election.
Voting is more than just a civic duty: Jewish tradition views us working in partnership with God to create a better world (as we pray in the Aleinu prayer, l’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai), and numerous rabbis have framed voting as a mitzvah, a Jewish imperative.
Torah calls on us to pursue justice; to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan; and to sustain our world. We are taught to “choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut. 30). Choosing life is a positive action, conveying that we have to make choices to create the world we want to live in. Voting is such an example of making a choice.
Torah is also clear that the requirement for civic engagement applies not just to our Jewish communities but to society writ large.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote that we are to engage deeply in the communities where we find ourselves, to build houses and put down roots, and to “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jeremiah 29: 4-7).
The Mishnah and the Talmud take this even further. Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4) – in other words, we are to be engaged. Interpreting another passage of the Mishnah that states, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2), and 13th-century sage Rabbeinu Yonah interpreted this to mean that governance is about inclusion of all of us:
“[A] person should pray for the peace of the whole world and be in pain about the pain of others. […] As a person should not make his supplications and his requests for his needs alone, but rather to pray for all people, that they be at peace. As with the welfare of the government, there is peace in the world.”
Eighteenth-century biblical commentator Metzudat David added that “praying for peace for the [political] leadership is good because it will then bring peace [back] to you.”
In sum, civic engagement through voting is a fundamental way to be involved in the welfare of our communities.
Elections have a real impact on our everyday lives, for the governments we elect develop policies and programs with local, national, and international implications. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada observed that “civic participation is fundamentally important to the health of a free and democratic society.” It also notes that voting ensures “that each citizen has an opportunity to express an opinion about the formation of social policy and the functioning of public institutions through participation in the electoral process.”
For Canadian Jews and for all of us, may Sh’mini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Election Day be an invitation to choose life and to celebrate Torah through greater civic and community engagement.