In Parashat Emor, the verses in Leviticus 23:1-44 name and describe the sacred times of the Jewish calendar: Shabbat, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and the Pilgrimage Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Time becomes a holy thing, and the "normalcy" of time — of one day being no different than any other — is forever differentiated by the weekly Sabbath and by these special festive days.
Though the festivals are appointed for God, they are not actually appointed by God. Leviticus 23:2 states, "The appointed seasons of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are My appointed seasons." In other words, once we as humans proclaim a day holy, it becomes holy to God.
The 15th century Spanish commentator Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama — author of a famous work, Akeidat Yitzchak, the "binding of Isaac" — says something startling on this verse: "God agrees with the decisions made by Israel, in contrast to earthly rulers . . . God accommodates to the laws enacted by the Sanhedrin. For instance, if the Sanhedrin decides to proclaim New Year's Day on a certain day, God assembles The Divine Court to arrange to sit in judgment of humanity on that day . . . This means that Israel is the final arbiter concerning the dates of these holy days . . . "
I wonder what he would say about the Reform Movement declaring Passover to be seven days and Shavuot to be one. If ultimate power is given to earthly leaders to determine when we celebrate the Jewish holy days, then we can believe we have the power to declare how, as well.
So strong is the traditional acceptance of the power of human beings to declare sacred time, that Maimonides makes a startling statement of law about the declaration of those times, in Mishneh Torah, Sanctification of the New Month, 2:10: "A court which sanctifies the month, whether by accident, whether they were mistaken, whether they were forced, it is sanctified and everyone is obligated to fix the festivals on the day they sanctified . . ."
I had a unique experience with this very idea when I was a teenager at the (then) UAHC Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York. One fine Tuesday morning, the camp rabbi announced that we were going to do an experiment, to see if there was something intrinsically holy about Friday night as Shabbat. Was it our observance of Shabbat that made the day so special or was there something organically special about Friday night? Could we replicate the "Shabbes feeling" on any other night besides Friday?
He then declared that the entire camp would "make Shabbat" the next evening, on Wednesday night. Thus we would see if holy time is created by us or exists on its own.
On Wednesday, as the sun began to set, we all exited our bunks dressed in our Shabbat whites. The song leaders led us to the dining hall singing L'cha Dodi. We lit candles, made Kiddush, and blessed the challah. We had our usual special Shabbat song session followed by our usual Friday night Israeli dancing and our special Oneg Shabbat treats.
I can remember that we all went to bed that night confused. The next morning, we had a camp-wide meeting. Did we succeed in declaring a holy time ourselves? Had we called down from heaven the power of Shabbat on a Wednesday night? We agreed that we had done all the "right" things, all the observances and traditions that turn a regular night into Shabbat. Yet, almost one hundred percent of us agreed that it had not "felt" like Shabbat. We could not put our finger on why. Something simply was not present. Call it the Shechinah or call it a communal consciousness of celebrating Shabbat on Friday night — something simply was not Shabbat on a Wednesday night for us at camp.
Yet we celebrated and blessed and sanctified time, even on that unique Wednesday night. It could have been Shabbat. Perhaps if we had continued on to Thursday morning, had services with the Shabbat tunes and Shabbat liturgy, had Shabbat lunch and then the day free, it might have "clicked."
So do our festivals have intrinsic holiness or is that holiness something we — as a human "court" — invest in them?
In declaring our own festive calendar, we declare ourselves active partners with God. Time becomes sanctified in the interconnection between us and the Divine.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).