Jewish Ways of Marking Time

Emor, Leviticus 21:1−24:23

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Dvora E. Weisberg

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, contains a section that is read in the synagogue not only as we make our way through Leviticus, but on each of the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. This section offers details of the observance of Shabbat, the three festivals mentioned above, and what we now know as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We might imagine that the information in this chapter would be familiar to many of us, given that we are likely to have celebrated at least some of these holidays at some point in our lives. In fact, we find in Leviticus 23 a mixture of the familiar and the arcane, rituals that we continue to practice, and those whose practice ended close to 2,000 years ago.

In the opening and closing verses of the chapter, the festivals are described as moadim, fixed or designated times. Together with Rosh ChodeshRosh Chodeshרֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁLiterally, “head of the month.” Rosh Chodesh marks the beginning of each Hebrew month when there is a new moon (when there is no moon visible in the sky). Rosh Chodesh is sometimes celebrated as a women’s holiday; tradition says that women received the holiday of Rosh Chodesh because they refused to participate in the building of the idolatrous Golden Calf. On Rosh Chodesh, Torah is read and special prayers are recited in a synagogue. , these festivals give structure to the Israelite calendar. Shabbat, which falls every seventh day, creates an artificial unit of time. Unlike the day or the month, which reflect the relationship of the Earth to the sun and the moon, the seven-day week has no relation to the natural world. The Babylonians are credited with introducing the seven-day week; the Torah gives that week a culminating celebration, an opportunity for human beings to differentiate between six days devoted to measuring and controlling time and a day when we seek not to manage our time, but to sanctify it.

Leviticus 23:5-8 describes a festival that begins with an offering (Pesach) on the evening or close of the fourteenth day of the first month and continues for seven days. The Torah calls this holiday “the Festival of Unleavened Bread,” (Chag haMatzot) In other passages in the Torah, this festival is linked directly to the Exodus from Egypt; in Leviticus, there is no mention of that connection. The chapter continues with instructions to bring offerings from the new grain crop, the first sheaf (omer) and, seven weeks later, the first fruits (bikkurim). Just as Leviticus makes no connection between the Festival of Unleavened Bread and the Exodus, it offers no link between this festival and events in Israelite history.

The Torah now turns its attention to three festivals in the seventh month of the year. The first festival, which occurs on the first day of that month, is marked by an offering and “commemorated with loud blasts.” Today, we know that festival as Rosh HaShanah. The second festival falls on the tenth day of the month and is called “the Day of Atonement” (Yom haKippurim). On this day, the Israelites are commended to practice “self-denial” (innui), which is understood as fasting.

The instructions for festival observance culminate in the laws surrounding the Festival of Booths (Chag haSukkot) on the fifteenth of the month. Here, Leviticus offers a description of festival rites that will be familiar to us: living in booths for seven days and taking up “the product of the hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and rejoicing” (Lev. 23:40). Additionally, this is the only holiday that Leviticus 23 connects directly to the Israelite experience. “You shall live in booths for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42).

What are we to make of these descriptions of the festivals? One practice is common to all the holy days mentioned in Leviticus 23; on each of these days, the Israelites are commanded to rest and/or to refrain from work. The Torah teaches us that we need time, both weekly and at special moments in the calendar, to stop doing what we normally do. Left to our own devices, we won’t make time to rest.

One of the things that intrigued me as I read through Emor is the range of emotions and sensory experiences that characterize the seventh month we now know as Tishrei. We begin the month with noise, “loud blasts” from the shofar.shofarשׁוֹפָרRam’s horn most commonly blown throughout the month of Elul and during the High Holiday season. Nine days later, we take on a full day of sensory deprivation, we deny ourselves the pleasures of smelling and tasting food, and we seek expiation from sin, a process that requires us to reflect on those actions of which we are least proud. Then, a few days later, we indulge in sensory overload; we inhale the citrusy aroma of the etrog, we sit in a sukkahsukkahסֻכָּה"Booth" or "hut;" temporary structure associated with the agricultural festival of Sukkot; plural: sukkot. , where we can see the sky and feel the wind, and we rejoice.

Our observance of the holidays differs greatly from the festival rituals described in Leviticus. We don’t live according to the agricultural calendar, and we aren’t offering sacrifices. Even those biblical symbols that remain part of our Judaism – shofar, etrog, and sukkah – have evolved. At the same time, the Torah’s description of festivals, its insistence that we need miqra’ei kodesh (sacred occasions) to interrupt our daily routines and experience the world differently, is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago.