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).
Time is funny. It is relative: You may feel that time spent watching a sporting event flies by, but I will find it painfully long. It is fleeting: there is never enough time in a day to accomplish everything that needs doing. And time is fungible: all those uncompleted tasks will still be there tomorrow.
But holy time isn't like that. It's not relative: Rosh HaShanah, Passover, and so on, fall on the same day for Jews around the world (dealing with a second-day chag admittedly gets trickier). It's not fleeting: if we embrace Shabbat with Abraham Joshua Heschel's insight that it is time not to make and to have, but to be, the day lasts forever.1
And it is not fungible. To proclaim a moment holy is to set it apart for sacred purpose. It cannot await our convenience and is not likely to accommodate our contrivance (Shabbat on Tuesday, for example). We have an appointment, so we drop everything and show up. That's part of what makes it special.
Midrash Tanchuma asks whether we keep these appointments for God or for ourselves. The paradoxical response is that they are wholly for our own enjoyment . . . because the Holy One wants us to keep showing up (B'reishit 4).
Another passage imagines the challenge: Why observe the festivals at all, since the prophets denounced them? "Your new moons and appointed seasons fill Me with loathing" (Isaiah 1.14). If these observances reveal hypocritical piety, accompanied by injustice and apathy, they can be only "our" holidays — not ones that draw connection between us and the Divine. Playing with the ambiguity of the Hebrew word na-eh as both "pleasant" and "becoming," the midrash teaches that the appointed seasons should be pleasant for us, but they must also become us. They must reflect and even help to fashion the human beings God intends us to be (Pinchas 17).
See Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 1951)
Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva serves as the Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies and the Director of the Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary. The Center and the Seminary work at the cutting edge of theological education, training religious leaders who build bridges across cultural and religious difference for the critical work of social transformation. Dr. Mikva is author of Broken Tablets (2000), Midrash vaYosha (2012) and Dangerous Religious Ideas (forthcoming).
Emor, Leviticus 21:1–24:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 912–938; Revised Edition, pp. 817–845;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 723–746