Holy Days and Week Days*

Leviticus 23

1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts.

3 Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.

4 These are the feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons.

...

21 And ye shall proclaim on the selfsame day, that it may be an holy convocation unto you: ye shall do no servile work therein: it shall be a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.

22 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

...

44 And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord.

The sequence of commandments in the Torah is often puzzling, to say the least. There are passages in which the logic underlying the order of the laws is so elusive that it has engendered special methods of midrashic exposition in order to explain why one verse was placed after another. Collections of this sort are found, for example, in the parashotQ'doshim [Leviticus 19], R'eh [Deuteronomy 12], and elsewhere.

Compared to such baffling Torah sections, Leviticus 23 is a model of coherent organization. It consists of an enumeration of the "appointed seasons of the Lord" -- that is to say, the annual festival cycle -- commencing with Passover, in the first month, and continuing chronologically through to the Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh month.

There are however two items that obstruct the logical flow of the presentation:

  1. After declaring that it will describe the "feasts of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy," the Torah proceeds to discuss the Sabbath: "Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest"
    Now, it is true that the people of Israel play a decisive role in proclaiming the holiness of the annual holidays. We do this by means of the authority given to the Jewish courts to determine the exact dates of the New Moons (the first days of the Hebrew months), and to insert an occasional thirteenth month into the calendar. Although at present we determine these times using a permanent calendar, the ideal situation set out in the Bible and rabbinic literature requires that they be declared by a duly constituted religious court, based on the testimony of witnesses who testify to the astronomical and agricultural facts. No such deliberations would affect the declaration of the Sabbath, which falls inevitably one week after the previous one.
    It is almost as if the Torah realized its mistake when, after speaking briefly about the Sabbath, it seems to begin its presentation anew in verse 4 with the introductory heading: "These are the feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons."
  2. The second interruption occurs in verse 22. After proceeding sequentially through Passover, the counting of the Omer, and the Feast of Weeks (Shavu'ot'>), the Torah detours to what appears to be a completely unrelated topic: the portions of the agricultural produce that must be assigned to the poor and the stranger. After this brief excursus, the Torah resumes its main topic and carries on with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

As if to compound the difficulty, we note that the insertion of verses dealing with the Sabbath and with the gifts to the poor are not merely interruptions, but they are also redundant. Both these topics are dealt with elsewhere in the Torah. The obligation to refrain from creative labour on the Sabbath is reitereated dozens of times in the Bible. As for the regulations about leaving produce for the poor, these were set out only a few chapters earlier in Leviticus 19:9-10; and will be repeated in Deuteronomy 24:19-22. Our sages have often stressed that the holy words of Scripture are used with the utmost economy, and are never wasted with unnecessary repetition or verbosity. How, then, are we to explain these two ostensible instances of redundancy in our chapter?

With respect to the laws of charity, several commentators suggest plausible reasons for the inclusion here. Rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Joseph B'khor Shor point out that the harvest season, which commences around the date of Shavu'ot, is the appropriate time to be thinking about leaving grain or fruit for our less fortunate neighbours.

To my mind, however, the most insightful solution is the one proposed by Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, the Ramban. He states that the duty to leave a portions of the crop for the poor was inserted at this point in the Torah, following the description of the Omer offering, in order to stress that the ritual harvesting of the Omer should not come at the expense of caring for the needs of the underprivileged.

On first hearing, this would appear rather farfetched. Given that the Omer designates a finite measure of barley -- actually a single sheaf -- what sort of person would think of giving so much of it that there would be nothing remaining for the sustenance of the poor and the stranger?

When you think about it, and ponder the complexities of the religious personality, Nahmanides' scenario does seem all that remote after all.

The Omer is offered directly to the Almighty, whereas the gleanings and the corner of the field are left for mere mortals. For many people, this fact would lead to the conclusion that it is more virtuous to designate produce for ritual purposes than to the needy. This would certainly be in keeping with the widespread tendency treat "religious" rituals as more spiritually significant than our workaday routine.

This type of misunderstanding is particularly likely to rear its head in the present chapter, which deals with the sacred calendar. There are individuals who might draw the erroneous conclusion that holy days are more "religious" than weekdays, and that what happens during the rest of the year lies outside the scope of our spiritual lives.

Indeed, there have always been pious types who have dismissed their activities in the material world as so many unpleasant intervals between holy days.

I have personally known people who approached life in this manner. Somehow, they seem particularly abundant in Jerusalem. Salespeople and professionals show up late for appointments after prolonging their prayers or Talmud classes. They do their work half-heartedly and grudgingly, determined to rush off as quickly as possible to resume their Torah studies. Such characters are held up as models of piety by many preachers.

I have no doubt that that attitude runs contrary to Jewish tradition. Clearly, the Torah would not have devoted so much loving attention to ethical rules that guide our conduct in the workplace, family or schoolyard, if we were not expected to take them absolutely seriously.

The Sabbath and festivals were given to us in order us to deepen the spiritual significance of our weekday activities. They were not intended to replace them or trivialize their importance.

What we do during the week is the essence of a complete Torah life. Removed from the sheltering aura of the Sabbath, we are challenged to apply our Jewish values to the real world, and to carry out our moral responsibilities to employers, co-workers and clients.

In light of the above arguments, it is perfectly understandable why the Torah felt it necessary to interrupt the flow of sacred time by inserting a simple law of charity, even if it is a law that is repeated elsewhere. We might have been tempted to belittle this law. It is one that is only observed by farmers and peasents in the course of their manual labours in the fields. In fact, these precepts are observed not by the performance of specific actions, but by refraining> from activity. We might have concluded that they rank lower in the scale of religious values.

Several traditional commentators have drawn our attention to the thematic links between the law of the Omer offering and the story of the mannah that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness during their wanderings. That story (found in Exodus 16) is the only other place in the Torah where the word "omer" appears, designating the amount of mannah to be consumed by an average person.

At least two features of the mannah story make it especially appropriate as a counterbalance to the excessive emphasis on the Sabbath and festivals.

  1. For one thing, the mannah had to be collect anew each morning. It was forbidden to stockpile a week's worth at a time. In this way, it might be inferred, the Torah is requiring us to labour seriously on a daily basis, to involve ourselves genuinely in our weekday activities. Fittingly, mannah was not given at all on the Sabbath.
  2. Furthermore, the Torah admonished the Israelites to gather only as much mannah as they would actually consume. In this way, they were compelled to have consideration for the needs of others. This sentiment lies at the root of the of charitable benevolence.

This is why the Sabbath is mentioned here. The emphasis is not on resting on Shabbat, but on working for six days. Working six days is as important as the seventh.

I would suggest that a similar approach might help us explain the other incongruity in our parashah, namely the inclusion of the weekly Sabbath in a listing of annual holidays.

Perhaps the intention was not to emphasize the prohibition of working on the seventh day, but rather the first part of the verse: "Six days shall work be done."

In this way, before commencing its detailed enumeration of days on which we are to refrain from labour, the Torah is reminding us that those special days have no value unless their holiness is allowed to enrich our life through the rest of the week and the year.


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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca


*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, April 27 2002.