Saturday, May 10, 2008

Emor (Mitzvot)

Due to the work involved in setting up our new home, we have not yet had time to write the promised commentaries on Pirkei Avot, which was to have begun immediately after Pesah. These will hopefully follow soon. Meanwhile, for more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog, below at April/May 2006.

“These are My Appointed Times”

This week’s parashah contains, in Leviticus 23, the most comprehensive summary of all the festivals or mo‘adim (“appointed times”) of the year, each in turn with their special mitzvot. Rambam lists a total of fourteen mitzvot relating to these days in a general way: two mitzvot—to rest on each of these days, and not to perform labor therein—for each of the seven days. (The Gaon of Vilna, somewhat whimsically, applied to these days the verse: “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh you shall rest.” On six days—the First and Seventh Days of Pesah, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, First Day of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret—we are permitted to engage in labors relating to okhel nefesh, preparation of the food needed for the festive day; while the seventh day, Yom Kippur, is a day of complete cessation of all labors.)

Is there a basic conception underlying the festival days, over and beyond the specific meaning of each day and its peculiar mitzvot? It seems to me that the mo‘adim imply a particular conception of time. Whereas the modern, scientific view sees time as an undifferentiated medium, subject to objective, uniform measure, the Torah sees each time period as unique, as rich in contents and meaning. The Shabbat, especially when counterpoised to the servitude in Egypt, is based on the notion that man is more than a beast of burden, that he requires time to be at rest, to “take breath” (שבת וינפש), to reflect upon deeper questions of life. The festival days, even more so, see man as imbued with memory, as a creature of culture and symbols. These days are set aside to impress upon him a whole complex of meaning. As Samson Raphael Hirsch once put it: “The calendar is the catechism of the Jew.” That is, we don’t have a systematic set of dogmas, but through the cycle of the year the Jew relives the full gamut of messages and historical experiences of his people.

Our Sages viewed the Shabbat as part of the very fabric of Creation, implanted within the universe from the beginning of time (this, despite the fact that the week is the only unit of time that, unlike the day, month and year, is not based upon natural phenomena, upon the movements of the heavenly bodies). The mo’adim are commanded in the Torah, but they are somehow turned over to man—specifically, to the Sanhedrin, the Highest Court of the Jewish people—who are commanded to set up a calendar, to sanctify and declare new moons, and even to intercalate an extra month when needed. The Midrash states that even God and the heavenly entourage address Israel to ask when Rosh Hashanah, Pesah, or Yom Kippur fall.

Yom Tov—the festival day—also differs from Shabbat in its halakhic structure. It is easier than Shabbat, a day on which the most irksome restrictions, on cooking and carrying, do not apply. This is so because, in addition to being occasions of teaching-by-doing and eliciting memory, the festivals are also times for joy and celebration—which are facilitated by its lighter restrictions.

In the Bible we find the expression ka’et hayah—literally, “when time comes alive,” meaning, “at this same time next year.” The notion seems to be that the year turns back upon itself, that a given date contains within it some of the qualities of that same date in an earlier time—and never more so than on the various festival days. (Whether this is to be taken literally or metaphorically is an ongoing debate between Kabbalistic and rationalist-philosophical approaches within Judaism.)

Kiddush Hashem vs. “Religion”

In the Western world religion is often thought of as an optional” leisure time activity—and at that one that is relatively minor. Christians go to church on Sunday, Jews to synagogue on Saturday or Friday night—and that is about it. The mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, of “sanctifying God’s Name,” inferred from verse 22:32 (but see our discussion earlier this year in connection with the Akedah: HY IX: Vayera), is significant in two ways: first, that it implies complete devotion, willingness to die rather than violate God’s mitzvot if need be. Quite simply, the Torah is the central commitment of one’s life, the source and focal point of all values and meaning. Moreover, even if one is hopefully not confronted with the ultimate test—of having to choose between death and violating the three cardinal prohibitions of bloodshed, idolatry, and sexual immorality—Kiddush Hashem is manifested through living a holy life (viz. last week’s discussion). Thus, the Talmud relates that Rav said that Hillul Hashem (i.e., the flip side of Kiddush Hashem) occurs whenever a Jew, especially a learned person, behaves in an unethical fashion—even failing to pay his bills on time (Yoma 86a)—in such a way as to set a negative example.

Secondly, the words “Kiddush Hashem” are understood quite literally: namely, that by our actions we sanctify God’s name in this world. By our behavior, including willingness to undergo martyrdom, but also by less dramatic, everyday actions, we give testimony to God’s presence in the world.


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