Leviticus 21:1 to 24:23
Torah commands us to celebrate several festival holidays. Through the years these festivals have changed significantly to meet the needs of the contemporary times.
This week’s text continues the section of Torah known as the Holiness Code. It is composed of a large collection of laws and commandments from God that tell the Israelites what is required to be holy people as God commanded: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)
Last week, the text provided a lengthy list of laws covering all areas of everyday living. Most of the laws covered ethical situations.
This week we read about the requirements of the priests, followed by a description of the holidays. But, after reading about the holidays, it seems that much of the information about the holidays we celebrate today seem to be missing.
Actually, the central purpose of the holidays is different today than it was in Biblical times. The holidays at the time of the Temple were celebrations of the harvest cycle. When the harvest and the offerings brought to the Temple ended with the Temple’s destruction, a new reason for the holidays was needed to keep the holidays significant.
A closer look at each of the holidays shows us how the religion of the Israelites is truly a living religion that adapts to the times and the spiritual needs of the people.
Biblical Description: Occurs on 14th day of the 1st month.
People are commanded to bring first sheaf of harvest to priest as an offering to the Eternal.
The people are to eat unleavened bread for seven days and make offerings to the Eternal. The first and seventh day should be days of rest without work.
Post-Biblical Holiday: Celebrates Exodus from Egypt. This holiday is now marked with Seder service and meal in the home where the story of the Exodus is remembered.
Counting of the Omer.
Biblical Description: Count seven weeks after “Sabbath.” (The first day of Passover is a day of rest and considered to be the Sabbath day of Passover.) After the 49 days an offering from the second harvest is brought to the Temple. This day (the 50th day of counting) is to be a sacred celebration.
Post-Biblical Holiday: The days are still counted; but, not for purposes of the harvest.
Today the counting of days is symbolic of the days between the Exodus and the giving of the Commandments at Sinai. The Kabalistic tradition has added the teaching of a different spiritual practice each day with the objective of spiritual improvement during this 49 day period.
The holiday of Shavuot has been added to this list of holidays. (Shavuot is the name given to the “sacred celebration” held at the end of the counting of days).This holiday marks a time to reaffirm the covenant made at Sinai. In recent times this is also the traditional time for the confirmation ceremony from religious school.
Biblical Description: Occurs on the 1st day of the 7th month.
This is a day of rest. Torah tells us the day should be marked with loud blasts of the shofar. As with the other holidays, offerings are to be brought to the Temple.
Post-Biblical Holiday: Marks the start of the new year. The day is also combined with the next holiday – Yom Kippur – to mark to a period now called the Days of Awe, a period of repentance and reconciliation. Efforts should be made to repair relationships with God and those we may have harmed.
Biblical Description: Occurs on the 10th day of the 7th month. It is to be a day of rest with no work. Torah tells us this is a sacred day on which we should practice “self denial,” and like all the other holidays, bring an offering to the Temple.
Post-Biblical Holiday: A day of repentance. The practice of “self denial” has become a day of complete fasting. A memorial service has been added to remember our relatives and friends who have died.
Biblical Description: Occurs on the 15th day of 7th month. This holiday called the Festival of Booths in Torah, is to last seven days. The first and last days are to be days of rest and no work. And, as with the other festival days, an offering is to be brought to the Temple from the last harvest on each of the seven days.
Post-Biblical Holiday: This holiday, more than any other, still remembers the agricultural connection through the building of, and living in, the sukkah which reminds us of the harvesting of the last crops. The last day of this seven-day festival has been named Simchat Torah which marks the end and the beginning of the Torah reading cycle.
Since the completion of the Torah several other holidays have been added to the cycle including Chanukah and Purim. Since the creation of the State of Israel the holidays of Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day have also been added.
By studying these holidays, we see that change is part of the Jewish religion. We see how the emphasis of these holidays changed from one based on agricultural cycles to holidays based on prayer, freedom, the covenant with God, and Torah. All of these holidays have changed to meet the needs of different times. Judaism is a living religion.