Reuven Spolter
Founder, The Mishnah Project

Groundhog Day and Jewish life during COVID-19

The movie Groundhog Day is having a moment.

The Atlantic featured a piece about it. Bill Simmons recently did a podcast about it.

Bill Murray, stuck in lock down.

It makes intuitive sense. We’re all feeling a bit like Phil Connors, stuck in Punxsutawney, day after day, without any explanation for what’s happening or any clear idea of when or how it will end. That’s the experience for many of us during this lock down. Shut of our work and school and shul, every day feels the same, mostly because it actually is the same.

Just this week, during at our outdoor distanced minyan (legal in Israel), as I was slowly making my way through the extended Monday Tachanun the chazzan quickly arrived at the end of Tachanun. I marveled to myself at how he had flown through the long liturgy and finished in what seemed like seconds.

It took me a moment or two to realize that no, it wasn’t Monday. It was Tuesday. I was a day off.

It’s not just the lack of a sense of time that’s so challenging. It’s the sense that what happens during this time doesn’t really have meaning either. At one point in “Groundhog Day” Phil asks, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Everything is on hold. Society has pressed the pause button. So you might as well binge-watch an entire Netflix series, or eat the fourth slice of pizza, because what happens on lockdown stays on lockdown.

Except it does not.

I have been thinking recently about a striking line from a Mishnah that I studied this week as part of the ongoing Mishnah Yomit program. The Mishnah in Temurah (Chapter 2, Mishnah 1) discusses whether one could offer sacrifices on Shabbat or the holidays or when the Kohahim (priests) were ritually impure. Many sacrifices were offered on Shabbat and holidays, while others were not. What determined whether the priests violated the Shabbat for a sacrifice or waited until Sunday?

The first opinion suggested in the Mishnah distinguishes between public and personal offerings. While personal offerings could not be offered in a state of ritual impurity or on Shabbat, public offerings could. Rabbi Meir disagreed. After all, he notes, certain personal offerings such as the Sin Offering of the High Priest were in fact offered on Yom Kippur! So what criteria did they use to determine when to offer a sacrifice on Shabbat and when not to?

“Rather,” he explains, “the time determines.” If the sacrifice has a set time and could not be offered later should it be missed, then Jewish law permitted the violation of one principal (Shabbat or ritual purity) for another (the sacrifice).

If there are no consequences and nothing is lost by wasting today, then Phil is right. Time really doesn’t matter. Each day melts into the next, losing its meaning and importance.

On the other hand, we have the power to make each day matter.

At the end of tefillah each morning, we customarily recite the Shir Shel Yom – the Song of the Day. Today is the second day of the week, and we must infuse meaning into it. Every evening during this time of year, we count the Omer, climbing the rungs of the ladder from Pesach to Shavuot when we will receive the Torah (probably at home this year). But the days only matter if we mark them, and count them, and make them count.

That is why I am particularly grateful to participate in a daily learning program. Some people study Tanach each day. Others learn Talmud as part of Daf Yomi – all wonderful programs.

I study Mishnah.

Each day I study – and then record and upload to YouTube – two Mishnayot, as part of the Mishnah Yomit program. Each day I learn just a little bit more, move a little farther in my study and understanding. And I know that not only can’t I miss a day (my students would wonder…), but I don’t want to miss a day.

Perhaps before the pandemic, I thought that studying and teaching Mishnah every day was a burden, a task to complete. Now, when each day has the potential to be yet another “Groundhog Day,” I have come to realize that it’s not a task at all.

Every Mishnah brings my day meaning and purpose. That’s not a burden. It’s a gift.

Reuven Spolter is the founder of The Mishnah Project. You can join the Mishnah Yomit program by subscribing on WhatsApp (bit.ly/dailymishnah) or Telegram (t.me/dailymishnah)

About the Author
Rabbi Reuven Spolter is the Founder of the Mishnah Project which spreads the study of Mishnah around the world. He is also the Director of OTS Amiel Bakehila, a division of the Ohr Torah Stone network, which sends delegations of educators, lecturers and artists from Israel to Jewish communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter also serves as the Shorashim Coordinator for English-speaking countries for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar. In addition, he teaches Mishnah Yomit, teaching hundreds of students around the world Mishnah via the Internet at www.mishnah.co. Raised in Silver Spring, MD, Reuven Spolter served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park in Michigan until his aliyah in 2008. He then served as a Judaic studies instructor and Academic Coordinator of the Elkana Campus of the Orot College of Education from 2008 until 2018. A graduate of Yeshiva University with an MA in Secondary Jewish Education and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary, he has taught and lectured to groups of all ages in communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter lives with his family in Yad Binyamin, Israel.
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