Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Hard Times — In the Parasha and at the Protests (17)

Years, Months, Days, Demonstrations... Photo(s): Diana Lipton

This is my 17th consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

This week’s parasha, Emor, includes the first of the Torah’s two festival calendars (Leviticus 23); the second is in Deuteronomy 16. It’s easy to dismiss calendars as organized lists of significant dates, but in subtle ways that differ interestingly from one to the other, these two calendars shape identities and build communities. While I very much doubt that the organizers of Israel’s pro-democracy demonstrations set out to model their efforts on the Torah’s festival calendars, there are many intriguing parallels. If you don’t have time or patience for the detail, the italicized sections should cover the bases.

Worldview? The festival calendars of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are both based on the agricultural cycle in the land of Israel, and for both, the first festival is Pesach, Passover. But Leviticus arrives at Pesach by way of the seven-day unit comprising six working days and Shabbat, a day on which work is not permitted. Thereafter, it defines a festival as a ‘sacred occasion’, mikra kodesh, a day that must be proclaimed holy, and on which no work is done. Deuteronomy’s calendar mentions shabbat and abstaining from work just once, in the context of the seventh day of Pesach, influenced perhaps by the formulation: ‘six days you can eat matza, and on the seventh …’ Its focus is connecting agriculture in the land of Israel to the future Temple through the three pilgrimage festivals.

In short, the Leviticus calendar engages with the creation of the world. Deuteronomy’s calendar centralizes the future Jerusalem Temple.   

Where? Leviticus envisages that festivals will be celebrated in the land of Israel. In relation to the seventh day of Pesach, it speaks about the offerings to be made ‘when you enter the land’ (Lev 23:9). It is broadly concerned with Israel’s agriculture cycle. But it also includes Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, ‘sacred occasions’ observed on specific calendar dates with no agricultural components. Festival observances take place in ‘settlements’ or ‘dwelling places’. It does not allude to the future Temple.

Deuteronomy’s calendar depends on agricultural events in the land of Israel. It includes numerous references to ‘the place where God will choose to establish his name’ (Deut 16:2, 6, 7, 11, 15, 16), that is, the location of the future Temple. It omits Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, focusing on the ‘pilgrimage’ festivals which will be celebrated at the Temple. When relevant, such as not eating leaven for the seven days of Pesach and rejoicing during Sukkot, Deuteronomy demarcates Israelite property formally, referring to ‘borders’ and ‘gates’ (Deut 16:4,5,14).

In short, the land of Israel may be the Leviticus calendar’s ideal, but it could function elsewhere. For Deuteronomy’s calendar, the land is all.    

When? The Leviticus calendar reiterates the date already given for Pesach: the 14th day of the first month (Exod 12:1-10). On the day after the shabbat (meaning the seventh day) of Pesach, the first sheaf harvested will be elevated by the priest. From that specific date, Leviticus counts 50 days, at the end of which will be what Deuteronomy calls the ‘Feast of Weeks’, Shavuot. Sukkot is celebrated at the time of the ingathering of the harvest, but a date is given: the 15th day of the 7th month. Leviticus adds an eighth day, not mentioned in Deuteronomy, to the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Work is prohibited on the first and the eighth days.

Deuteronomy’s calendar opens with a command to keep the month of Aviv (c.f., Exod 13:4), but does not specify a date. Following from that, or in keeping with it, no date is specified for Shavuot. It will take place ‘seven weeks after the sickle is first put to the standing grain’ (Deut 16:9), whenever that is, not, as in Leviticus, seven weeks after Pesach. In Deuteronomy’s calendar, Sukkot is celebrated for seven days ‘after the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat’ (Deut 16:13), again, whenever that is.

In short, Leviticus’s festival calendar could, if necessary, function without Israel’s agricultural system. Deuteronomy’s calendar, which has no dates, depends on it.

What? Both calendars call Pesach the ‘Festival of Matzot’. Leviticus specifies that a Pesach offering must be made on the 14th day of the first month at twilight, matza must be eaten for seven days, and bread, parched grain, and fresh ears are prohibited. Work is prohibited on the first and seventh days. On the seventh day of Pesach, the priest will elevate the first sheaf of the harvest on behalf of the Israelites. Various types of offerings are required. Leviticus connects Shavuot to the first fruits, and the celebration includes more offerings and abstaining from work. Rosh HaShana requires rest from work, [trumpet] blasts, and fire offerings. Yom Kippur emphasizes a complete rest along with self-affliction and a fire offering. Although sacrifices are specified for Sukkot, the core observances are living in booths, rejoicing before God with the combination of fruit and branches later known as the four species, and not working at the beginning and end. In Leviticus, proclaiming the festivals is important.

Regarding Pesach, Deuteronomy focuses on not eating leaven, eating matza, and the Pesach sacrifice. No sacrifices are mentioned in the initial discussion of Shavuot; the emphasis is rejoicing at in your community. Deuteronomy calls Sukkot the Festival of Booths but mentions neither living in booths nor the lulav. Again, the emphasis is on rejoicing in your community; no sacrifices are mentioned in the main discussion of the festival. At the end of Deuteronomy’s calendar, males are commanded to appear with gifts at what will one day be the Temple in Jerusalem.

In short, on top of festival-specific activities such as eating matza and living in booths, the Leviticus calendar involves ordinary Israelites through its emphasis on not working.  Deuteronomy promotes general rejoicing in communities, to include men and women, slaves and strangers, but its main focus is pilgrimage to the future Temple.  

Who? The audience addressed by the Leviticus calendar are the ‘citizens of Israel’ (Lev 23:42), ‘throughout the ages’, in all their ‘settlements’ or ‘dwelling places’ (Lev 23:31). Immediately after the instructions for Shavuot (one explanation for why we read Ruth then), there’s a reminder to facilitate gleaning for strangers and the poor. There’s no reference to Israelites of different status or to women.

Deuteronomy’s calendar addresses Israelites who are presumed to live in communities – within ‘boundaries’ (Deut 16:4) and inside ‘gates’ (Deut 16:5). The Levite is singled out for special care, along with slaves, strangers, orphans, and widows. Gender is specified both inclusively – you must celebrate with your sons and daughters, and your male and female slaves – and exclusively – all your males shall appear before God in the place he has chosen on the three pilgrimage festivals. Deuteronomy’s calendar does not refer to future generations.

In short, the Leviticus calendar’s audience are generic Israelites throughout time, and possibly regardless of place. Deuteronomy’s audience are residents of the land of Israel.  

Why? The Leviticus calendar alludes to the creation, which ended with the day of rest that is fundamental for its festivals. It refers to Israel’s years in the wilderness – when the Israelites lived in booths. Deuteronomy’s calendar refers four times to the exodus from Egypt. Pesach is explicitly connected to leaving Egypt (Deut 16:1); matza is linked to leaving Egypt in a hurry, and the command to eat it is described as a reminder of the exodus from Egypt (Deut 16:3); and slavery in Egypt is mentioned immediately after Israel’s obligation to include male and female slaves, strangers, widows, and orphans in their festival celebrations (Deut 16:11,12).

In short, the Leviticus calendar’s historical reference points are creation and the liminal space of the wilderness — tilting towards universalism. Deuteronomy’s calendar is concerned with leaving Egypt, the moment when Israel became a people destined for a homeland of its own.  

So what are the parallels between the Torah’s festival calendars and Israel’s pro-democracy protests? (My comments are based mainly on the Jerusalem demonstrations, the ones I attend.)

Worldview? The protests began in reaction to the proposed legal reforms, but now we’re confronting fundamental social values. Is Israel a democracy? Can it aspire to equality between Jews and Arabs; Israelis and Palestinians; religious and secular; haredi and non-haredi; Sephardim and Ashkenazim; and between different classes and genders?

Where? Demonstrations quickly became attached to specific places: Kaplan in Tel Aviv and Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House, in Jerusalem. Some involve pilgrimages: from Beit Ha’Nasi to Kikar Paris in Jerusalem.

When? The different protest organizers offer a stunning number and variety of protests and other activities every week, but the linchpin is the weekly post-Shabbat demonstration. In Jerusalem, where many protesters are religiously observant, the time is fixed according to the end of Shabbat. There’s a strong sense of obligation to show up.

What? The demonstrations entail prescribed activities: chanting by-now familiar slogans, some inspirational (demokratia), some cathartic (busha, ‘shame’); elevating flags and placards; blowing horns; musical performances; speakers; singing HaTikva at the end. The different protest organizers have WhatsApp groups to proclaim their events.

Who? Communities have formed around the demonstrations. They reflect a wide cross-section of society, but unintentionally, people are excluded. Though both haredim and Arabs often speak from the stage, there are few haredi or Arab demonstrators.

Why? Speakers and placards often situate Israel on the world stage: Israel is not (yet) Poland, Hungary, Iran; Biden, Macron, help us… They also situate present-day Israel in its own historical trajectory: people who fled persecution (Holocaust survivors) and dictatorships (South American Jews) only to feel under threat in the Promised Land; Menachem Begin weeping.

These are hard times. Join the battle for Israel’s soul. Come demonstrate.

Preserve the shared home.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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