“Just Doing His Job” Parashat Emor 5780

The second half of Parashat Emor contains a deep dive into the Jewish holidays. The Torah commences with Shabbat, traverses Pesach, the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, and concludes with Sukkot. Finally, it seals the discussion with a closing statement [Vayikra 23:44]: “Moshe declared to the Children of Israel[1] the holidays of G-d”.

This verse seems entirely redundant. G-d has just given Moshe a list of holidays, each with its own commandments: matzo on Pesach, shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and lulav and etrog on Sukkot. Of course Moshe is going to relay these commandments to the Jewish People. Isn’t that part of his job description as a Prophet? Would we have thought that Moshe for some reason didn’t relay these commandments but, rather, chose to keep them to himself? Alternatively, if the verse is teaching that Moshe relayed the holidays to the Jewish People just as he did after every other commandment he received from G-d, why doesn’t a similar verse appear after every other commandment in the Torah[2]? And if we assume that Moshe relayed all of those commandments to the Jewish People without the necessity for a verse explicitly stating that he did so, couldn’t we make a similar assumption here?

Our troubles only get worse. In the maariv service at the onset of Shabbat or a holiday, special verses are added immediately before the amida prayer:

  • On Shabbat we recite [Shemot 31:16-17] “The Children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat, observing the Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the Children of Israel. For in six days G-d made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed”.
  • On Rosh Hashanah we recite [Psalms 81:4-5] “Blow the shofar on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day. For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the G-d of Jacob”.
  • On Yom Kippur we recite [16:30] “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before G-d.”
  • On Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot[3] we recite our redundant verse: “Moshe declared to the Children of Israel the holidays of G-d”.

As far as Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are concerned, the verses offer concise summaries of the essence of the day. But the verse regarding the holidays seems so, well, trivial. Why interrupt the flow of prayer in order to tell us that Moshe was doing his job[4]?

Our Sages in the Midrash [Sifrei Bemidbar 66] offer us a way ahead. According to the Midrash, when scripture tells us, “Moshe declared to the Children of Israel the holidays of G-d”, it means more than just “Moshe taught the Jewish People the laws of the holidays that he had just learnt”.  According to the Midrash, Moshe went above and beyond the call of duty: “[Moshe] taught them the laws of Pesach before Pesach, the laws of Shavuot before Shavuot, and the laws of Sukkot before Sukkot.” The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [6b] codifies this Midrash and defines the word “before” as “thirty days”. Therefore, just like Moshe did so many years ago, thirty days before Pesach we must begin studying the laws of Pesach. Ditto for Shavuot and for Sukkot. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin – known as the Netziv – who was the Headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of the famous Volozhn Yeshiva in the nineteenth century, elaborates. The Netziv agrees that there was no reason for the Torah to tell us that Moshe was doing his job. He asserts that Moshe was going far beyond what his job description demanded: Ordinarily, when G-d would teach Moshe a law, Moshe would assemble the Jewish People and teach them the law he had just learnt in a one-off lesson. The laws of the holidays were different: Moshe repeated the lesson before each and every holiday, each and every year. And whereas with all other laws, Moshe would teach only Joshua[5], Moshe taught the laws of the holidays to each and every person. He did not teach everyone together in one plenary session – he taught each person individually according to his capability to assimilate data: the more intelligent people were taught the intricacies of each law while the less intellectually proficient were taught only the basics.

The Midrash and the Netziv compel us to redefine our question: Why was it only the laws of the holidays that merited this special treatment? If we look at the verses that introduce the holidays, one particular word stands out [Vayikra 23:2,4]: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: G-d’s appointed times that you shall designate as holy occasions. These are My appointed times… These are G-d’s appointed times, holy occasions, which you shall designate in their appointed time”. The word “appointed time” – “mo’ed” – appears no less than four times. What is an “appointed time”? Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, who led American Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century, takes us another step forward, writing, “To modern man, a ‘day’ is not a living entity… To the scientist, time is a mathematical concept. Modern physics has combined time with space, rendering time as empty as space. To Judaism, in contrast, time is a living entity. There is substance and essence to time. Time is not a void, but a reality. One can ascribe attributes such as ‘joyous’ or ‘sad’ to time just as one can ascribe these attributes to people… When we refer to a holy day, we do not merely signify that it is a day in which man somehow experiences holiness. The day itself has an inner endowment, a charisma hidden in its very substance. It has suddenly become a metaphysical entity”.

An “appointed time” has extraordinary charisma. Where does this charisma come from? Is a holiday special merely because G-d has proclaimed it so? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who was the Chief Orthodox Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main in the nineteenth century, offers a stunningly beautiful answer. Quoting the verse that introduces the holidays, Rabbi Hirsch suggests that “G-d’s appointed times” are holy if and only if “you shall designate in their appointed time”.  By proclaiming the holidays in their “appointed time”, the Jewish People together with G-d endow them with charisma. We are full partners. Our input is critical. On one hand, by actively determining the date of the New Moon[6], we, and not a calendar, determine the actual date of the holiday. And on the other hand, by celebrating each holiday according to its particular rules and regulations, we endow it with holiness. Before each holiday, G-d invites us to a rendezvous, where together, we create holiness.

“Moshe declared to the Children of Israel the holidays of G-d” The Children of Israel, together with G-d, turn “days” into “holidays”. This is truly a message that deserves to be repeated time and time again.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] For about a year, now, I have been using the JTS translation of the Torah as it appears on the Sefaria web site. Sefaria translates “Bnei Yisrael” – literally “Children of Israel” – as “Israelites”. I find this translation somewhat archaic and so I use the literal “Children of Israel”.

[2] One similar example actually appears earlier in Parashat Emor. After G-d teaches Moshe a long list of commandments pertinent to Kohanim (Priests), the Torah tells us [Vayikra 21:24] “Thus Moshe spoke to Aaron and his sons and to all the Children of Israel.”

[3] Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot are often lumped together as the “Three Festivals” (Shelosha Regalim). Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in “Baruch SheAmar”,  discusses whether these holidays deserve their own individual mention during prayers. For instance, the last blessing in the mussaf service for all of the Shelosha Regalim is “Blessed… who has sanctified Israel and the holidays”. Rabbi Epstein suggests that each holiday originally had its own particular blessing. For instance, on Sukkot we would say “Blessed… who has sanctified Israel and the holiday of Sukkot.” One could assume that a similar argument could be made for the verse said immediately before the amida in the maariv service, such that Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot would each merit their own individual verse.

[4] My son, Rabbi Amichai Sacher, suggested that there was indeed no better verse available in the entire Tanach to summarize the holidays, leaving no recourse but to use “Moshe declared…”

[5] See Pirkei Avot [1:1]: Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.

[6] Until about 1600 years ago, the New Moon was determined via testimony of witnesses, as it is still done today in Islam.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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