Why is this not the Jewish holiday season?

One of the most obvious differences between Western / Christian culture and Israeli / Jewish culture is what the phrase “the holidays” means. While in the West the phrase clearly refers to the last week of December, for the Jews it is the month of Tishrei (usually in September). While it’s clear that the presence in Tishrei of the holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and the great festival of Sukkot make it the most holiday-dense month of the year, it’s still worth asking: why in the autumn? Why not in the winter or any other time of the year?

But let’s start with another question. Do the holidays of Tishrei have anything in common? Outside of the month of Tishrei, the dates of the holidays seem to have great significance. Purim, Pesach and Channukah all commemorate historical events on that happened days. Shavuot and Sukkot are both associated with agricultural seasons in the Torah. However, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur don’t seem to be seasonal or historical. And do either have anything to do with Sukkot?

We’ll get a better understanding if we look at what the Torah itself says about the holidays. Regarding Rosh HaShana, almost none the things we usually associate with Rosh HaShana – the creation of the world (the conclusion of the Talmud [Rosh HaShana 10b-11a] in fact seems to indicate that the world was created in the month of Nissan), teshuva (repentance), the kingship of God, even the shofar – are mentioned in the Torah in connection with the day. In fact even the name, Rosh HaShana, is not used. The name given in the Torah is “Yom Teruah” – the day of the short blasts.

While we are accustomed to hearing the tekiah (long blasts) and the teruah together, in the Torah they have very different meanings:

            Have two silver trumpets made; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions in motion. When both are blown in long blasts (tekiah), the whole community shall assemble before you at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…But when you hear short blasts (teruah), the divisions encamped on the east shall move forward…Thus short blasts shall be blown for setting them in motion, while to convoke the congregation you shall blow long blasts, not short ones…

When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies.

And on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moon days (Rosh Chodesh) – you shall sound the trumpets (tekiah) over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. (Bamidbar 10:2-10)

Here we see that unlike in our lives, tekiah and teruah were not a once-a-year occasion. And they had very different meanings – movement vs. congregation, war vs. celebration. Every Rosh Chodesh had a tekiah, to accompany the joy of that day. And we would certainly expect that on the Rosh Chodesh of Tishrei, the month celebrating the end of the harvest, the happiest month of the year, that there would be tekiah as well. But no – instead, on Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, we have “Yom Teruah”.

What is the reason for this unexpected signal? The farmer, who all summer was “weeping, carrying the seed-bag” expects now to “come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves” (Tehilim 126:6).  He expects to sit down in his comfortable chair, rest and enjoy the fruit of his labors. But like an alarm clock in the middle of the night, like someone honking his horn at a red traffic light, he is jolted out of his complacency. As the Rambam says, the meaning of the shofar is “Wake up from your sleep!”

The Torah is telling us not to enjoy the harvest – yet. The praise of Hallel is not said on Rosh HaShana. First it is time for teshuva and cheshbon nefesh (taking an accounting of our lives). Do we really merit the blessings we have received?

This leads us, ten days later, to Yom Kippur. The only fast day to be mentioned in the Torah falls, of all times, in the month where the farmer can finally enjoy his food. During the summer, he is occupied with the hard work in the fields. In the winter, he is concerned if his crops will last all season. But now, when there’s plenty of food, he is forbidden to eat.

And then we finish up with Sukkot, known as Chag HaAsif (the harvest holiday) and Zman Simchateinu (the time of our rejoicing). Here we know we are celebrating the harvest and are in fact commanded to rejoice. But how?

Here again the Torah gives us the direction that otherwise we would be lacking. If naturally the landowner would be the one to celebrate from the harvest, here we have a different description:

“After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival (v’samachta b’chagecha), with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” (Devarim 16:13-14).

And not only does the land owner share with those who have less, he does not restrict himself to celebration in his own residence, but instead the Torah commands him:

“You shall hold festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy (v’hayita ach sameach).” (Devarim 16:15)

So the Torah teaches us that true joy from the harvest can only come with two conditions: a) that those would not naturally benefit from the crops also be included in the celebrations, and b) that the celebration take place in the Temple, at the center of the entire nation, so everyone should feel part of the whole.

(With this perspective we can see that the popular song, “v’samachta b’chagecha, v’hayita ach sameach” misses the point. As Rav Hirsch in his commentary points out, only after fulfilling the conditions mentioned above can one truly become “ach sameach”.)

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim adds another dimension to the redirection of joy that the Torah commands us in regards to Sukkot:

“The Festival of Sukkot, which aims at rejoicing and gladness, lasts for seven days, so that its meaning be generally known. The reason for it taking place in the season in question is explained in the Torah: ‘When you gather in your labors out of the field’ (Shemot 23:16); this refers to the season of leisure when one rests from necessary labors. In the ninth book of the “Ethics”, Aristotle states that this was the general practice of the religious communities in ancient times. He says literally: The ancient sacrifices and gatherings used to take place after the harvesting of the fruit. They were, as it were, offerings given because of leisure…Both these festivals, I mean Sukkot and Pesach inculcate both and opinion and a moral quality… In the case of Sukkot, the opinion consists in the perpetuation of the memory of the miracles of the desert throughout the periods of time. As for the moral quality, it consists in man’s always remembering the days of stress in the days of prosperity, so that his gratitude to God should become great and so that he should achieve humility and submission. Accordingly, matza and maror must be eaten on Pesach in commemoration of what happened to us. Similarly one must leave the houses (on the holiday of Sukkot) and dwell in Sukkot, as is done by the wretched inhabitants of deserts and wastelands, in order that the fact be commemorated that such was our state in ancient times: ‘That I made the children of Israel dwell in sukkot’ (Vayikra 23:43). From this (the desert) we went over to dwell in richly ornamented houses in the best and most fertile place on earth, thanks to the benefaction of God…” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:43).

The Rambam is saying that even now, when the farmer is commanded to celebrate the ingathering of the crops, he should still not do it in the natural way, inside his house, but rather outside, in the sukkah, to remember the great blessings God has given us.

So now, after a month where our natural instincts for joy have either been repressed or redirected, we arrive at the last holiday, Shemini Atzeret. A superficial look at the Torah might indicate a holiday without much to it. But we can now understand that Shmini Atzeret was a wonderful gift from God to the farmer, for it finally allowed him to simply enjoy the harvest with no significant interruptions. As the Rambam continued in Moreh Nevuchim:

“One’s going over from Sukkot to a second festival, I mean Shmini Atzeret, can be accounted for by the consideration that in this way one can complete such rejoicings as are impossible in Sukkot, but only possible in spacious dwellings and buildings.”

And so here, our tired farmer finally gets to relax in his comfortable chair, in his spacious home, surrounded by his family, and eats the fruits of his labors. And so the Torah ends the holidays of the month of Tishrei.

And so we have seen that despite what seems to be a random collection of holidays in the month of Tishrei – we have a very prominent theme – teshuva. And the rabbis clearly understood this when they determined the nature of the prayers of those holidays.

And this returns us to our original question. Certainly a month of repentance and introspection is worthy. But is this the best month? Perhaps the dark nights of winter are the ideal times to consider who is naughty and who is nice? (The Talmud in Avoda Zara 8b describes the fear the biblical Adam experienced during his first winter as the days got shorter and shorter).

And the winter (in Israel) is when we are most concerned about rain – and that was even more so in the biblical, agricultural society. What better time to encourage people to draw closer to God then when they’re naturally concerned about their crops, their water – their future?

But that is exactly the point. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. A month of teshuva at the winter solstice would be easy. Everyone would almost automatically connect. The challenge is – and this, in my opinion is the challenge of the entire Torah – is to remember God when things are good, when your bounty is sitting in front of you. That is the point of the mitzvot – to teach us, through constant practice, to restrain ourselves from eating and enjoying everything good in the world. First we think, we reflect, then we dig in (and afterwards we think again and give thanks.)

Of course, Judaism does have holidays at all times of year – including Chanukah which falls in the heart of winter as well. But that’s a story for another time. Perhaps “after the holidays”….

About the Author
David Curwin is a lifelong lover of language (although not a professional linguist). He has been writing the blog Balashon, about the history of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connections with English, since 2006.