Emor (Leviticus 21, 1 – 24, 23) – the Jewish calendar

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Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus stands out in the Hebrew Bible in importance – and, is known in the Jewish tradition as “the order of the appointed times” (סדר המועדים). The chapter delineates the five holy days of the Jewish calendar of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Hakippurim, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. I am purposely using the term holy days here and not the term holidays because the term holiday in English has connotations of vacation, fun and enjoyment – and, the holy days of the Torah are not a time of vacation, fun and enjoyment but sacred days meant to be a time of deep and profound spiritual experience.

 

In addition, the Hebrew term (מועדים) that is used in the passage to describe these holy days is often translated as festivals – but, it is better translated as appointed times as the term festival has connotations of joy and festivity and not all the appointed times of the Torah are festivals in this sense. It is only the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot (when in ancient times pilgrimage was made to Jerusalem) that were festivals in which there is a commandment to be joyful on these days. The appointed times also include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim that are days of awe (and not joy or festivity) in which we stand before God in judgment – and, the Hebrew term awe (נורא) comes from the same root as the term fear (יראה), as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim are times of awe in which we stand before God in fear and trembling. Indeed, on the pilgrimage festivals we recite Hallel (psalms of joy and thanksgiving), and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim we omit Hallel in standing before God in judgment.

 

From a literary point of view, chapter 23 of Leviticus is completely absent of moral and spiritual content in delineating the appointed times – a kind of skeleton in which the appointed times are delineated but without the flesh and blood of moral and spiritual content. However, there is a fundamental distinction between the two main terms for God in the Hebrew Bible, and this distinction is a key to understanding the Bible and Jewish tradition – and, I want to suggest that when this distinction is imposed upon chapter 23 of Leviticus then the skeleton of the appointed times comes to life with the flesh and blood of moral and spiritual content. So, I will first explain the two main Biblical terms for God before analyzing the structure of chapter 23 of Leviticus.

 

The two main terms for God in the Bible are YHVH, the very name of God (usually translated as “the Lord” in English), and Elohim, a generic term meaning God (and, usually translated as “God” in English). The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is reflected in the name YHVH, which signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption as distinct from Elohim, a God of creation and power – and, as distinct from the pagan conception of gods conceived as powers of nature.

 

In the Biblical conception, Elohim is the transcendent God of nature and power – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1, 1). YHVH, by contrast, is the God of revelation and redemption who demands morality, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. The great revolution and fundamental theological conception of the Hebrew Bible is that “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)”, which means that the God who is powerful in creating the universe (Elohim) is a moral God (YHVH).

 

Judgment and compassion are two pillar values of the Bible (and the Jewish tradition) – based upon the differing conceptions implied in the terms for God, YHVH and Elohim. Elohim, as the transcendent God of creation and Judge of all the earth, is associated with judgment, while YHVH, as the God who is revealed in the world as a God of redemption, is associated with love and compassion.

 

The Hebrew term judgment (דין), that is used in connection with Elohim, is sometimes understood as justice, but is better translated as judgment or law – as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a king or judge who issues judgments. A king or judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the king or judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a king or judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the king or judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher political or judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. Thus, the term judgment, as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power (as opposed to YHVH, the source of morality) should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.

 

The image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A king or judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion (רחמים) contains within it the word womb (רחם). The image then of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Bible and Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.

 

If we return to the structure of chapter 23 of Leviticus, the chapter begins with an introductory statement that repeats throughout the passage, which marks the different “appointed times” – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying” (Leviticus 23, 1). This is followed by another statement of an introductory nature – “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, the appointed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are My appointed times” (Leviticus 23, 2). But, this is followed not by the delineation of the appointed times – it is followed by the proclaiming of every seventh day a Sabbath including the prohibition of creative work on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23, 3). After this, the introductory statement of verse two concerning the “appointed times” is repeated so that the proclamation of the Sabbath is as if in parentheses – “these are the appointed times of the Lord” (Leviticus 23, 4).

 

Indeed, the Sabbath is not an appointed time, as the meaning of the term appointed times is holy days of the Jewish calendar. The Sabbath as a holy day is independent of the Jewish calendar, and is every seventh day according to nature reflected in the opening Biblical account of the creation of the universe. I want to suggest that there are two reasons that the Sabbath appears here as a parenthetical statement at the beginning of the delineation of the appointed times. First, the Sabbath is the most holy day of Judaism independent of the Jewish calendar. Second, the prohibition of creative work that defines the essence of the Sabbath from a legal point of view also applies on the five appointed times of the Jewish calendar of the Torah.

 

The first holy day of the Jewish calendar delineated in chapter 23 of Leviticus is Passover (Leviticus 23, 5), which is in the first month of the year (Nissan) according to the Jewish calendar. Passover is seven days, and the first and seventh days are holy days in which the prohibition of creative work applies. The intermediary days have the status of semi-holy days in which there is no prohibition of creative work. But, what stands out here is that there is nothing in the way of elaboration concerning moral and spiritual content, such as Passover being a celebration of the exodus and the birth of the Jewish people according to the Jewish tradition.

 

The second appointed time begins with the introductory statement – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying” (Leviticus 23, 9). This appointed time has two aspects. First, the omer (עומר), which according to the Jewish tradition marks the beginning of the barley harvest. The second aspect is the counting of 50 days from the omer offering of barley to the appointed time of Shavuot (with a prohibition of creative work), which according to the Jewish tradition marks the beginning of the wheat harvest. There is no elaboration concerning moral and spiritual content of Shavuot, such as Shavuot being the celebration of the receiving of the Torah on Sinai and the birth of the Jewish religion according to the Jewish tradition. By the way, there is no connection in the plain meaning of Scripture between the counting of the omer and Passover – however, according to the Jewish tradition we count the 50 days from Passover so that Shavuot follows 50 days after Passover thus connecting the birth of the Jewish people with the birth of Judaism.

 

Following this second appointed time of Shavuot, there is a very strange verse that is seemingly out of place in the delineation of the appointed times – “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor, and for the stranger; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23, 22). This verse contains two commandments relating to agriculture of a moral nature, which are expressions of caring for the poor, and are independent of the Jewish calendar.

 

I want to suggest that when we impose the Biblical name of YHVH upon the delineation of these first two appointed times of Passover and Shavuot, the passage is then given moral and spiritual content. Passover and Shavuot are the time period of the Jewish calendar in which we are to experience God as YHVH – as a God of revelation and redemption. Passover, according to the Jewish tradition, is the celebration of the birth of the Jewish people in which according to the Biblical account God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt – while, Shavuot, according to the Jewish tradition, is the celebration of the birth of Judaism in which according to our tradition we received the Torah as revealed upon Sinai. Moreover, the strange verse at the end of this time period in which there are two commandments relating to agriculture and caring for the poor is now understood. This period from Passover and Shavuot is one in which we are to experience God as YHVH who demands morality and compassion – therefore, this section concludes with two commandments expressing compassion for the poor and with the phrase “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” (Leviticus 23, 22).

 

The next appointed time is Rosh Hashanah, which follows the introductory statement – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying” (Leviticus 23, 23). Rosh Hashanah, which is the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), is described as “a memorial of blowing” (Leviticus 23, 24), but there is no elaboration in terms of moral and spiritual content. It is not written that the blowing is of a ram’s horn as according to the Jewish tradition, and it is not written that Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment as according to the Jewish tradition.

 

After Rosh Hashanah comes the appointed time of Yom Hakippurim followed by the introductory statement – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying” (Leviticus 23, 26). Yom Hakippurim, which is the tenth day of the seventh month, is described as a day of atonement in which we are to afflict ourselves (Leviticus 23, 27), but there is no elaboration beyond this in terms of moral and spiritual content. It is not written that we are to fast – a central practice of Yom Hakippurim according to the Jewish tradition.

 

According to the Jewish tradition, we connect these two appointed times of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim, which are ten days apart, by referring to them as the “ten days of tshuva”. Tshuva (תשובה) is a central concept of the Jewish tradition and the term is often translated inadequately as repentance but comes from a Hebrew root that means return (שוב) – and, the concept of tshuva then is a return to the path of right living.

 

I want to suggest that when we impose the Biblical term Elohim upon the delineation of these two appointed times of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim, the passage is then given moral and spiritual content. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim are the time period of the Jewish calendar in which we are to experience God as Elohim – as a God of judgment. The period of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Hakippurim is one in which all of nature and all human beings stand in judgment – and, this is a period especially devoted to tshuva (self-examination in order to return to the path of right living). Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment according to the Jewish tradition, and the entire period of the “ten days of tshuva” is one in which we stand before God in judgment – culminating in Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonement, in which we are to elevate ourselves spiritually by afflicting ourselves (in the main by fasting) in seeking forgiveness from God.

 

The last appointed time delineated is Sukkot, which is on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and follows the introductory phrase – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying” (Leviticus 23, 33). Sukkot, which according to the Jewish tradition, is a time of great joy (referred to as “the time of our joy”) is eight days – and, the first and eighth days are holy days in which the prohibition of creative work applies, while the intermediary days have the status of semi-holy days in which there is no prohibition of creative work. There is no elaboration here regarding Sukkot in terms of moral and spiritual content – and, seemingly, the passage ends with a concluding statement “These are the appointed times of the Lord…” (Leviticus 23, 37-38). Suddenly, though, the following verse begins a second passage dealing with Sukkot – “However, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month…” (Leviticus 23, 39).

 

The repetition of Sukkot contains the two main ritual commands of Sukkot – the lulav and etrog (Leviticus 23, 40), and the dwelling in a Sukka (Leviticus 23, 42). The lulav, according to the Jewish tradition based upon the verse (Leviticus 23, 40) is a palm branch surrounded by myrtle and willow branches, while the etrog, according to the Jewish tradition based upon the verse (Leviticus 23, 40) is a citrus fruit – and, the lulav and etrog are waved in the reciting of Hallel (psalms of joy and thanksgiving). The Sukka is a temporary hut in which on Sukkot we are to dwell (eat and sleep, though the practice of sleeping in the Sukka has largely disappeared) in commemoration of the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness following the exodus as according to the verses (Leviticus 23, 42-43). At the end of this passage and end of the chapter (Leviticus 23) there is again a concluding statement (after the delineation of the appointed times seemingly ended with the previous concluding statement of Leviticus 23, 37-38) – “And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed times of the Lord” (Leviticus 23, 44).

 

Why the repetition concerning Sukkot? Sukkot is referred to in the Talmudic tradition as “the festival” (החג), and this is faithful to the plain meaning of Scripture (Leviticus 23) in which Sukkot has a special status in being repeated. I want to suggest that the reason that Sukkot is repeated is that Sukkot represents an integration of the two aspects symbolized by the terms YHVH and Elohim – revelation and redemption (YHVH) and nature (Elohim). The two main ritual commands of Sukkot in the repetition of Sukkot reflect these two aspects of YHVH and Elohim – the lulav and etrog is the side of nature (Elohim) and the dwelling in the Sukkot is the side of revelation and redemption (YHVH) in which the Israelites according to the Biblical account experienced the protection of God in living in huts in their wanderings in the wilderness.

 

In summary, we actually have then two periods in the Jewish calendar based upon the holy days of the Torah as delineated in Leviticus 23. The first period is Passover to Shavuot in which we experience God as YHVH – a God of revelation and redemption and source of compassion and morality. This is a period in which we are celebrating the birth of the Jewish people (Passover) and the birth of Judaism (Shavuot). In Leviticus 23, this time period ends with two agricultural commandments expressing compassion for the poor and with the phrase “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” (Leviticus 23, 22) symbolizing that YHVH demands compassion and morality. The second period is Rosh Hashanah to Yom Hakippurim in which we experience God as Elohim – a God of nature and source of power and judgment. This is a period of self-examination in which we stand before God in judgment and are to do tshuva (return to the path of right living). Sukkot, which is to be a time of great joy, follows at the end and has a special status in being repeated as it represents an integration of YHVH and Elohim – and, here too the passage relating to Sukkot ends (Leviticus 23, 43) with the phrase “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God (Elohim) symbolizing in this case the integration of YHVH and Elohim.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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