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A Walk Around the Year

Parshat Emor

Leviticus 21:1 -24:23

In the midst of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, is the calendar of the Jewish people.  The holy days and festivals are outlined beginning with the most important, the weekly observance of Shabbat.  We might not often think of this as a holy day related to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot or Shavuot.  But the Sabbath is the pinnacle of our week. It is the great re-set button. Allowing each of us to reset our clocks, reset our thoughts and through prayer, meditation and time with friends and family reset our anxiety quotient to zero by not focusing on that which gives us so many worries. 

The yearly calendar mentions the three big festivals starting with Pesach. Biblically Pesach is the beginning of the year.  It wasn’t until much later that our year began at Rosh Hashanah. We even find the Biblical names of some of the months different than we know them now.  There have been several developments through Jewish history including a bitter dispute in the Tenth Century of the Common Era between the leaders of the Jewish community in Babylonia and the remnant left in what was then called Palestine.  Eventually the Babylonian methods won out. 

The portion goes on to describe a bit about each holiday.  Rosh Hashanah is not how we know it biblically-it is only Yom Teruah in the Torah- the day of Sounding of the Shofar.  Of course Yom Kippur follows it but again these holy days come in the seventh month rather than the first. Today Yom Teruah-(known also as Rosh Hashanah) is the first of the year.  One theory holds that when Israel was divided following the death of Solomon into the Northern Kingdom (eventually carried off by the Assyrians including the 10 lost Tribes) and the Southern Kingdom had vastly different ways to reckon.  Some believe the differences in the calendar are reflected by the various practices of the two kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom counted the years of a king’s reign from Spring to Spring. While the Southern kingdom counted the king’s reign from fall to fall.  And because we are heirs of the Southern Kingdom brought into exile in Babylonia we now reckon our calendar from fall to fall.

More of these differences seem to be reflected in the controversy about how to calculate the Festival of Shavuot also known as the feast of Weeks.  We count the omer (sheaverhars of barley) from the second night of Passover until the 50th day.  This is seven full weeks from beginning of the grain harvest until the later barley harvest!  These might be reflected of later traditions in the Torah.

Despite these controversies the basic calendar of the Jewish people remains intact. We still observe, Shabbat, Pesach, counting of the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah –Yom Terurah, the Day of Atonement, Sukkot and Shemini Azeret.  

Noticeably missing from this list are the celebrations of the New Moon which we read about in a different section of the Torah and Tisha B’av which marks the destruction of both Temples in 596 BCE and the year 70 C.E.  Also missing are the later additions to the holidays Simchat Torah, Chanukah and Purim.  And of course the more contemporary holy days of Yom Hashoa –Holocaust memorial day and Yom Haatzmaut-Israel Independence Day.

The rhythm of our cycle of holy days and festivals are important and core parts of Jewish life.  These holy days and festivals help us mark the passage of the seasons not only winter, spring, summer and fall but the seasons of our lives.  Many liberal Jews only observe a handful of these holy days robbing themselves of the opportunities to weave deeper meaning into their daily existence.  At a time of such turmoil and chaos in the world –the regular cycle of holidays help us center our lives and our spirits.  Hopefully as we read this week’s portion we can be reminded to celebrate, commemorate and deepen our connection through observance of these special times in the life of the Jewish people.