THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Emor – פרשת אמר
May 13, 2017 – י”ז תשרי תשע”ז
This essay is sponsored by Drs. Amy Fox Griffel & Martin Griffel in memory of their mothers, Sally Fox and Marion Griffel.
Leviticus 23 sets forth the Pentateuch’s most exhaustive and detailed holiday calendar. Its preamble states: “These are the fixed times of the Lord which you shall call sacred convocations. These are my fixed times (Leviticus 23:2).” (Robert Alter translation). As noted by Baruch Levine in the JPS Commentary on Leviticus, the phrase מקראי קדש is ambiguous. Some translations render it as “sacred occasions.” Yet the verbal root ק-ר-א connotes a call or invitation. Hence, other translators prefer “sacred assembly” in that the Israelite public is invited on those special days to assemble for worship and festivity. Prof. Alter — who believes that, in translation, the specificity and concreteness of the Biblical text should be preserved, not obscured by generalization — prefers “convocation” because that English word is derived from the Latin word for “calling,” and the Bible text here is mandating a proclamation (a public call) to convene sacred national gatherings.
Biblical terminology pertaining to holidays is preserved in the liturgy, notably the mentions of מועדים and מקרא קדש in the Kiddush recited on holiday evenings. Yet the most common Judaic phrase used to describe Biblical holidays is itself not found in the Pentateuch. The use of the phrase “Yom Tov” (יום טוב), as understood by rabbinic Judaism to mean a sacred day on the calendar on which many types of work are forbidden and on which there are perfomative liturgical and celebratory obligations, does not appear to predate the Pharisaic sages.
The only mention of “Yom Tov” in the early books of the Bible appears in the unpleasant interaction between David and Nabal, first husband of Abigail. David’s armed men had protected Nabal’s shepherds, for which service David demanded compensation. Nabal held a celebratory feast to mark the shearing of his flock. David wanted provisions from that repast. “So receive these young men graciously, for we have come on a festive occasion יום טוב. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can (I Samuel 25:8).” Rashi offered two explanation of “Yom Tov”: A) Nabal held a banquet in observance of a personal, mundane holiday. B) It was the eve of Rosh Hashanah and David’s fighters needed provisions for their religiously mandated holiday feast. Rashi’s second explanation is based upon the Midrashic tradition that the ten days between Nabal’s refusal to feed David’s army and God’s striking Nabal dead were the Ten Days of Repentance. That explanation is fanciful. In David’s time, the term “Yom Tov” was not used in reference to Israelite religious holidays. Radak explained, more reasonably, that it was customary to hold a celebratory gathering, a “yom tov,” on occasion of the shearing; an example is Absalom’s invitation to his brothers (II Samuel 13:23).
The words “yom tov” appear three times in the Book of Esther. 1) In the context of receiving the royal decree permitting Jews to rise up in self-defense on the date of the anticipated pogrom, “There was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday (Esther 8:17).” 2) The Megillah describes the nature of 14 Adar for Jews living in unwalled cities. They “make it a day of merrymaking and feasting, and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another (9:19).” 3) In describing the turn of events for the Jews of the Persian Empire, the month of Adar was “transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy (9:22).”
For the author of the Book of Esther, living in fifth or fourth century BCE Persia, the words “yom tov” did not mean merely “good day.” Clearly, the expression connoted a holiday celebration. The sages of the Talmud tried to read even more into the text. The question was posed whether work is permitted on Purim. One sage cited the term “yom tov” in Esther as proof that work should be forbidden on 14 or 15 Adar. His colleagues retorted that while “yom tov” does appear in the text, it is noticeably missing from the end of Esther 9:22, which describes Purim only as “days of feasting and merrymaking.” They posited that the authorities who enacted Purim at first attempted to incorporate into the holiday a ban on labor, but that the public rejected the restriction on labor and only accepted bans on fasting and eulogizing (Megillah 5b). Yet that explanation is anachronistic, just as are Rashi’s comments on the Book of Samuel. The author of Esther could not have thought of the phrase “yom tov” in the technical halakhic sense in which the sages of the Talmud did, for the simple reason that the latter post-dated the writing of Esther by some 600 years.
In the Mishnah, יום טוב can refer to a celebratory feast or holiday hosted by an individual or local community. Upon emerging unscathed from the Holy of Holies and completing the challenging sacrificial service of Yom Kippur, the High Priest made a party for his friends (Mishnah Yoma 7:4). While the Jews of Lydda were observing a fast in response to severe draught, rain began to fall. They asked Rabbi Tarfon if they should continue fasting. He instructed them to go home, eat, drink, and observe a holiday (Mishnah Ta’anit 3:9). Before a priest could function officially in the Temple service for the first time, he had to submit to a genealogical background check conducted by the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of the Hewn Stone. When a priest passed that test and was verified as an Aaronide, he would make a celebration for his priestly brethren (Mishnah Middoth 5:4).
In the Babylonian Talmud, the tradition of observing a private celebration continued. These festive occasions were called יומא טבא, the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew יום טוב. When one of Abaye’s disciples would finish his study of a Talmudic tractate, Abaye would make a celebration for the rabbinical class (Shabbat 118b). When Rav Yosef reached age sixty, he hosted a party for his colleagues in celebration of being no longer subject to the heavenly punishment of Kareth (Moed Katan 28a). Rav Yosef said that he would gladly make a celebration for the rabbis if someone could confirm for him that his blindness, and thus possible exemption from mitzvah observance, did not adversely impact his store of heavenly merit (Kiddushin 31a).
One Mishnaic source has the term ימים טובים in plural. Rabban Simon ben Gamliel asserted that there were no greater days for Israel than Yom Kippur and 15 Av. Yom Kippur is appreciated as a Heaven-sent opportunity to achieve expiation of sin. 15 Av was remembered as the anniversary of various favorable developments in the national life of Israel. On both days, the daughters of Israel went dancing in the vineyards and they presented themselves as worthy matrimonial partners (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). In light of the ban on eating on Yom Kippur, the expression ימים טובים here cannot mean the same thing as it does in other joyous contexts. Simon ben Gamliel’s intention was to convey that those days are great for the nation and have long-lasting favorable consequences.
Yet the primary usage of יום טוב in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature is in the technical halakhic sense of Yom Tov. That the term aptly describes the Biblical holidays is clear from their nature. The Pentateuch requires one to rejoice on the festival (Deuteronomy 16:14). When the Jews of Yehud cried upon hearing Ezra’s public Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah, the official reaction was “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad (Nehemiah 8:10).” The Biblical holiday are “good days” in the plainest sense of the words.
The sages had no choice but to create a name for the category of sacred days that came to be known as Yom Tov. The Biblical expression מקרא קדש would not suffice as that category also includes the weekly Sabbath. The need for appropriate terminology is most evident in the following passage: “Yom Tov differs from the Sabbath only in the preparing of necessary food (Mishnah Megillah 1:5).” Yom Tov, a clean two-word expression, concisely represents the first and seventh days of Passover, the day of Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. On all of those days, labor generally is forbidden except for those tasks connected to the cooking of holiday meals. Without a term for this type of holiday, rabbinic literature would struggle clumsily to differentiate between the stricter rules of the Sabbath and the more relaxed rules applicable on holidays.
Yom Kippur, probably because of its categorical ban on labor, never is identified in rabbinic literature as Yom Tov. The above Mishnah continues by distinguishing between the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement with respect to punishment for violations thereof. Three distinct categories emerge: Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and Yom Tov. The differences are manifest liturgically in the blessings for candle lighting and in the number of Aliyot during the Torah reading. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is reckoned as Yom Tov (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:1). The distinction between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might come as a surprise to contemporary Jews who are conditioned to regard those two holidays as a unit called the High Holidays or Yamim Noraim. But that notion is a late accretion to Judaism.
Two other Biblical terms might have been available to serve the taxonomical purpose filled by Yom Tov; however, they were appropriated for other purposes. מועד, meaning fixed time, is used in rabbinic literature to describe the intermediate festival days of Passover and Sukkot, when work is not Biblically prohibited (Mishnah Moed Katan 1:1). Days two through six of Passover and days two through seven of Sukkot, are sacred, but to a significantly lesser extent that Yom Tov days. These days colloquially are known as “Chol Ha-Moed,” meaning the mundane moments of the appointed festivals.
The word חג is applied in the Pentateuch to the three pilgrimage holidays – the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths. In Modern Hebrew, חג simply means holiday and can be applied to a wide range of special occasions well beyond the limited category of Yom Tov. In Talmudic parlance, חג is used almost exclusively in connection with the Hagigah sacrifice, a peace-offering brought on the three pilgrimage festivals in fulfillment of the command not to arrive at God’s abode empty-handed (see Mishnah Hagigah 1:6). In those discussions, the term typically is used as a verb חוגג.) When used as a proper noun, חג refers specifically to Sukkot (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2), which, by virtue of its extreme joyousness and the explicit command to rejoice on it, is the festival par excellence.
Use of the term Yom Tov to describe the more important Biblical holidays is fortuitous. In the modern era, there are many Jews who do not enjoy the holidays or who are exasperated by the length of the holidays and their heavier observances. Psychologically, we Jews need to reorient our frames of mind and recognize that these are indeed “good days,” if only we can learn how to navigate them in spiritually fulfilling ways.