This year, the first day of Pesach falls on Shabbat, so we interrupt the regular sequence of Torah readings from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), and read about the holiday of Pesach. The only indication in this reading that it occurs on Shabbat is the fact that seven people will be called up to bless the Torah, as in any other Shabbat, not the five who are called up when the festival occurs on a weekday.
Of course, the word seven also alludes to Shabbat, the seventh day, and this gives us a welcome opportunity to discuss the relationship between the two types of moadim – or special dates – that occur in the Torah: Shabbat and festivals, or in the words of the Talmud – the yamim hatovim.
Incidentally, Pesach is unique in that the Torah calls it Shabbat as well, as the Torah commands us to count the Omer beginning the day after Shabbat. According to our Sages’ interpretation, the intention was that the count was to begin the day after Pesach. The other holidays, however, are not determined the same way.
Though the dates of these festivals are set in the Jewish calendar (except for the holiday of Shavuot, which must fall fifty days after Pesach, and is not associated with a specific date), no one can precisely predict the date. This is because since ancient times, just before the destruction of the Temple, when our ancestors lived in the Land of Israel, Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month, was determined according to sightings of the new moon (this practice is still used today in the determination of the Muslim calendar).
The moon was not always clearly visible because of cloud cover or other reasons, so to compensate, the rabbinical court would add an extra day to the preceding month. Sometimes, rabbinical judges suspected that the witnesses who had claimed to see the new moon were lying in an attempt throw off the Jewish calendar, and thus, their testimony could not be accepted.
Therefore, the festivals don’t have the seal of certainty and immutability that Shabbat does. Yet Pesach stands out as the one holiday that our rabbis were allowed to decide to postpone, not by merely adding another day to the month, but by changing the entire year by adding an extra month, delaying the holiday accordingly. The rabbinical court’s justifications for doing so could be astronomical, that is, to match the lunar calendar, with its 354 days, to the 365-day-long solar calendar, and in so doing, to keep the biblical commandment: “preserve the month of the spring”. In other words, we need to ascertain that Pesach always falls in the spring.
Other minor considerations, however, could be involved as well, such as the prices of goats, the amount of rainfall during the year, and so on. All of this demonstrates that the festivals are determined through the good will of our Sages.
It is safe to assume that usually, our Sages will set the dates of our festivals wisely and carefully, yet sometimes, inadvertently, a situation may arise in which the wrong people are given the job, due to cronyism or bribery. Halacha accounts for such cases as well: “This holiday is for you.” In other words, you have the power to determine the dates of the festivals, even if you err, advertently or inadvertently. So even if the reasons behind the rabbis’ decisions are unjustified, their rulings apply, and the Jewish calendar will be altered accordingly.
This revolutionary determination reflects two precepts of religious thought. The first is the unity of the Jewish people. If sundry groups were to determine their own months and calendars, the Jews will be nothing but a loose collection of tribes, not a nation. This is why the Torah states that even if the rabbis are wrong, their ruling applies and is binding. Mistakes happen, and no one can claim to have only had pure intentions in mind, but a nation cannot afford to allow itself to fall apart because of people who want to take these laws into their own hands.
The second precept is no less important. God sanctifies Shabbat, and accordingly, during Kiddush and Shabbat prayers, we proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Who sanctifies Shabbat”. In contrast, it is the Jewish People who determine the festivals. The text of the blessing on festivals reflects that: “… Who sanctifies Israel and the festivals”. In other words, God sanctifies Israel, who, in turn, sanctify the festivals.
The simple reasoning for this distinction is what we have described so far – that the determination of the festivals depends on the good will of the rabbinical court, which represents the nation of Israel. Why, though, is this the case?
Could the source of the distinction between Shabbat and festivals be the way they were created? Shabbat came into being during Creation, and as early as the first chapter of the Torah, immediately after the story of the creation of man, the Torah states: “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it”. Shabbat was created eons before the Jewish People came into being.
The holidays, in contrast, exist as a reflection of Jewish history. Would Pesach exist if the Jewish people had not suffered so severely in Egypt? Would we celebrate Shavuot if the Jewish People had not expressed their will to accept the Torah? It goes without saying that the representatives of the Jewish people would determine the dates of the festivals, which emit an intoxicating fragrance of both history and nature. Besides the special natural features of these holidays – like occurring in the spring or at the time of the harvest – these days also serve as milestones in the annals of the Jewish People. They are waypoints along our path to becoming a nation in the past, and in establishing the continuity of the Jewish People in the future.
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