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The Festivals of God - Mikra'ei Kodesh

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Festivals of God - Mikra'ei Kodesh

by Rav Baruch Gigi


The festivals are discussed in several different places in the Chumash. Since each discussion presents different details regarding these laws, one who wishes to study the holidays must analyze all the sections in order to obtain a complete picture. A rigorous analysis of the division itself lies beyond the scope of this article; however, we may reasonably assume that each individual discussion of the festivals emphasizes a particular aspect of the Jewish holidays. Here we will try to understand the unique contribution of Vayikra 23, labeled by Chazal as "Seder Mo'adim" (Sifrei, Parashat Re'eh). We will examine its place within the parshiyot dealing with the festivals, as well as within the Book of Vayikra.


1. The first difficulty presents itself at the outset of the parasha - the chapter opens with a discussion of Shabbat. Chazal ask, "What does Shabbat have to do with the festivals?" To this question we may add that the verses themselves indicate quite clearly that Shabbat should not be considered as one of the festivals. Firstly, the chapter ends, "These are the festivals of God ... APART FROM THE SHABBATOT OF GOD" (37-8). Furthermore, whereas the discussion of each festival receives its own introduction of "God spoke to Moshe," only one such introduction appears for the first three - Shabbat, Pesach and Chag Ha-matzot. (See Seforno, verse 9. In Chumash, the "Festival of Pesach" refers not to what we call "Pesach," but to what we consider "Erev Pesach" - the fourteenth of Nisan, on which the paschal sacrifice is offered. The next seven days are referred to by the Torah as "Chag Ha-matzot.") It seems that only Chag Ha-matzot belongs to the category of the festivals, and the new speech to Moshe relates to specifically that discussion.

Another indication that Shabbat should be considered different from the festivals lies in the absence of the phrase, "You shall bring an offering by fire to God" in the discussion about Shabbat. This brief mention of the musaf sacrifice appears with regard to each festival, but is absent regarding Shabbat.

Most importantly, even without adducing any textual proofs, there is the simple fact that Shabbat cannot be called a "mikra kodesh" - an occasion declared sacred. The sanctity of Shabbat does not depend upon the beit din's (Jewish court's) declaration of the New Moon; Shabbat is fixed, every seven days, regardless of when the court determines that the new month should begin. A mikra kodesh - a "declaration of sanctity" - is a day made holy by the court, and thus Shabbat seems to have no place in this chapter.

2. Verse 5 mentions the paschal sacrifice, which is offered on the fourteenth of Nisan. This day, too, seems inappropriate in this context, as it is not a mikra kodesh. (Seforno addresses this difficulty.)

3. The parasha omits all details regarding the musaf sacrifices of each festival, sufficing with a generic expression that repeats itself throughout: "You shall bring an offering by fire to God." As we know, the details are presented later in Parashat Pinchas. Why not here?

(The Ramban explains that the musaf sacrifices were not offered in the wilderness, and therefore these laws appear only towards the end of the Book of Bemidbar, as Benei Yisrael prepared for entry into the Land of Israel. Later commentaries challenge his premise based on the gemara in Menachot that implies otherwise. The Ramban himself confronts another problem with his assertion - the inclusion of the omer and the shtei ha-lechem sacrifices in this parasha. In any case, the absence of the musaf sacrifices remains enigmatic.)

4. The Torah's treatment of Yom Kippur in this parasha begins with a strange term - "akh" ("however"). The classic commentaries (Rashi, Ramban, and others) struggle to understand the reason for this.

5. Perhaps the most difficult textual problem relates to the division of the Torah's discussion of Sukkot into two sections. The verses dealing with Sukkot are interrupted by the concluding verses of the parasha: "These are the set times of God that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions..." (37-38).


The key to resolving these issues lies in the understanding of how this chapter blends with the rest of Sefer Vayikra. As a whole, the Book of Vayikra can be divided into two parts. The first deals with the laws of korbanot (sacrifices) and tum'a and tahara (impurity and purity), thus rendering Vayikra worthy of the name Chazal assigned to it - "Torat Kohanim" (The Law of the Kohanim). The second half deals with issues of "kedusha" in the more general sense of the term, and it is within this framework - the chapters of kedusha - that our chapter must be understood.

Chapters 19-22 deal with personal sanctity, dividing it into three levels:

A) the regular Jew: "You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy" (19:2), continuing through the concluding verse, "You shall be holy to Me, for I, God am holy" (20:26);

B) the special sanctity of the kohanim (21:1-9);

C) the high level of sanctity of the kohen gadol (21:10-16). The Torah then elaborates on this kedusha, introducing the laws of kohanim unfit for service due to physical defects (end of chapter 21), the laws of tum'a as applied to kohanim, the kedusha of kohanim as relevant to the laws of teruma, and then, as an aside, the laws of animals unfit for sacrifice due to physical defects. This section of the sanctity of the human being concludes, "You shall not profane My holy Name... for I am God Who sanctifies you" (22:32).

Chapter 23 brings us from the sanctity of the individual to the sanctity of time.


In light of this analysis, it seems clear that our chapter intends merely to list those festivals whose sanctity results from the beit din's determination of the calendar - "These are My festivals... WHICH YOU SHALL PROCLAIM AS SACRED OCCASIONS." Therefore, the verses here present only those features that directly relate to this quality of mikra kodesh - having been declared sacred by the people themselves. As such, three main points appear in the discussion of each festival:

1) "mikra kodesh;"

2) the prohibition of work;

3) a brief reference to the musaf sacrifice.

The essence of a mikra kodesh, which embodies the concept of sanctity of time, includes A) the prohibition of performing work (as stressed by the gemara - Arakhin 10b), and B) festive attire and feasts (see Ramban, citing the Sifrei). The musaf sacrifices, however, do not reflect this quality, as a musaf sacrifice is required even on Rosh Chodesh, which does not constitute a mikra kodesh. (See the aforementioned gemara in Arachin.) Therefore, rather than presenting the musaf sacrifices in detailed fashion, our chapter merely makes a subtle allusion - "You shall make an offering by fire."

It should be noted that these elements are COMPONENTS of a mikra kodesh. The DEFINITION of a mikra kodesh, however, lies in their having been established by the beit din, which creates the sanctity and infuses it within a given time-frame. Once the beit din has done so, these days turn into festivals of God, "mikra'ei kodesh."


This distinction can help us understand the conceptual relationship between Shabbat and the festivals. Shabbat contains all the COMPONENTS of a mikra kodesh, but, fundamentally, it cannot be classified as such. The basic definition of this term involves a day declared holy by the Jewish court. In spite of this, the discussion of the festivals opens with Shabbat, since this section's theme is the sanctity of time. Such a concept is made possible only by the sanctity with which God Himself infused Shabbat during Creation. If not for the fact that "God blessed the sevday and declared it holy," man would be totally incapable of sanctifying even a brief moment.

"You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy." God is the source of kedusha in the world. Therefore, the sanctity of time draws its strength, as it were, from the sanctity of Shabbat that God Himself initiated. This may be the intent of Chazal, cited by Rashi (verse 3): "Whoever desecrates the festivals is considered as if he desecrated the Shabbat, and whoever observes the festivals is considered as if he observed the Shabbat." By extension, the recognition of the sanctity of the festivals automatically involves the recognition of the sanctity of Shabbat.

If this is how we are to understand the relationship between Shabbat and the festivals, then it stands to reason that the sanctity of the chagim is inferior to that of Shabbat. Shabbat constitutes the SOURCE of the kedusha, the sanctity of the festivals is merely derivative. This accounts for the more severe punishment meted out to Shabbat violators, as well as several other leniencies regarding Yom Tov.

The clearest expression of this hierarchical relationship between Shabbat and Yom Tov appears in the writings of the medieval Talmudic commentator, Ra'avan (Pesachim, chapter 10):

"They therefore instituted [as the text for havdala on Motza'ei Shabbat which occurs on a festival], 'You separated between the sanctity of Shabbat and the sanctity of Yom Tov.' This means that the sanctity of Shabbat is more severe, since the Almighty sanctified it Himself, as opposed to Yom Tov, which Yisrael themselves sanctify, as it is written, '...which YOU shall proclaim as sacred occasions.' ... The festivals of God require the sanctification of beit din."


As stated earlier, the essence of a mikra kodesh features, among other elements, festive eating and drinking. Therefore, the inclusion of the fast of Yom Kippur in our chapter seems, at first glance, problematic. Its inclusion underscores the fact that the critical issue involves the festival's having been determined by the beit din, a point certainly as relevant to Yom Kippur as to any other festival. The fact that it lacks a critical component - eating and drinking - may account for the Torah's peculiar introduction to Yom Kippur: "akh" - "however." The added emphasis may be understood as teaching us that although not all the components of a mikra kodesh apply on Yom Kippur, nevertheless, "It shall be a sacred occasion for you." This unique dichotomy of Yom Kippur may also explain the Torah's emphasis regarding the two conflicting components of Yom Kippur - the prohibition of work (representing the mikra kodesh) and the requirement of fasting (the seeming antithesis of the mikra kodesh): "Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial THROUGHOUT THAT DAY shall be cut off;" "and whoever does any work THROUGHOUT THAT DAY..." (29-30). The Torah stresses that throughout this day, these two contradictory prohibitions apply.


Earlier, we raised the Seforno's question regarding the fourteenth of Nisan, the day of the offering of the paschal sacrifice. The verses here in Emor mention this festival, despite the fact that this day seems not to belong to the category of mikra kodesh. One simple answer might be that this day appears here only by association with Chag Ha-matzot, the seven-day festival that follows the Pesach. This claim may be supported by the fact that no new introduction of the phrase, "God spoke to Moshe saying," interrupts between Chag Ha-pesach and Chag Ha-matzot.

However, we may explain the inclusion of Chag Ha-pesach differently, based on the first mishna of the fourth chapter of Pesachim (40b): "A place where the custom is to perform work on Erev Pesach before noon - one may do work; a place where the custom is not to - one may not." After midday, however, one may certainly not engage in work. Tosafot there (citing the Talmud Yerushalmi) say that since the paschal sacrifice may be offered from midday, performing work during such time would be highly inappropriate, and is thus forbidden. Although the Ran questions whether this prohibition is of biblical or rabbinic origin, the simple reading of the passage in the Yerushalmi implies that the prohibition is, in fact, biblical.

If so, then the fourteenth of Nisan, the day on which the people offered the paschal sacrifice, features at least one "mikra kodesh" quality, namely, a prohibition of work. However, since the prohibition of work does not evolve directly from the proclamation of the beit din, but rather from the requirement of offering a sacrifice, it cannot be considered a mikra kodesh in the full sense of the term. Therefore, the Torah does not employ this expression in the context of the fourteenth of Nisan. Nevertheless, the Torah does see fit to make mention of this quasi-festival among the other festivals, as it does reflect one element of a mikra kodesh. (Another possible manifestation of the "festival" quality of the fourteenth of Nisan may be the "chagiga" sacrifice offered on that day; see Shemot 23:18.)


One remaining, unresolved issue relates to the Torah's inclusion of the omer and shetei ha-lechem sacrifices in this chapter. If, as we contend, this parasha serves merely to establish the days that are mikra'ei kodesh, why would such mention be necessary in this context? The answer relates to the fact that Yom Ha-bikkurim (what we call "Shavuot") has no fixed date on the calendar; it occurs fifty days after the fifteenth of Nisan (Pesach). In order to establish the festival of Shavuot as mikra kodesh, the Torah needs to record the entire process: the offering of the omer sacrifice on the sixteenth of Nisan, the counting of forty-nine days, and the offering of the shetei ha-lechem sacrifice on the fiftieth day.


Finally, we must account for the peculiar division of the Torah's discussion regarding the festival of Sukkot. It seems that only the first half - verses 33-36 - relate to the central theme of the chapter. These verses establish the first and eighth days of Sukkot as mikra'ei kodesh, during which work is forbidden. This information effectively concludes the discussion of this chapter - the concept of mikra kodesh. Naturally, then, these verses are followed by the concluding verses. However, since the Chumash presented earlier the omer and shetei ha-lechem sacrifices, the Torah must, for purposes of literary consistency, record as well the "gathering sacrifice:" "On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees..."

This second section does not relate at all to the concept of mikra kodesh, as clearly indicated by the absence of this phrase in these verses. For the same reason, the musaf sacrifice and the prohibition of work are also omitted. Since the Torah returned to the issue of the festivals after having concluded, a second conclusion is required: "Moshe declared to the Israelites the festivals of God." However, the term "mikra kodesh" does not appear in this second conclusion, but rather only in the initial conclusion: "These are the festivals of God that you shall celebrate as sacred occasion ['mikra kodesh']."


(Translated by Rav David Silverberg)




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