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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.
In the midst of a book devoted to kedusha (sanctity), the apex of the Torah’s value system, we revisit the subject of the festivals:
And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: The festivals of Hashem which you will proclaim (tikr’u otam) as holy convocations, these are My festivals.
For six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day is the Shabbat of complete rest, a holy convocation, all work shall you not do, it is Shabbat to Hashem in all your dwellings.
These are the festivals of Hashem, the holy convocations which you will proclaim (tirkr’u otam) at their occasion. (Vayikra 23:1-4)
The festivals were discussed earlier (Shemot 23:14-17; 34:17-23), where it was established that Pesach must be during aviv (spring in Israel), and consequently the other pilgrimage festivals would coincide with their proper seasons: Shavuot with the first offering of the wheat-harvest and Sukkot with the in-gathering of the harvest. Based on the inspection of the grain, the flowering of fruit trees and the vernal equinox, the Sanhedrin (high court) would decide whether to intercalate the year by adding a month before the month of Nisan.
Furthermore, the rabbis teach (Tractate Sanhedrin 11a; Rambam, Laws of Sanctifying the Moon, 4:5) that the Sanhedrin can intercalate for other reasons, which can only be described as communal needs: when late winter rains cause the obstruction of roads, the destruction of bridges or the ruining of earthenware ovens for roasting the Pesach sacrifices; or, if Jews in the Diaspora have begun their pilgrimage to Jerusalem but will not arrive in time.
Rashi, based on Torat Kohanim (also called Sifra, the Jewish legal midrash on Vayikra) Emor 9:1, refers to this last consideration:
"Speak to the Children of Israel…The festivals of Hashem:" Make the festivals so that Israel will be accustomed to them, when intercalating the year for the Diaspora Jews who have left their places to make the pilgrimage and they have not yet reached Jerusalem.
More than just permitting the Sanhedrin to take this into account, the Torah is insisting that the Sages look ahead, for if the exiles are frustrated one year, they may not make the effort the next year. Consequently, Pesach is postponed by a month.
Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century commentator) notes that the responsibility to proclaim the festivals does not fall on all of Israel, but only on the Sanhedrin. The fact that this section is introduced by "Speak to the Children of Israel" suggests that it addresses an aspect of the festivals that involves the entire people, namely, to consider their needs when fixing the calendar, as Rashi says. As such, the Sanhedrin acts as the representative of the entire people.
In addition, Malbim argues that k-r-a, in the sense of "naming," has different connotations depending on the preposition that follows it:
kara l’ means to assign an additional name: "And God called the light Day" (Bereishit 1:5);
kara et connotes to proclaim, to establish a name: "And He called the name of that place Kivrot-Hata’avah (graves of lust), because there they buried the people who lusted" (Bamidbar 11:34).
Thus, when the Sanhedrin establish the beginning of Nisan, and accordingly the festivals of the entire year, they are determining reality. Moreover, Hashem authorizes their determination:
"Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: The festivals of Hashem which you"–that is, the Sanhedrin acting on your behalf–"will proclaim as holy convocations, these"–and only these–"are My festivals."
Hashem ordains the dates of the festivals, but the Jewish people ordains when those dates will be.
Shabbat, initiated at Creation, is mentioned in this context to demonstrate that the festivals, once proclaimed, are elevated to an equally God-given status, as Rashi says:
"For six days": What is the bearing of Shabbat upon the festivals? To teach you that anyone who desecrates the festivals is considered as if he desecrated the Sabbaths, and anyone who fulfills the festivals is considered as if he fulfilled the Sabbaths.
Hashem invites the Jewish people to be equal partners with Him in sanctification, extending the moral imperative of imitating Hashem that is the central theme of Vayikra: You shall be holy, for I Hashem am Holy (Vayikra 19:2).
The Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:3) explores the ramifications of this partnership:
If the court says, "Today is Rosh Hashana," the Holy One, blessed be He, says to the ministering angels "Set up the platform, set up the defense attorneys, set up the prosecutors, because My children have said that today is Rosh Hashana."
But, if the court decides to postpone it until the next day [because they have not accepted the testimony for the new moon], the Holy One, blessed be He, says to the ministering angels, "Remove the platform, remove the defense attorneys, remove the prosecutors, because My children have decided to postpone it to tomorrow."
We determine the circumstances of our own judgment. This might explain why our passage, unlike previous discussions of the festivals, is the first time that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are included.
The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) then suggests a number of analogies to explain how Hashem entrusted the fixing of the festivals to the people of Israel. Hashem is compared to a king or to a specialist who passed on a treasured and useful item to his son (a precise clock, a watchtower, a signet-ring, a treasury; a carpenter’s tools, a physician’s bag) when the son came of age.
The implementation of the commandments of the Torah, too, is a coming of age for the Jewish people. Through the festivals, they are empowered to determine the nature of time, emulating Hashem as sanctifiers, as creators.
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