Seder Moed (Appointed Time)

The order of the Mishnah that describes the customs, laws, and rituals of Judaism's holy days

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The order of Moed ("appointed time") provides specific instructions for the rituals, observances and laws related to holidays and festivals. "Moed" is the biblical word used to describe special days that are set apart from non-sacred days. The Torah prescribes six such sacred occasions: the weekly Sabbath, the Pilgrimage Festivals of Pesah (Passover), Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Shavuot (Pentecost), and what have become known as the High Holidays--Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Additionally, the Mishnah in Seder Moed depicts the special days of Purim and as well as the 4 fast days. The absence of Hanukkah from this list has engendered considerable discussion, and may indicate the displeasure of the early Mishnah-era sages with the Maccabean dynasty.

The New Month and the Jewish Year

The Jewish year follows two coinciding rhythms. The first is the weekly cycle which frames life around the regular occurrence of the Sabbath. The other is the rhythm of the lunar calendar, which controls the timing of the months and the holidays. The lunar calendar follows the cycle of the moon as it waxes and wanes in the sky--each month beginning at the first sighting of the moon and lasting until the next sighting.

appointed timeA month lasts either 29 or 30 days, and a full lunar year of 12 months consists of 354 days (give or take a day). Unlike the Muslim lunar calendar, however, the Jewish calendar maintains a relationship to the solar year. In order to ensure that Passover always occurs during the Spring, leap months are added seven times every nineteen years.

By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis could calculate the lunar months precisely, but the calendar was still set according to the ancient tradition of relying on witnesses sighting the new moon. Consequently, the calendar always depended on the official declaration of the new month by the High Court in Jerusalem, which, in turn, determined the timing of the holidays.

As a result, the process of hearing the testimony of the witnesses and the declaration of the new month held great importance to the early Sages, as evident in the tractate of Rosh Hashanah, half of which is devoted to the intricacies of the seeing, reporting, and announcing of the new moon. However, in the fourth century, as Jewish communities were becoming less centralized, the sage Hillel II established a permanent Jewish calendar, thus breaking the link between the High Court and the calendar, but providing predictability to the dating of the Jewish holidays.

Banning Work

One common feature of major Jewish holidays (except Purim and the intermediate days of Tabernacles and Passover) is the biblical injunction against work. The Bible does not make clear, however, the nature of this prohibited work, nor does it specify the apparently different standards for the Sabbath and for the other holidays. Significant sections of the tractates of Shabbat, Beitzah, and Moed Katan are dedicated to defining and detailing the type of activity from which one must refrain and on which days.

For example, the second Mishnah in the seventh chapter of Shabbat begins this way:

"The main labors [prohibited on the Sabbath] are forty minus one: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding…tying a knot or loosening one, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, hunting a deer and slaughtering it…building, demolishing, extinguishing, kindling…"

(Consistent with its role as a straightforward code of descriptive rules, the Mishnah does not explain why these 39 categories of work are prohibited--for this, we would have to look elsewhere in rabbinic literature.)

Holiday Sacrifices

In addition to the prohibition against work, the major holidays are also set apart from regular weekdays by virtue of the special sacrifices that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. On Shabbat and holidays there were additional offerings presented by the priests on behalf of all of Israel. On the three Pilgrimage Festivals (called the Shalosh Regalim, "the Three Legs", perhaps referring to the pilgrimage on foot), the communal offerings were supplemented by the sacrifices brought by individuals making the required journey to the Temple. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest conducted a lengthy and complicated service on behalf of himself, his family, and the entire people of Israel.

While the details of the communal offerings are covered elsewhere in the Mishnah (Seder Kodashim), several of the tractates in Moed deal extensively with the offerings, obligations and services particular to the festivals. Faithful to the biblical requirements, the Mishnah often adds numerous details to establish a uniform and often regimented service for the holidays' additional offerings.

For example, the first seven chapters of the tractate Yoma spell out the Yom Kippur service in considerable detail. Nearly the entire tractate Hagigah deals with the "appearance offering" (brought on Sukkot, Pesah, and Shavuot). Chapters 5-7 of Pesahim codify the regulations for the paschal sacrifice, including such fine points as whether one's intentions can render the offering invalid:

"If one slaughtered the Passover sacrifice not in its named purpose, or received or carried or sprinkled not in its named purpose, or carried out one of these operations in its named purpose but another not in its named purpose…it is invalid." (5:2)

By the time of the compilation of the Mishnah, the Temple in Jerusalem no longer existed, and rabbinic Judaism had already begun to make its shift from a cultic religion to a synagogue and home-based religion. Indeed, the considerable number of chapters devoted to the Temple worship in the Mishnah held only theoretical (and perhaps future) relevance for its readers at the time. Other services came to replace the function and role of the Temple cult, and the transition is reflected in the equal, perhaps even greater, emphasis placed on features of the holiday that took place in the home or in the synagogue--many of which occurred in very different form or not at all during Temple times.

The signature Passover ritual is a prime example--once centered on the eating of the Paschal sacrifice in Jerusalem, it shifted towards a retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt in the home through the words and symbols of the Passover seder. The 10th chapter of Pesahim provides us with many of the core elements of the seder that we recognize today, including the familiar four questions:

"They poured the second cup, and at this time the son asks the father, and if the son has insufficient understanding, his father instructs him: 'Why is this night different from all other nights?..." (10:4).

Rituals & Rites

Although ostensibly covering the special days of Purim and fasts, respectively, the tractates of Megillah and Ta'anit deal extensively with other aspects of the synagogue and communal worship.

Despite the features of prohibited work and special offerings shared by the major holidays, each one also possesses its own unique rituals and requirements. The Mishnah characterizes the observance of Yom Kippur by the abstention from eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, putting on perfumes, bathing, or having sexual relations (Yoma chapter 8). Rosh Hashanah brings with it the blowing of the Shofar (chapter 3); on Sukkot we must sit in the sukkah  (a hut or booth) and shake the palm branch called the lulav; Pesah has the twin requirements of ridding the house of hametz (leavened products such as bread) and eating matzah (unleavened bread)(chapters 1-4);. Even Purim, a minor holiday without work restrictions and Temple offerings, demands that we read the megillah (the scroll of the book of Esther), give money to the poor, share foods with our friends and eat a festive meal (chapters 1-2). Only Shavuot, without its own tractate, appears to lack its own distinctive rituals.

All of the tractates in the order of Moed involve major themes that revolve around the calendar--in nearly all cases, the tractates describe the observance of a special, appointed day on the calendar. Only Shekalim forgoes the connection to a particular type of day--instead, this tractate deals with the yearly head tax, which required all adult males to deposit a half-shekel into the Temple coffers to cover the costs of the Temple services. Since this half-shekel tax was to be delivered specifically within the month of Adar, it, too, was integrally tied to the rhythms of the calendar, much like the holidays, and thus Shekalim also properly belongs in the order of Moed.

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Dr. Joshua Levisohn

Dr. Joshua Levisohn is Department Head of Tanakh and Rabbinics at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion Station, Pennsylvania.