Nedarim 78

Who declared Shabbat?

If you like to leyn Torah, learning the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, which describes holiday celebrations, gives you bang for your buck. Once you learn it, you can read it four times a year: as part of the regular Torah reading cycle (in Parashat Emor), on the second day of Passover and on the first two days of Sukkot.

Today’s daf cites a teaching about the final verse of this chapter in Leviticus:

It is written: “And Moses declared the festivals of the Lord to the children of Israel” (Leviticus 23:44). And it is taught in a beraita that Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says: The festivals are declared, but Shabbat, which commemorates Creation, is not included with them. 

Rav Asi bar Natan came to Neharde’a to come before Rav Sheshet, but he did not find him. He pursued him to Mehoza and said to him: How can the beraita say that the festivals of the Lord were declared, but Shabbat, which commemorates Creation, was not included with them? But Shabbat is written with them!

So is Shabbat mentioned with the festivals in Leviticus 23 or not? It depends how you read the full chapter. The bulk of chapter 23 records the instructions that God related to Moses, while the final verse (44) states that Moses then related everything to Israel. The ambiguity comes in the opening four verses, which frame what follows:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My festivals, the festivals of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of the Lord throughout your settlements. These are the festivals of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time…’

The question is: When Moses proclaims the holidays to the people of Israel, does he include the verses about Shabbat (2-3) in this opening, or are they merely God’s preamble that he leaves out, starting his disquisition from verse 4: “These are the festivals…”? Rav Asi bar Natan suggests the former; Rabbi Yosei HaGelili the latter.

Rav Sheshet, responding to Rav Asi, clarifies Rabbi Yosei’s teaching: 

The festivals of the Lord require sanctification by the court, and Shabbat, which commemorates Creation, does not require sanctification by the court.

Of course, says Rav Sheshet, both Shabbat and the festivals are sacred days established by God and observed by the people. When Leviticus 23:44 states that Moses declared the holidays, leaving out Shabbat, it is teaching us that Moses, acting as an officer of the court, declared when the holidays would occur, but did not do so for Shabbat. Festivals are determined by the observation of the new moon. Shabbat is not connected to any astronomical phenomena and therefore does not need to be declared.

We’ve seen this issue before. This is precedent for the power given to the high court to declare the new moon which, as we learned in Rosh Hashanah 25, determines the exact day on which the holidays will fall. The court does not serve this function for Shabbat which falls, like clockwork, every seven days.

The notion that people have agency in setting the Jewish calendar and fixing the times of the holidays is a powerful one — we make the holidays happen. In our day, this is not because we declared the new moon, as the calendar has long been fixed, but if you’ve hosted a seder or built a sukkah you can testify to the effort that goes into making a holiday.

While there is certainly effort that goes into preparing for Shabbat as well, the Talmud is telling us that it is God, not us, who makes Shabbat happen. An echo of creation, Shabbat is woven into the fabric of the world and takes place whether we declare it or not. Our role is to stop what we are doing and take notice of it, each and every week. That’s a powerful idea as well.

Read all of Nedarim 78 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 11th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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