Judaism: Setting Dates
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"אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קודש אשר תקראו אותם במועדם"
"These are the appointed festivals of Hashem, the Holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appropriate time"
Throughout the Torah and Jewish Law there seems to be a very distinct separation of powers when it comes to forming and setting dates in the Jewish calendar.
As seen in the verse above from Parhsat Emor (Leviticus 23;5), Hashem appoints the festivals whereas you, the people of Israel, designate them in their appropriate time.
Many laws and customs are derived from this verse, first and foremost being the obligation of the Grand Court (Beit Din) in Jerusalem to declare, based on witnesses testimony to the appearance of a new moon, the day that will be declared the start of a new month, Rosh Chodesh, and consequently the dates of the coming Jewish month.
Additionally, the decision as to whether or not a certain year will be a leap year and have an added month of Adar, is also decided by the Beit Din in order to accommodate the needs of the people as well as the need for the Pesach holiday to always be in the spring (see Tractate Sanhedrin, pp. 10-12).
This responsibility, declaring the correct dates and seasons for all Jewish Festivals, differs entirely from the command regarding the Shabbat. In Parshat Bereishit (Genesis 2;3), in regard to the very first Shabbat, the Torah states "G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it", here there is no 'discussion' or 'help' from the people. 'Shabbat 'Kviei V'Kaimei' - Shabbat is constant and set.
These two different types of calendar dates, Shabbat and the Festivals, derive their holiness from very different sources that together create the uniqueness of Jewish tradition – belief in Torah M'shamaim, torah from G-d, symbolized by Shabbat, together with the necessity of human thought and reason symbolized by the designation of the festivals.
During the 2nd Temple period this distinction became grounds for very serious strife between two groups within the Jewish people, the Prushim and the Tzdukim (Pharisees and Sadducees), most prominently during this time of year, between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot.
In our Parsha (Leviticus 23;15) the Torah states the commandment of counting the Omer, "You Shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day…", or in Hebrew – 'Mimacharat Hashabbat'. It seems, as the Tzdukim contended, that the commandment is to count starting the day after the Shabbat as is clearly stated in the verse. On the other hand, the Prushim explained the verse to mean the day after the festival of Pesach (whatever day of the week it happened to be on), seemingly contradicting the plain meaning of the Torah.
Jewish law and tradition accepted the explanation of the Prushim, demonstrating even more clearly the power that the people have to explain and implement Hashem's Torah.
With that the question remains, why would the Torah call the festival of Pesach 'Shabbat' if there is a clear distinction, as mentioned above, between Shabbat and the Festivals?
In 1940 in the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Shapiro (May G-d Avenge his blood), originally from the town of Piaseczna, gave a talk on Shabbat Parshat Emor about this very question. This talk, that was found buried under the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto together with other Shabbat talks, was printed after the war in a book called 'Aish Kodesh'.
This rare document showing the trials and triumphs that a community rabbi had to deal with in order to inspire and instill meaning in his followers in the hardest of times shows the gradual worsening of the situation in the Ghetto from Shabbat to Shabbat.
In the talk for Parshat Emor 5700 (1940) Rabbi Shapiro emphasizes the importance of keeping Mitzvot without necessarily understanding the reasons behind them. More specifically, he discusses the importance of keeping Mitzvot that are 'Divrei Sofrim' – 'teachings of the sages' even more so than the Mitzvot that are Torah commandments. He explains that while we may not know the reasons behind Torah commandments it is easier to uphold them knowing that their source is Divine, while 'Divrei Sofrim' may allow room for some doubt being that they seemingly were derived from human thought.
At this point in the talk Rabbi Shapiro teaches his fellow Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto that at the hardest of times, when ones mental and physical state doesn’t allow to ponder the reasons behind the Mitzvot it is necessary to raise oneself above reasons and logic and to sanctify one's self in Hashem's holiness thus combining human thought and divine commandments.
In the customs surrounding the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Shapiro states that each day and each week is a level where one sanctifies his/her self personally in the holiness of Hashem's commandments. This is why, Rabbi Shapiro summarizes, the Torah called the beginning of the counting of the Omer 'Shabbat' even though it is referring to Pesach which is a festival.
This is in order to teach each and every one of us that by sanctifying ourselves and our thoughts, not only do we have the ability to declare festivals but also the ability to have Hashem declare our festivals as a 'Shabbat', giving them the same holiness as His original Shabbat.
Sixty Six years ago, only 8 years after Rabbi Shapiros talk on Parshat Emor, the people of Israel sanctified an additional date on the Jewish calendar, the 5th Day of the Month of Iyar, Israel's Independence Day. As with many Halakhic decisions, there is great dispute as to the significance, customs and laws of this date.
I pray together with all of Klal Yisrael,that Am Yisrael the Jewish people, will be able to sanctify itself that not only will this day be a festival and a day of 'Hallel V'Hodaya' – praise and gratitude, but also that Hashem in turn will sanctify this day as a Shabbat that is 'Kviei V'Kaimei' - constant and set.
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