Finding Meaning in the Sabbath, High Holy Days and Festivals

 

Sampling of questions analyzed and explained:

 

PART ONE - Shabbat:

  • What was the “intended purpose” of the Universe as described in the Creation?

  • How are these original dynamics of Creation, “creative-work” (“מלאכה”) and “ceasing,” (“לשבת”) related to fundamental truths for humankind and to the Jewish ritual observance of Shabbat?

  • What is the transcendent nature of Shabbat that is implied by its status as “sanctified?”

  • What can we learn from the introduction of the Shabbat idea in the context of the manna?

  • What is the significance of the two different opening verbs of “Remember” and “Observe” in the two versions of the Decalogue?

  • In our search for the purpose and meaning of Shabbat, we have to discover the connection between these two events – Creation and the Exodus – as the stated purpose for Shabbat and our requirement to cease from creative-work on the Sabbath, as recorded in the Decalogue. How is the meaning and purpose of Shabbat tied to both themes of Creation and the Exodus?

  • What does the weekly cessation of creative-work signify, such that it serves as an eternal “sign” between the Jewish nation and God? Further, how does it serve to make us “holy?”

 

PART THREE- Pesach-Shavuot:

  • The verses that introduce the Pesach meal clearly emphasize “family” in the instructions to take the lamb. What is the meaning of this focus in relation to the symbolic meal?

  • We know that in the system of offerings, the type of animal is significant. What is the meaning of a year-old lamb or goat in relation to this ceremony?

  • Why does this celebration occur at twilight of the14th day of the month?

  • What is the significance of placing some of the blood of this lamb on the sides and top of the doorframes of the house (v.7)? Why will this symbolic act result in God “passing over” the house when He strikes down the first-born of Egypt (vv.13, 23)?

  • Three symbolic foods are presented in verse 8: meat of the lamb, bitter herbs and matzah. Furthermore, the lamb must be roasted over fire (not eaten raw or cooked in a pot – v.9) and completely consumed before dawn (v.10). Also, the meal has to be eaten while dressed to leave at a moment’s notice (v.11). Again, all these foods and instructions have symbolic meanings – what are they?

  • The greatest enigma of the holiday is the symbol of matzah. The holiday is not called the “Holiday of the Exodus” as we would expect, but rather the “Holiday of Matzot.” Yet, there is no good reason presented in the text for this key food as a symbol. The only direct reference is in Exodus 12:39, where the text notes that the Israelites were in a rush to leave and had no time to bake leavened bread. This technical detail is hardly justification for which an entire holiday, celebrating the Exodus, is to be commemorated! What is the symbol of matzah, as the key symbol of the exodus?

  • Of equal mystery is the prohibition of leaven – chametz. The text (Exodus 12:15) is explicit and emphatic in the necessity of ridding one’s home of chametz for seven days, to such an extent that the severe consequence for eating or possessing chametz is spiritual excision from the Jewish people! In fact, the removal of any trace of chametz is more characteristic of the holiday than the eating of matzah that is required as a biblical command only on the first night! How do we understand the significance of this pervasive prohibition?

  • The holiday of Shavuot follows Pesach by 50 days. What is the connection between the two holidays and why does the farmer specifically bring an offering of chametz on this holiday?

 

PART FOUR - Rosh HaShanah:

  •  The biblical calendar begins with the month of the Exodus as the first month of the year for the Jewish nation. The holiday of the Day of Sounding-of-the-Horn falls in the seventh month. If the first month is the beginning of the Jewish calendar, what is the significance of the seventh month and why did it become the “New Year”?

  •  Unlike the major festivals of Passover and Sukkot, which fall on the fifteenth of the month, and Yom Kippur, which falls on the tenth of the month, the Day of Sounding-of-the-Horn is the that begins on the first day of the month. What is the significance of the first day of the month in relation to this holiday?

  •  Unlike Shabbat or Yom Kippur, where all manner of creative-work is prohibited, only “mundane” work is prohibited on this holiday (as well as on all other festivals). What is the meaning of this type of modified work restriction on this holiday and other festivals?

  •  The Day of Sounding-of-the-Horn, in one verse, is called a “remembrance” or “commemoration” of the Sounding-of-the Horn. What are we supposed to “remember” and what does the Sounding-of-the-Horn “commemorate”?

  • The only major ritual of the day is a blast of a horn. What is the significance of this singular symbolic observance of the holiday? This is our key question.

  •  Like all other holidays, the Day of Sounding-of-the-Horn is a “call to sanctity.” What does this term mean in relation to this and other holidays?

 

Yom Kippur:

 

  • The first required observance is “self-deprivation.” Unlike other religions, Judaism does not value self-affliction as "holy" or the experience of pleasure as "sin." As long as our motivation is toward sanctity, the material enjoyment of wealth, aesthetics and sensuality -- including the pleasures of good food and drink -- are not considered "evil" or "sin." So why are we asked to “oppress,” “deprive” or “afflict ourselves” as a mode of worship?

  • Why is Yom Kippur similar to Shabbat in prohibiting all manner of creative work, rather than the less inclusive restrictions of other holidays, as we find with Rosh HaShanah and the three pilgrim festivals? Ceasing from mundane labor as we explained in our study of Rosh HaShanah would seem sufficient to allow for appropriate focus on the themes and observances of the Day of Atonement.

  • What do the two observances of “self-deprivation” and “cessation of work” have to do with the essential character of the day? How are they connected to the idea of God granting forgiveness and allowing us to start anew with a ‘clean slate?’

  • There are various categories of commandments in the Torah. Some are historical commemorations, some express concepts and ideas in symbolic form, some are social and civil laws and others are “חוקים,” which are considered rituals, whose reasons maybe analyzed, but whose effects may transcend human comprehension. Yom Kippur is placed in this latter category in the verse. What about the procedures or effects of the Yom Kippur rituals are beyond our comprehension?

  • The nature of “atonement,” which is the major outcome of the day, is not clear from the Hebrew word כפרה. It is neither “forgiveness” nor “pardon,” since other Hebrew words are used for these dynamics. What exactly is “atonement” that is expressed by the specific word כפרה?

  • Whatever ‘atonement’ is, it results in a condition called “spiritual-purity (טהרה).” What is this condition and its effect on us as a consequence of atonement?

  • Since two goats for a sin-offering is exclusive to this ritual, what significance does this unique sin-offering have to the theme of Yom Kippur?

  • The fact that the two goats have to be identical and their fates are chosen by lottery implies a metaphor that needs interpretation. What does this signify in relation to the holiday theme?

  • What is represented by the diametrically opposed fates of the goats: One offered “to God” on the Altar and the other to be sent, sin-laden, to a barren wilderness to die of exposure?

 

PART FIVE - Succot-Sh’mini Atzeret:

  • The holiday of Succot is described consistently as a seven-day holiday. Then an “eighth day” is mentioned for the first time as a “holy” day. It is described obscurely as a “closing assembly” with no further explanation. What is the nature of this day in relation to the seven-day holiday of Succot?

  • In introducing the two observances of the holiday (23:39), the word, “moreover” (אך, in Hebrew) is used. Since this word is also found introducing the previous holiday of Yom Kippur (23:27) a few verses earlier, what is the connection between the holidays of Yom Kippur and Succot implied by this obvious literary device?

  • Verse 40 introduces the mitzvah of the “four species” with no explanation of its symbolic meaning. We would not be so surprised if the farmer took some of his produce and thanked God for the harvest. But the vegetation described is leaves and branches – and the only fruit is of an unidentified tree. Clearly, these are not meant to be a selection of the harvested produce. So our fundamental question: What does this vegetation represent and why is it taken in “joy”?

  • The second mitzvah of the holiday is living in a thatched-shelter for seven days. According to the text, this is to remind future generations that God made the Israelites dwell in thatched-shelters when they left Egypt. This is a startling statement for a number of reasons. First, there is no record of the Israelites living in this type of shelter during their sojourns in the desert. In all cases, the texts describe them as living in “tents.” Living in tents makes sense, since tents are portable, easily assembled, dismantled and carried – activities which are also described in the text. Moreover, foliage for thatched roofs was neither readily available in the desert for a half million families nor easily transported. Also, there is no record of God “making” them dwell in thatched-shelters. Finally, why would the temporary dwelling, whatever it was, be the key symbol of the festival that should be remembered by future generations? This major symbol of the holiday sorely needs explication.

© 2014 by Stephen Bailey.

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