01. The Idea of the Holidays

There are six holidays (Yamim Tovim)[*] mentioned in the Torah: a) the first day of Pesaḥ; b) the seventh day of Pesaḥ; c) Shavu’ot; d) Rosh Ha-shana; e) the first day of Sukkot; f) Shemini Atzeret         .

We are commanded to sanctify these days. We do this by not working then, by studying Torah, by rejoicing in the festival, and by thanking God for all the good that He has given us. All this leads us to remember the Lord, our God, Who chose us from among all the nations, gave us His Torah, sanctified us with His mitzvot, drew us close to His service, and called us by His great and holy name. In this way we transcend our daily lives and mundane activities. We improve ourselves by perfecting our character and purifying our heart; we strengthen our commitment to Torah and mitzvot; and we recall our vital mission – repairing the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.

While all the holidays share these basic characteristics, each one also expresses a unique concept which we are privileged to internalize anew each year. The first day of Pesaḥ is the day when God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt to eternal freedom. In order to ensure that we remember that event, we were commanded to eat matza, bitter herbs, and the meat of the Paschal sacrifice on that night, and to tell the story of the Exodus. The seventh day of Pesaḥ is the day when God split the Reed Sea for us, led us through it on dry ground, and drowned the Egyptians who pursued us.

On Shavu’ot God gave us the Torah, through which we repair the world. Accordingly, we were commanded to bring two loaves of ḥametz (leavened grain) to the Temple on Shavu’ot. This teaches us that even the evil inclination, symbolized by ḥametz, which causes grain to puff up, can be perfected and purified by the Torah (see below 13:7).

The first of Tishrei is the day the world was created. More accurately, it was the sixth day of creation, when man was created. We are commanded to make it a Day of Remembrance (Yom Zikaron), to blow the shofar, and to “wake up” and repent. There is an additional day of awe and holiness – Yom Kippur. Since its prohibitions are stricter than those of the holidays, it is not counted among them.

The first day of Sukkot is not tied into a specific event, but on it we remember the divine providence we experienced when God liberated us from Egypt, led us through the desert, and enveloped us in clouds of glory. Sukkot takes place at the end of the fruit harvest, giving us the opportunity to conclude the yearly festival cycle by thanking God for the year’s fruit. Immediately following Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, which is the final celebration of the year. On this holiday we are privileged to experience extra closeness with the Lord, our God. It is thus a fitting time for us to complete the Torah-reading cycle and celebrate it.


[*]. Editor’s note: Throughout this volume, the term “festival” is taken as the equivalent of “ḥag” and “mo’ed,” and includes Ḥol Ha-mo’ed. The term “holiday” is used as the equivalent of “Yom Tov” and refers specifically to days that are “mikra’ei kodesh.”

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