These are my appointed festivals: On the final Monday of the fifth month, you are to celebrate a day of memorial; on the fourth Thursday of the eleventh month, you are to mark a sacred day of thanks; most importantly, on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, you are to observe my tax day, for all generations—you are to proclaim these holidays as My sacred assemblies!
This isn’t a biblical verse, but it could be, were God describing our U.S. national holidays. In Parashat Emor, we read about many of the sacred times associated with Jewish life: the weekly Shabbat observance, the three pilgrimage holidays (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), the counting of the Omer, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—all in all, a lot of holidays! The Torah makes clear that while there may be many holidays described here, they are all important. As the introduction to this passage, in which God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites about all these holidays, says, The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them, ‘These are my appointed festivals…which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies!’”
In the Jewish world, these dates are still clearly our sacred assemblies. While not every Jew observes every Jewish holiday, by and large these are still the ways by which we mark the passage of time within our annual, Jewish calendar. In the secular world, too, we find that there are holidays (or “sacred assemblies”) to observe. Each group with which we spend time has its own annual calendar, whether it be religious, governmental, familial, or social.
Now, at the beginning of May, the University of Cincinnati students I teach through my fellowship have just finished (hopefully!) celebrating one of the most important holidays of one of their calendars, the calendar of academia. All around the country, students are spending long hours observing the high holidays of Final Examinations. Just as the Jewish High Holidays end with a celebratory break-fast, the academic high holidays end with a celebratory summer break. Students who have finished their studies will go off and explore other communities, new jobs or new academic pursuits. In all such new places, they will get to discover the unique calendars of their varied settings. Students who have not yet quite finished their studies will hopefully return again in the fall to explore, experience, and celebrate another calendar year of the academic world.
The Torah frequently reminds us of the importance of the calendar and our cyclical lives. To take but one example, it reminds us dozens of times about the observance of Shabbat alone. In Emor itself, we might wonder why yet again we are forced to read about the various holiday observances which the parashah describes. After all, the Torah tells us about all of these holidays in other places, seemingly more than enough times.
Our lives are built around the observances of many different overlapping calendars. Even in the time the Bible was written, individuals were likely beholden to a variety of annual traditions, not all Jewish. Perhaps our text is meant to help us clarify and to remind us of what the Jewish calendar asks of us. In the midst of complex lives, with diverse calendars and annual rituals, it is important that we discern the specific dates which are important in each tradition. As we read from Emor, let’s reflect on the purpose of perpetual reminders, the various calendars of our lives and how they interact. How do these moments connect us to other people, places and times? Without them, how would our days be different?
Ari Ballaban‘s Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship is with Dr. Matthew Kraus at the University of Cincinnati Department of Judaic Studies.