Emor 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)


Emor begins with laws directed at the kohanim, the priests. They must observe certain restrictions concerning contact with the dead; they are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with “regular” Israelites. Just as the priests must be physically unblemished, so too the animals must be physical perfect. The major holidays are described in order. The parsha ends with laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, restitution of injuries, and punishment for cursing God’s name.


“God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them:
There are special times that you must celebrate as sacred holidays to God. The following are My special times: You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Sabbaths. It is a sacred holiday to God, when you shall do no work. Wherever you may live, it is God’s Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:1-3, modified ORT translation.)


God tells Moshe to teach the Israelites about the yearly holiday cycle. First among the “sacred occasions” is the weekly Shabbat, and then there is a description of all the major holidays in order, beginning with Pesach in the spring. Unlike the priestly regulations in the first part of this parsha, the holidays are to be observed by the entire people.


The term used for an annual holiday, like Pesach, is either mo’ed, which means “set time,” or mikrei kodesh, a “sacred proclamation.” Obviously, the holidays have to occur in the same season every year- Pesach must always be in the spring, and Sukkot in the fall. Yet because the Israelite calendar was based on a sighting of the new moon, the holidays were also “proclaimed,” because the authorities announced each new month as it arrived. Thus the exact date of any particular holiday wasn’t known until the beginning of the month in which it occurred, after the new moon had been announced.

Compare the complexity of the Hebrew calendar with the simplicity of the weekly Shabbat: it just rolls around every seven days, regardless of lunar or solar cycles. There’s no human “input” into the date of Shabbat, whereas the annual holidays are set on specific dates by the calendrical authorities. In fact, the Talmud records more than one instance of authorities disagreeing about the date for important holy days, which of course would have all kinds of implications for ritual observance.

So if the weekly Shabbat is not a “sacred proclamation” in the same way the other holidays are, what’s it doing first on the list in this chapter? One suggestion is that, even though we don’t fix the date of Shabbat, we still must proclaim, or affirm, its holiness- Shabbat doesn’t happen all by itself, but requires communal participation to make it holy, just as we have to do our part to make sure the annual observances happen at in the right times. Nothing of spiritual importance is automatic- it requires a sense of purpose and partnership. Or, as one of my friends put it, “if you don’t work at it, Shabbat happens, but not to you!”

Another interpretation of our text points out that the prohibition on work for the weekly Shabbat seem to be more restrictive than on the annual holidays, which only restrict “servile” or “occupational” work. Measured by the kinds of activities we refrain from, the holiness of Shabbat is indeed on a higher level than the annual holidays, in that greater focus is required in creating a sense of distinctions in time. If a holiday falls on Shabbat, the special rituals of the holiday are often changed to reflect this “dual-status” day- a famous example being that the shofar is not blown in many traditional congregations if Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat.

The annual holidays- Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot- are wonderful experiences, eagerly anticipated and often lots of fun. However, maybe there is something to learn from this insistence that the weekly, “ordinary” Shabbat is “first among equals” in the list of Jewish holidays. Maybe the unusual, extraordinary kinds of spiritual occasions really are secondary to a weekly practice of rest, reflection, and rejoicing. Of course, each holiday has a special message, and each one is important- but a time of weekly quiet might be a doorway to greater holiness than a yearly festival.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: