Emor: Two Kinds of Joy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Emor, which has lots of
rules for the priests, but also reviews the Jewish calendar, from
Pesach in the spring to Shimini Atzeret in the fall. We learn that the
holidays are also holy days, in which we refrain from “melacha,” or
purposeful labor, as on Shabbat (with some important differences which
we’ll explore another time.) For today, I want to point out that two
of the holidays- Pesach in the spring and Sukkot in the fall- are a
week long, with a holy day at the beginning and a holy day at the end:

“On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not
work at your occupations. 8 Seven days you shall make offerings by
fire to the Lord. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you
shall not work at your occupations.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:7-8)

“On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast
of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a
sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days
you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you
shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the
Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your
occupations.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:34-36)

We see from the verses above- the first regarding Pesach and the
second set referring to Sukkot- that there is a period between the
first and last holy days of the festival. This is called “Chol
HaMoed,” or literally, the “non-holy days of the season.” However, as
anybody who has eaten matzah or slept in a Sukkah for a week can
attest, the intermediate days of these two celebrations are not
exactly “regular” weekdays, but they’re not “Yom Tov,” or full
festival days, either.

There is a tractate of the Talmud, called Moed Katan, largely devoted
to the question of distinguishing these intermediate days from either
regular work-week days or “Sabbath” days of refraining from work. In
general, the idea is to make the holidays- all week- as joyful as one
can by not doing during the festival what one could do before or
after, if there was no significant loss involved. This includes happy
occasions like weddings, which the Mishnah specifically mentions as
something we do not do during Chol HaMoed, because of the great joy
involved. (Cf. Mishna Moed Katan 1:7)

Now, granted, there usually isn’t a great demand for weddings or bar
mitzvah celebrations during Passover, but since Sukkot is called “the
Season of Our Joy,” you’d figure that it would be a great time for a
wedding, right? A Sukkot wedding might have interesting catering
possibilities, but the ancient rabbis prohibited weddings during Chol
HaMoed because they wanted us to focus on the joy of the festival- or
the joy of the family occasion- exclusively. Someone who celebrated a
wedding during Sukkot or Passover would be emotionally oriented
towards the life-cycle event, and would not really give due honor to
the festival.

This is why in many traditional synagogues you will rarely, if ever,
see a bar or bat mitzvah during the major festivals (Pesach, Shavuot,
and Sukkot). The rabbis taught us not to “mix joy with joy,” that is,
to let the holiday be the holiday and the simcha [happy occasion] be
the simcha. I do realize that some synagogues do schedule bar or bat
mitzvah celebrations during holidays, but I think it takes away from
each event to mix them together, so I try to discourage it.

Besides the practical concerns, one might note that the major
festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) each have a historical theme
(leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, and sojourning in the wilderness,
respectively) as well as an agricultural theme: they are the spring,
“first fruits of summer,” and fall harvest festivals. Seen this way,
we are reminded that celebrating the major holidays is about
connecting our personal lives as individuals with the life of our
people and the seasons of our homeland. A wedding or bar mitzvah, on
the other hand, is much more personal- it’s a time for reflecting on
the joys and history of one particular family and the special
individuals who comprise it.

Thus, “not mixing joy with joy” can be seen as part of the balancing
between communal and personal spirituality which is part of a mature
Judaism. Sometimes we need to connect with the history of our people,
and sometimes we want to celebrate the ups and downs of our personal
lives in a Jewish way, and these complement each other. For a week in
the spring, and a week in the fall, we have special mitzvot with which
we live out our sacred history, a history so rich, with traditions so
compelling, that they invite our full attention.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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