Call Them by Their Names

Emor By :  Joel Alter Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid (Milwaukee, WI); Former Director of Admissions, The JTS Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School Posted On May 2, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

When I’m at a hotel over Shabbat, I have a set Friday afternoon ritual. I present myself to the restaurant’s maître d’ and explain that I’d like to preorder and prepay my Saturday breakfast as my religious practice bars me from spending money on the Jewish Sabbath. Despite consternation over working around normal procedure, my request is invariably treated with no-questions-asked respect once I characterize my need as “religious.” While the maître d’ might not know Yom Tov from Yuletide, “religious” is a category that—in certain contexts anyway—gets categorical deference. The particulars of religious practice are not subject to question, except inasmuch as Americans want to know how to respectfully accommodate one another’s religion. In the religiously diverse United States, everyone’s religion occupies a generic space called holy, making it easy to practice according to our tradition.

The experience of particularity in the religiously diverse (and increasingly secular) context of the United States comes to mind in light of an insight drawn from Saadia Gaon (Egypt, 10th century) on Leviticus 23:4. Here is the verse and the comment:

These are the set times of the LORD, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time. (Lev. 23:4, New Jewish Publication Society)
The festivals each have a distinct name and it is obligatory that you call them by their names in their seasons.

The verse (and Saadia’s comment) announces Leviticus’s catalog of festivals over the course of the year, beginning with the festival of Pesah. (Actually, Leviticus introduces Shabbat just before the verse in question, in 23:3.) While the various festivals as presented here have many particulars in common, such as refraining from work and offering sacrifices, each of them is fundamentally distinct. Their relationships to the agricultural cycle, offerings brought, opportunities for atonement, and attention to the marginalized in Israelite society are just some of the distinctions from one festival to the next that emerge in our chapter’s account. (Other listings of the holidays in the Torah introduce the holidays’ historical significances, which predominate in our contemporary expression of Judaism.) Through attention to the seasons of the year we sanctify time in specific, mandated ways, and so establish and maintain a sacred society aligned in holiness with God.

In his own context, Saadia’s comment might have emphasized the distinction between the Karaites’ practice of Judaism and that of rabbinic communities like his own, or perhaps between Judaism and Islam, whose holidays migrate across the seasons due to its strictly lunar calendar. But in today’s context, Saadia’s comment strikes me as a call to live inside the Jewish calendar even—and especially—in our pluralist, religiously diverse society. We need to know the names of our holidays and their functions; we need to understand their timing in the year and their relationship one to another as the seasons flow in their natural sequence. A Pesah seder should feel a world apart from the pre-fast and break-fast meals that frame Yom Kippur, even if the same family and friends are gathered around our table. The prayer for tal (dew) on Pesah should stir distinct emotions from that for geshem (rain) on Shemini Atzeret. Even the silliness that descends (from a combination of celebration and exhaustion) by Musaf on Simhat Torah is distinct from that which reigns on Purim. And so on through the year, from the texts we read in their seasons to the foods we eat, to the prayers we add and omit as the seasons come and go. The categorical deference shown to things holy calls on members of each religious community to cultivate and maintain specific knowledge of, and distinctive associations with, the content of our own traditions.

When we recite kiddush on Leil Shabbat or Yom Tov (Sabbath or Festival Eve), we name each holy day by its name and association: for Shabbat, Zekher li’yetziyat Mitzrayim (a memorialization of the Exodus) and Zekher l’ma’aseh v’reishit (a memorialization of Creation); for Pesah, Hag haMatzot ha-zeh, z’man heiruteinu (this Festival of Matzot, the season of our liberation); for Shavu’ot, Hag haShavu’ot hazeh, z’man matan torateinu (this Festival of Weeks, the season of the giving of our Torah), and so on. It’s not enough to know that it is a holy day, a Jewish festival. We need to cultivate our awareness of each “set time” we’re proclaiming, distinctively, in its season. Vital, too, is that we ask again each year what new associations are drawn in by the sacred pull of the holidays. For Pesah, what are this year’s fetters, and how does Pesah offer a key to unlocking them? Come Shavu’ot, as we assemble again at Sinai, what voice of Torah will most urgently call us into covenant? And with each Shabbat, have our labors in the week past honored the godly, creative potential instilled in us to join God in creating the world anew?

To be sure, stirring ourselves toward kavanah (mindful intention) is easier said than done. With the deference granted us to observe, the Jewish calendar is an unending opportunity to lift up the everyday into the sacred and to live in concert with the distinctive calls of each season in its turn. And with the increasing commingling of religious communities in our pluralist society, the integrity of our respective traditions merits that learning and loving attention draw out the sacred seasons of the year in their fullness. As we count the days and weeks toward Shavu’ot, let us strive to know the sacred seasons well enough that we can meaningfully heed Saadia’s counsel to call each of them by their distinctive names.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.