Commemorating the Desert Experience
An Analysis of Parashat Hamo'adot (Ch. 23)
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
The only complete treatment of the holiday calendar found in the Torah is
the centerpiece of our Parashah. Although reading it in the original (to
which we will refer throughout the shiur) is preferable, here is a
translation which may be used for reference.. Paragraph breaks represent
separation of Parashiot and those few terms which are in bold-faced print
will be explained in the shiur:
1 Hashem spoke to Mosheh, saying:
2 Speak to the people of Yisra'el and say to them: These are the appointed
festivals of Hashem that you shall proclaim as Mikra'ei Kodesh, my appointed
3 Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a Shabbat Shabbaton,
a Mikra Kodesh; you shall do no work: it is a Shabbat to Hashem throughout
4 These are the appointed festivals of Hashem, the Mikra'ei Kodesh, which
you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them.
5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight,
there shall be a passover offering to Hashem,
6 and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened
bread to Hashem; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.
7 On the first day you shall have a Mikra Kodesh; you shall not work at
8 For seven days you shall present Hashem's offerings by fire; on the
seventh day there shall be a Mikra Kodesh: you shall not work at your
9 Hashem spoke to Mosheh:
10 Speak to the people of Yisra'el and say to them: When you enter the land
that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the omer of
the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.
11 He shall raise the omer before Hashem, that you may find acceptance; on
the day after the Shabbat the priest shall raise it.
12 On the day when you raise the omer , you shall offer a lamb a year old,
without blemish, as a burnt offering to Hashem.
13 And the grain offering with it shall be two-tenths of an ephah of choice
flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to Hashem; and
the drink offering with it shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin.
14 You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears until that very
day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute
forever throughout your generations in all your settlements.
15 And from the day after the Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the
omer of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall
16 You shall count until the day after the seventh Shabbat, fifty days;
then you shall present an offering of new grain to Hashem.
17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an
elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of
choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to Hashem..
18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish,
one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to Hashem,
along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by
fire of pleasing odor to Hashem.
19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male
lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being.
20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an
elevation offering before Hashem, together with the two lambs; they shall be
holy to Hashem for the priest.
21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a Mikra
Kodesh ; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever
in all your settlements throughout your generations.
22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very
edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall
leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am Hashem your God.
23 Hashem spoke to Mosheh, saying:
24 Speak to the people of Yisra'el, saying: In the seventh month, on the
first day of the month, you shall observe a Shabbaton, a commemoration of
T'ruah , a Mikra Kodesh.
25 You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present Hashem's
offering by fire.
26 Hashem spoke to Mosheh, saying:
27 Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it
shall be a Mikra Kodesh for you: you shall deny yourselves and present
Hashem's offering by fire;
28 and you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of
atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before Hashem your God.
29 For anyone who does not practice self-denial during that entire day
shall be cut off from the people.
30 And anyone who does any work during that entire day, such a one I will
destroy from the midst of the people.
31 You shall do no work: it is a statute forever throughout your
generations in all your settlements.
32 It shall be to you a Shabbat Shabbaton , and you shall deny yourselves;
on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall
keep your Shabbat.
33 Hashem spoke to Mosheh, saying:
34 Speak to the people of Yisra'el, saying: On the fifteenth day of this
seventh month, and lasting seven days, there shall be the festival of booths
35 The first day shall be a Mikra Kodesh ; you shall not work at your
36 Seven days you shall present Hashem's offerings by fire; on the eighth
day you shall observe a Mikra Kodesh and present Hashem's offerings by fire;
it is a solemn assembly; you shall not work at your occupations.
37 These are the appointed festivals of Hashem, which you shall celebrate
as times of Mikra Kodesh , for presenting to Hashem offerings by fire -
burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on
its proper day -
38 apart from the Shabbats of Hashem, and apart from your gifts, and apart
from all your votive offerings, and apart from all your freewill offerings,
which you give to Hashem.
39 Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in
the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of Hashem, lasting
seven days; a Shabbaton on the first day, and a Shabbaton on the eighth day.
40 On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of
palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall
rejoice before Hashem your God for seven days.
41 You shall keep it as a festival to Hashem seven days in the year; you
shall keep it in the seventh month as a statute forever throughout your
42 You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in
Yisra'el shall live in booths,
43 so that your generations may know that I made the people of Yisra'el
live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Hashem
44 Thus Mosheh declared to the people of Yisra'el the appointed festivals
SEVEN QUESTIONS ON THE PARASHAH
Since every subsection within our selection utilizes and highlights the
number seven (which is a topic for a separate shiur), I would like to pose
seven questions on the text:
1) Five of the holidays mentioned are also described as a Shabbaton - and
two of them, [the weekly] Shabbat and Yom haKippurim are called Shabbat
Shabbaton. What is the meaning of this word (which is clearly related to
2) The listing presented is "the appointed times of Hashem which you (the
B'nei Yisra'el) shall declare". Those holidays which fall on a given day of
the month (e.g. Pesach on Nisan 15) are clearly declared by the B'nei
Yisra'el, when the court announces the new month (under those circumstances
when the calendar was fixed on a monthly basis by the testimony of witnesses
who had seen the new moon); this is the Gemara's explanation for the
liturgical phrase M'kadesh Yisra'el v'haZ'manim (He who sanctifies Yisra'el
and the seasons) - it is Yisra'el who sanctify the seasons (BT Berakhot
49a). It is, therefore, understandable why Pesach, Shavu'ot etc. are listed
in a group headed by "which you shall declare in their time". Shabbat, on
the other hand, exists independently of our declaration or observance of
that holy day (which is why the signature form in the Shabbat liturgy is
M'kadesh haShabbat, with no mention of Yisra'el (see, however, JT Berakhot
8:1 for a variant version). Why then is Shabbat included in our list? This
question is a bit stronger when viewed against the backdrop of the Gemara in
Arakhin (11b), which notes that the reason we don't say Hallel on Shabbat is
because Shabbat is not considered a Mo'ed (appointed time).
3) In the section (vv. 9-14) relating to the beginning-of-the-harvest
offering (brought on the second day of Hag haMatzot), the Torah describes
this offering as an omer - which is the amount of the offering. Not only is
it odd to refer to an offering by its volume, this term is repeated four
times within a space of 6 verses. What is the significance of the omer as an
appellation for this offering?
4) At the end of the section detailing the festival of Shavu'ot (vv. 15-22),
the Torah interjects the laws of Pe'ah (leaving the corner of the field
unharvested for the poor) and Leket (leaving the gleaning of the harvest -
again for the poor). What is the rationale behind the inclusion of these
"non-holiday" laws in our list?
5) In v. 24, the holiday of the first day of the seventh month (which we
commonly call "Rosh haShanah") is denoted not only as a Shabbaton , but also
as a Zikhron T'ruah - meaning "commemoration of a [Shofar's] blast".
Although Rashi explains that this refers to the obligation to recite the
various theme-driven verses during Musaf of Rosh haShanah, this only works
if we read Zikhron T'ruah as "a mention of a Shofar blast "; however, a
simpler read is "a commemoration of a Shofar blast ". What is being
commemorated by the blasting of the Shofar?
6) In v. 32, Yom haKippurim is called a Shabbat Shabbaton (just as it is
earlier in Vayyikra - 16:31). Why is Yom haKippurim given this title - which
is otherwise only accorded to Shabbat?
7) A careful look at the "parashah" of Sukkot / Sh'mini Atzeret (vv. 33-44)
reveals that there are really two distinct sections within this one
parashah. Note that v. 37 begins with Ele Mo'adei Hashem , a perfect
conclusion to the opening Ele Mo'adei Hashem (v. 4). Once that "conclusion"
is finished (v. 38), the Torah adds another perspective of Sukkot / Sh'mini
Atzeret. Note the differences between the two sections:
a) In the first section, the holiday is called Hag haSukkot , but does not
explain the meaning for this title; the second refers to it as Hag l'Hashem
- but associates the timing with the end of the harvest season.
b) In the first section, both the first and eighth days area called
Mikra'ei Kodesh ; in the second section both are called Shabbaton.
c) The first section only includes the commands regarding not working and
bringing the proper offerings; the second includes the two Mitzvot unique to
the holiday - the four species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Aravah) and residing in
Our final question: Why are there two independent texts of Sukkot / Sh'mini
THE VILNA GA'ON'S EXPLANATION
R. Eliyahu Kramer zt"l, known as the Ga'on miVilna (d. 1799), suggests a
brilliant and innovative approach to understanding the first section which
answers our second question - and a bit of the first.
[Introductory note: as the Torah instructs us in Sh'mot 12:16, we are not
allowed to do M'lakhah on a Yom Tov, with the exception of Okhel Nephesh
(M'lakhah needed for eating purposes for that day; this is permitted only
when Yom Tov falls on a weekday). This is not true regarding Shabbat, on
which all M'lakhah is forbidden - nor is it true for Yom haKippurim, where
there is no permit for any food-related M'lakhah]..
The Ga'on maintains that the first section (vv. 1-3) is not addressing [the
weekly] Shabbat; rather, it operates as a header for the rest of the Parashah:
Six days shall work be done - this refers to the six holidays (first day of
Pesach, last day of Pesach, Shavu'ot, Rosh haShanah [remember that from the
Torah's perspective, even Rosh haShanah is only one day], first day of
Sukkot and Sh'mini 'Atzeret) when some type of M'lakhah (Okhel Nephesh) may
But the seventh day is a Shabbat Shabbaton- this refers to the seventh of
these days, Yom haKippurim;
You shall do no work- on Yom haKippurim, all types of M'lakhah are forbidden.
In this fashion, the Ga'on explains the inclusion of Shabbat on our list -
it isn't there at all! It also explains the use of the phrase Shabbat
Shabbaton in v. 3 - it is referring to Yom haKippurim, which has already
been titled Shabbat Shabbaton in Ch. 16.
Although there is much to recommend this approach, I would like to suggest
one that not only responds to all of our questions, but also addresses this
"Shabbat" section from a "p'shat" perspective.
WHAT IS A "MIKRA KODESH"?
Before addressing the overall theme of this parashah, I would like to pose
two questions of a general nature:
a) What is the meaning of the phrase Mikra Kodesh , which is the description
of each one of these special days (along with a general name for all of
them: v. 2,4,37)?
b) What is the rationale behind the placement of this list? Why is it set
towards the end of Sefer Vayyikra? (Of course, this question could be posed
no matter where it is placed; nevertheless, if we can find a solid reason
why this parashah "belongs" here, that is a path we should pursue.)
REEXPERIENCING THE EVOLUTION OF THE GOY KADOSH
Every one of the days under discussion is liturgically referred to as a
Zekher liY'tziat Mitzrayim - a "commemoration of the Exodus". Although it is
abundantly clear why Pesach serves this purpose - and both Shabbat (D'varim
5:15) and Sukkot (Vayyikra 23:43) are connected with the Exodus in the Torah
- the rest of the holidays don't have an apparent connection with the
Exodus. Even the Sukkot association is weak if we understand Y'tzi'at
Mitzrayim as the plagues and the crossing of the Reed Sea. Why is each of
these holy days considered a Zekher liY'tziat Mitzrayim?
I would like to suggest that the entire system of the Jewish calendar -
including both Shabbat and all of the Yamim Tovim - is designed to help us
reexperience and internalize the "higlights" of our travels through the
desert. In other words, we must adopt a more complete and inclusive
understanding of Y'tzi'at Mitzrayim . As we examine the salient features of
each of these holy days, specifically as they are outlined - and alluded to
- in our text, we will find that each of them reinforces a component of that
experience which the Torah desires us to maintain. We will also find that
the order of the holy days can be viewed as deliberate and sequentially
When we stood at the foot of Har Sinai - which was the intermediary goal of
the Exodus (Sh'mot 3:12) - God assured us that if we keep His covenant, we
will become a Goy Kadosh (a holy nation). There are two distinct elements in
this formula: A nation, implying a unified purpose, common concern and
pervasive sense of mutual responsibility. The second element is holiness,
wherein that unified group is directed towards a sanctified purpose. This
order is significant and indispensable; we must first achieve a sense of
unity and fellowship before moving that group into the realm of the holy. It
is only after this dual goal has been achieved that we can construct the
Mishkan and allow God's Presence to rest among us - which is the pinnacle of
the Goy Kadosh. The system of the Jewish calendar can best be understood
through the prism of the evolution of the B'nei Yisra'el towards their
destiny as a Goy Kadosh.
This explains why each of these holy days is considered a Mikra Kodesh . The
word Mikra is used in only one other context (besides Sh'mot 12 - Pesach;
our parashah and the other "listing" at Bamidbar 28) - in Bamidbar 10:2. God
commanded Mosheh to fashion two trumpets of silver, which were to be used
l'Mikra ha'Edah - to assemble the people. A Mikra is, therefore, a call of
assembly. What then is a Mikra Kodesh? Simply an assembly for a holy
purpose. In other words, a Mikra Kodesh is an actualization of the ideal of
the Goy Kadosh - the group coming together for a holy purpose.
This also explains the placement of this parashah at this juncture in
Vayyikra. After detailing the parameters of "public" Kedushah (the Mishkan
and those impurities which cause defilement) and "private" Kedushah (see
last week's shiur), along with the special Kedushah of the Kohanim (Chapters
21-22), the Torah brings these together as the private/individual Kedushah
is manifested in the public domain, chiefly through the offices of the Kohanim.
After this introduction, we can re-examine the parashah, note the underlying
theme and answer our questions..
ANALYZING THE PARASHAH
Even though we are accustomed to thinking of Shabbat as a commemoration of -
and testimony to - God's creation (see Sh'mot 20:12), Shabbat also has an
explicit Zekher liY'tziat Mitzrayim dimension, as mentioned above. Besides
the explicit verse (D'varim 5:15) cited previously, there is a direct
Shabbat association with the desert experience which is uniquely tied up
with the notion of national unity.
One introductory note: As we have mentioned in earlier shiurim, when
studying Tanakh, we must simultaneously view the text as outsiders while
experiencing it as participants. As outsiders, we are enriched with the
global view of the entire canonized text and the interpretations and
comments of our sages. As participants, we only know what the original
target audience (be it Mosheh, Aharon or the B'nei Yisra'el) knew; we must
try to understand (to whatever extent possible) the impact of these
particular words and phrases on the ears of this original audience.
When Shabbaton - a relatively rare word - is used, it certainly must evoke
in the listener the original context in which it was used. A quick search of
the Tanakh reveals that the earliest appearance of this word is in the
Chapter 16 of Sh'mot - in the story of the Mahn (Manna).
The story of the Mahn is, (as we indicated in this year's shiur on Parashat
Beshalach ), the central turning point in the preparation of the B'nei
Yisra'el for their arrival at Sinai.
A quick review of the story will help us understand the relevance of the
story of the Mahn to our goal of building a holy nation.
There are two central features of how the B'nei Yisra'el were to respond to
- They were to only take the proper amount per person in the household.
- They were to take double on Friday and take none on Shabbat.
Each of these commands (which, for the most part, the whole nation followed)
carries a critical step in the development of the holy nation.
R. Yaakov Medan, in a wonderful article (Megadim 17:61-90), points out that
the command for each person to restrict himself to a daily portion for each
member of the household represented not only a good deal of faith in God -
but also tremendous self-restraint and concern for one's fellow. This is how
he explains the "test" of the Mahn (16:4) - that we were tested to see how
much concern each of us could demonstrate for our fellow, knowing that if we
took more than our portion, someone else would go hungry. Indeed, the B'nei
Yisra'el passed this test with flying colors! (v. 18) For a slave people,
wandering in a desert to exercise this much self-restraint was a
demonstration of their readiness to stand as a unified nation and to enter
into a covenant which includes mutual responsibility.
This self-restraint was the first building block in the process of turning a
multitude of slaves into a unified nation. The ability to maintain concern
for one's fellow in the face of such temptation was the first indication
that we would indeed be able to become a Goy Kadosh.
By beginning the parashah of Mikra'ei Kodesh with Shabbat - and by
specifically referring to that day as a Shabbat Shabbaton , we are
immediately reminded of - and brought back to - that wonderful demonstration
of mutual concern with the Mahn. Indeed, Shabbat carries a powerful
"social-justice" component (see Ramban at D'varim 5:15); by stepping back
from our daily attempt to conquer the world and amass more for ourselves, we
are given the golden opportunity to allow others in to our lives and to
develop our own empathy for those less fortunate. In addition, the cessation
from M'lakhah heightens our awareness of Who is really in charge and of our
obligation to look out for all of His creatures.
This one is pretty straightforward. In order to keep the experience of the
Exodus at the forefront of our consciousness, the Torah commanded us to
relive it (therefore calling it Hag haMatzot, underscoring the method by
which we reexperience it) every year. Note that these holy days are also
called Mikra'ei Kodesh , in that they remind us of our holy ingathering.
Besides the overarching thematic Mikra Kodesh, this one is a bit special -
if we think back to the various guidelines and restrictions given us in the
context of the Korban Pesach (e.g. to be eaten as a household - see our
shiur on Parashat Bo).
One question about this section which we must address is the repeated
introduction in v. 4. Once the Torah already captioned this chapter (in v.
2) with the phrase "These are the appointed times..." why repeat it two
We will only get to this question near the end of the shiur in our
discussion about the two sections of Sukkot / Sh'mini Atzeret.
On the day after Hag haPesach (the second day of Hag haMatzot), we are
commanded to offer up an Omer's worth of grain (barley). Why this amount -
and why mention it so often?
When we look back at the Mahn story, we note that each portion of Mahn that
fell was 1/10th of an Ephah - or 1 Omer's worth! It is not surprising that
the Torah commands us to "lift up" (symbolically returning the Mahn to its
rightful Owner) exactly that amount of grain the day after Pesach. The
lesson is clear: Liberation must carry with it a renewed sense of concern
for social welfare and a mutual responsibility. As soon as we have
celebrated our freedom, the Torah commands us to remember the miracle of the
Mahn - and our miraculous response to the test.
PE'AH AND LEKET
The exact middle verse of our parashah is the "interjected" command to leave
Pe'ah (the corner of the field) and Leket (gleanings) for the poor. Now we
can understand the significance of this addition - while harvesting,
celebrating with a new grain offering (v. 16) etc., we must not forget our
brothers and sisters who have fallen on hard times. The Torah interrupts the
flow of the calendar to remind us that we can not be Holy without ensuring
that we are doing so as a Nation.
When we come to evaluate the meaning of this phrase within the context of
our parashah, we have to again return to the mode of "participant" as
opposed to "observer". If the B'nei Yisra'el are commanded to perform an act
of commemoration of a Shofar-blast, it must refer to a particular blast
which they had already experienced - and are now being commanded to commemorate.
The only Shofar blast which we know of in their past was the blast (or
series of blasts) at Har Sinai which prefaced and followed the Revelation.
The festival of the first day of the seventh month ("Rosh haShanah") is,
therefore, a commemoration of the stand at Sinai. The Shofar which we blow
is intended to remind us of that great event.
When we first arrived at Sinai, the Torah describes us as "encamping
opposite the mountain" (Sh'mot 19:2). The Hebrew verb for this encampment is
not the expected vaYahanu ("and they encamped"), rather it is the singular
vaYihan (lit. "and he encamped"). Rashi (ibid) is sensitive to this anomaly
and explains that we encamped there "as one person, with one heart".
The stand at Sinai was the next step of the process begun with the Mahn
(hence, Rosh haShanah is also called a Shabbaton) - moving from a Goy to a
We then move to a new level of Goy Kadosh . Previously, the unity we
experienced was the product of the spirit of sharing and self-restraint. We
now come to the day on which we allow ourselves to be stripped of all that
divides us. We have no food, drink, fancy clothes (we dress in white because
we are either angels or dead) or family life - we have all been "equalized".
Yom haKippurim gives us the opportunity to move to a new level of mutual
concern - and to focus that concern on a holy enterprise. The sole focus of
Yom haKippurim in its first presentation in the Torah (Vayyikra 16) is the
purification of the Mishkan. We have now moved from a Goy Kadosh in the
abstract (the stand at Sinai) to a Goy Kadosh with a purpose and a focus of
activity - sanctity of the camp and a reenshrinement of God's Presence. Yom
haKippurim is called Shabbat Shabbaton because it is a "super-Mahn"
experience; mutual concern focused on a holy goal.
SUKKOT AND SH'MINI ATZERET
At this point, it pays to review the three points of contrast between the
two treatments of this holiday:
a) In the first section, the holiday is called Hag haSukkot , but does
not explain the meaning for this title; the second refers to it as Hag
l'Hashem - but associates the timing with the end of the harvest season.
b) In the first section, both the first and eighth days area called
Mikra'ei Kodesh ; in the second section both are called Shabbaton.
c) The first section only includes the commands regarding not working and
bringing the proper offerings; the second includes the two Mitzvot unique to
the holiday - the four species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Aravah) and residing in
And now to the answers:
The first section of Sukkot / Sh'mini Atzeret deals with the holiday as a
part of the agricultural cycle of celebration - a cycle which began with Hag
[This also explains why the first section here ends with the concluding Ele
Mo'adei Hashem - closing off the "middle" section of the list which began at
v. 4. This answers the question asked above (in the section on Hag haMatzot)
as to why there is a second caption of our list in v. 4.]
As such, it is simply called Hag haSukkot - a purely agricultural
connotation. Keep in mind that a Sukkah is a booth used by the workers
during harvest season when they could not return home every night - and to
rest during the heat of the summer noontime. These days are denoted as
Mikra'ei Kodesh - a teleology which is only realized in the second section.
They are also replete with offerings and two days of non-work - dedicated to
God - but there is no "unity" factor here.
The second treatment, beginning (v. 39) with Akh (which evokes the beginning
of the Yom haKippurim section), is a dramatic turn. Instead of being a
harvest festival, it is to take place "when you have gathered in the produce
of the land" (i.e. that is when you are to celebrate, not the focus of the
celebration). This festival includes a Shabbaton at the beginning and the
end - bringing us back to the unity theme.
We are then given the two Mitzvot unique to Sukkot: Arba Minim (the Four
Species) and Sukkah.
There are many Midrashim explaining the symbolism of the Arba Minim (e.g.
they represent the four types of Jews, the four climes of Eretz Yisra'el,
four part of the body) - but all of them rest on two basic Halakhic
premises: All four species are indispensable for the Mitzvah (inclusion) and
all four must be taken as one (community). The introduction of this Mitzvah
here underscores the Shabbaton aspect of Sukkot.
Regarding the Mitzvah of Sukkah, the Rabbis said (BT Sukkah 27b): " 'all
that are citizens in Yisra'el shall live in Sukkot' - this teaches that all
of Yisra'el are worthy to reside in one Sukkah" (this is playing off the way
that Sukkot is written in the verse - it could be read Sukkat which is
singular, indicating all citizens residing in one Sukkah). This is, again, a
Mitzvah which is indicative and symbolic of inclusion of all Jews. The Goy
Kadosh is reinforced as we celebrate the end of the harvest.
What can we make of the culmination of our parashah? In what way is Sukkot
an appropriate "pinnacle experience" in this sequence? Note that unlike the
first treatment, in this second section the festival is called a Hag
l'Hashem - a festival of God; that surely indicates something
significant...what is it?
Looking back over the sequence of Hag haMatzot (freedom), Omer (the Mahn),
Pe'ah (more social concern), Zikhron T'ruah (Har Sinai) and Yom haKippurim
(Goy Kadosh) - we note that there is one critical, final step in the desert
experience which has not yet been internalized.
As Ramban points out in his introduction to Sefer Sh'mot, the goal of the
entire Exodus enterprise was to restore us to the glorious stature of our
ancestors, with the Shekhinah residing in our midst. This was accomplished
only when we constructed and successfully dedicated the Mishkan (which is,
according to Ramban, why Sefer Sh'mot concludes at that point).
The Mishkan, although in the public domain, held a personal connection with
each Jew. Not only were all prayers directed there (see MT Hilkhot T'fillah
1:3), but Aharon constantly wore the Hoshen, which included the names of all
12 tribes (on 12 stones) and the Ephod, whose shoulder-straps included all
12 tribes (on two stones). Every Jew had a place in the Mishkan - but could
not practically come in.
The Sukkah, coming at the culmination of the season of holy days which walk
us through the evolution of the B'nei Yisra'el into a Goy Kadosh, is
evocative of the Mishkan. It is indeed fitting that this holiday, from its
Shabbaton perspective, with its inclusive and communal approach to Kedushah,
be called Hag l'Hashem .
KOHELET 3:1-8: A Song for the Seasons
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven;
1. A time to be born, and a time to die;
2. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3. A time to kill, and a time to heal;
4. A time to break down, and a time to build up;
5. A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
6. A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
7. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
8. A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
9. A time to seek, and a time to lose;
10. A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
11. A time to rend, and a time to sew;
12. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
13. A time to love, and a time to hate;
14. A time of war, and a time of peace.
This famous passage, with its fourteen pairs of opposites, has long been the subject of speculation and analysis among both traditional and modern commentators. In addition to the significance of the choice of which pairs are included here, the order and structure have come under scrutiny of late due to the fact that traditional commentators did not focus their analyses on issues of structure and sequence as explicitly as is currently done. It ought to be noted, however, that the interest and attention given to structure and sequence in T’nakh texts is shared by both the secular and traditional schools in our day. It behooves us, as serious students of the text who believe that the framework and order of passages in T’nakh have much to teach us about the underlying message of that given passage as do the words themselves, to address this thorny passage and seek a solution which is also a resolution.
The difficulties in this short (7 verse) passage are, essentially, two:
a) Why were the particular verb-pairs chosen for inclusion?
b) What is the rationale behind the order of the pairs?
The second question is exacerbated once we note that within each line, the order of (what would generally be considered) the “positive” time and the “negative” time are inconsistent. In the first two lines, the apposition begins with the positive (plant, be born) and ends with the negative (uproot, die); the next four lines begin with the negative (kill, break down, weep, mourn) and end with the positive (heal, build up, laugh, dance). This order is then inverted, with the next four lines beginning with the positive (cast away stones, embrace, seek, keep) and ending with the negative (gather stones together, refrain from embracing, lose, cast away), followed by two lines that begin with the negative (rend, keep silent) and ending with the positive (sew, speak). The entire structure is completed with two lines which are inconsistent with each other ñ positive (love) then negative (hate); negative (war) and positive (peace).
Various attempts to decipher the order are all premised on the notion that the order chosen by the author (our tradition maintains several possible authors of Kohelet - including Solomon [Tosefta Shabbat 18:11] and Hezekiah and his entourage [BT Bava Batra 15a]) is deliberate; nonetheless, most authors prefer to identify the chaotic structure as itself the message (how quickly and unpredictably our fortunes change) or are resigned to the fact that the structure is elusive (cf. Klein’s comment in Olam haTanakh ad loc.) We certainly subscribe to the premise and will continue the analysis ñ and accept the challenge to find a resolution - in that light.
Among the many aphorisms expressed by the author of Kohelet, one sums up much of the wisdom of the book:
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning (7:8)
I would like to suggest that if we understand this notion as not only retrospective (i.e. one can appreciate the value of something at its conclusion) but constructive (within the passage) we will have the keys to unlocking the mystery of the 28 times.
Let us begin, as Kohelet recommends, at the end. The final verse (v. 8) presents four circumstances that exist during an individual’s life: a time to love, a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace. I’d like to suggest that these four, coming at the “inverted” topic sentence of the poem, represent two types of circumstantial-experiential interstices at which a person finds himself during life.
The first distinction drawn is between line 13 and line 14. The opportunities to love or hate chiefly present themselves in the arena of interpersonal relationships and are, by and large, within the power of the individual to choose which path to take. Neither of these is true about the two options of line 14 - war and peace are usually situations into which a member of a clan, tribe or nation will find himself drawn, and those affected by his choices, although human, are usually not people with whom he has direct aware n e s s and familiarity. To paraphrase Martin Buber, L o v e - H a t e is chiefly a question of how “I” relates to “thou”; Wa r- P e a c e will usually determine how “I” will interact with “it.” These two “title” lines are presented in inverted order to allow for the multiple inversions throughout the poem, as will be explained. In addition, this inversion itself shows how not all choices and critical junctures in life are of one cloth ñ some allow for more free will, others impact on a greater population with greater severity.
Once we have these four options presented, the rest of the vrha is an explication of the implications of each of these forks in the road.
Since the entire poem is premised on the inverted nature of life ñ its value only recognized when it is over - it should not surprise us that the structure of the poem is a multi-layered chiasmus. Of the remaining twelve lines, the first six are “descendants” of the bottom line and the next six (#7-12) are the offshoots of the penultimate line.
Let us begin with the bottom line - a time of war, a time for peace. A time for war takes us (via a chiastic arrow) to the second half of lines 1&2 - a time to die, a time to uproot. It is the most basic reality of war that soldiers die; although there is much to recommend an allegorical interpretation of uprooting, both the stricture in the Torah against uprooting fruit trees during war (D’varim 20:19-20) and the consequent offshoots militate in favor of a plain reading. In addition to the terrible loss of life in war, there is also an uprooting of that which has been planted - flora, buildings, social order etc.
Opposite these two consequences of war are the fruits of peacetime ñ a time of birth; simply read, a time at which life can begin, flourish and replenish itself. In addition, it is a time to plant, a time at which we can focus our resources, financial as well as intellectual and emotional, on the building up of society.
Each of these sub-categories further divides into two. Again following a chiastic arrow, a time to die (the first consequence of war) translates into a time to weep (line 5) and a time to mourn (line 6). These two responses to death are not synonymous; mourning (orig. “s’fod”, which, in Rabbinic Hebrew, means “eulogizing”) is a communal outcry of anguish over the loss of a fellow; weeping is that internal and personal mourning which holds the potential for much greater depth as well as permanence of feeling.
The inverse is true following the opening phrase to the second half of lines 5 & 6 ñ a time to be born is both a time of laughter (that personal and internal rejoicing) and a time to dance (the communal reaction to the good news of a new life). Again, the dancing can be more boisterous and inspiring ñ but the personal and internal “laughter” carries the possibilities of a lifetime of happiness.
Line 2, which also stems from “a time of war, time of peace”, operates in the same fashion. The uprooting of 2b translates into both the killing of 3a and the “breaking down” of 4a. There are various ways in which the uprooting of war plays out - there is the real uprooting of lives, and there is the breaking down of all that has been built.
The planting of 2a, symmetrically, is felt both in the healing of 3b and in the building up of 4b.
We have essentially completed the analysis of lines 1-6 and line 14. We have noted that line 14 provides us with the stark alternatives - war and peace. Each path has its consequences - chiefly, the death and destruction associated with war versus the life and construction associated with peace. Death is met with outward eulogies and internal weeping, whereas new life is greeted with public celebration and personal joy. The uprooting of war speaks more to the individual soldier - who will both kill enemy soldiers and will tear down what the enemy has built. Peace afford the possibility to act productively ñ both in healing that which has been harmed and in building up that which has not yet been dreamed of.
We now move up one line to the penultimate - a time to love, a time to hate. Again, we note that lines 7-12 are the direct and secondary results of these choices; and here, the choices are ours.
Line 13a, working in yet another inversion, moves directly to 12b (a time to speak) and 11b (a time to mend).. Love is expressed both in reaching out (which itself has two subsets as we will see) and in taking care of that which has already been entrusted. Its opposite number, a time to hate, moves symmetrically to 12a (a time to be silent) and 11a (a time to rend). If love is reaching out, then its opposite number implies a withdrawal; if love means taking care over that which has been entrusted, then hate is expressed in the destruction of that item.
Again, each of these offshoots subdivides, this time moving backward in the poem.
The time to speak of 12b is resolved in a time to cast away stones of 7a and a time to embrace of 8a. There is the loving speech of a teacher to his students, where the stones of his wisdom are cast far and wide, and there is the loving speech of dear friends who embrace each other. Hatred is expressed in a mirrored fashion. The refusal to share ideas, to impart information, is one type of silence of hatred; the deliberate distancing from a fellow in need of support and embrace is distinct - yet both are cut from the same cloth of enmity.
The other implications of love-hate are mending and rending. The mending mentioned in 11b points “back” and “across” to 9a (a time to seek) and 10a (a time to keep). There is mending which can only be accomplished by looking for the problem, by investigating the situation (be it a fellow’s welfare, a hurt neighbor etc.); without the seeking out nothing can be solved. On the other hand, there are situations where the wisest counsel is to hold on to the status quo.
If mending is sometimes proactive and sometimes conservative, the same can be said for rending. Hence, a time to rend of 11a moves immediately back to 9b (a time to lose) and 10b (a time to cast away). With some things - and some relationships ñ it is sufficient to let them die of their own accord, refusing to breathe any life into them. Others will not go away so easily and can only be rended by casting them away.
In this brief essay, we have attempted to provide an explanation for the odd presentation of the twenty-eight “itim” of Kohelet 3:2-8. Using two principles which are themselves the heart and soul of Kohelet’s thinking - the wisdom of retrospection and the topsy-turvy nature of life - we have identified where those principles inform the structure of this elegant poem.
Since we only realize and appreciate wisdom “at the end” (in our old age), the basic principles are presented in the final verse. And, since the nature of life is to provide us with apparent blessings which we should avoid, along with seeming pitfalls which are really building blocks of our spiritual and moral backbone, the entire poem operates, forward and backward, in a “crossing pattern”, a sort of double-chiasmus. This also explains the graphic “Shira-format” in which this poem is written in the T’nakh, allowing for the back-and-forth movement across sides.
Please see the two charts which are on our web page: 1 and 2. The first one details the hierarchical layout of the poem and the second one elucidates the structure as presented here.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.