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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Is Rosh Hashanah late this year?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 18

‘Chanukah is late this year!’
‘Rosh Hashanah is early this year!’

I always like to remind people that Chanukah is actually happening no earlier than any other year.  It always falls on the 25th Kislev.  Sometimes, however, Xmas is late!  Similarly, Rosh Hashanah always falls on the first of Tishrei.  Labor Day, may indeed be late in comparison! 

When one comes to the Holy Temple for the pilgrimage holidays of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, one must bring festive offerings.  Pesach and Sukkos have weeklong celebrations and thus, weeklong opportunities, to bring one’s offering.  Shavuos, in contrast, is but one day.

Rabbi Elazar quotes Rabbi Oshaya: How do we know that we can offer the Shavuos sacrifice all week long?  The Torah states, “You shall appear on the festival of Pesach, on the festival of Shavuos, and on the festival of Sukkos.”  The festival of Shavuos is juxtaposed to the festival of Pesach.  Just like Pesach has an offering period of seven days so too Shavuos has an offering period of seven days.

Reish Lakish teaches: The Torah calls Shavuos the Harvest Festival.   Now, when does one harvest on Shavuos?   If you say it means on the festival itself, are you permitted to harvest on Yom Tov?  Rather, it teaches us that we have extra days beyond Yom Tov of harvest-time to offer the sacrifice.

Rabbi Yochanan responds: If that is the case, what will you do with the Torah’s reference to Sukkos as the Gathering Festival?  When can we gather the crops on Sukkos?  If you say it means on the festival itself, are you permitted to gather on Yom Tov?  And if you say it refers to the Intermediate Days of the festival, are you permitted to gather on the Intermediate Days?  Rather, it means the festival that occurs during the gathering season (not that one actually gathers on the festival).  And so, here too, Shavuos is referred to as the Harvest Festival, since it falls during the harvest season. 

Like any ancient tradition, in recent years, Judaism has been subjected to historical revisionisms that often involve gross distortions.   Some have opened up the Torah and read that Sukkos is called the Gathering Festival and assumed therefore that our pilgrimage festivals were originally agricultural in nature.   The Talmud here explains categorically that the agricultural terminology is merely a seasonal reference.   Shavuos is called the Harvest Festival because it occurs during the harvest season.  While there were certainly agricultural aspects that took place around the time of the holiday, such as the bringing of the First Fruits, the primary celebration, of course, is the commemoration of the giving of the Torah.   

And so, in all honesty, when I correct people who say that Rosh Hashanah is early or late, I’m not entirely accurate.  While our calendar is lunar, the festivals must occur during certain seasons.  That’s why every so often we add an extra month to the year, to keep us in sync with the solar calendar.   Sometimes, Shavuos may be late in the harvest season, and sometimes, Sukkos may be early in the gathering season. 

Nevertheless, let’s always remember: From the perspective of the Divine, whenever our festivals fall, they are occurring at exactly the right time!

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