This week’s Torah portion is Emor and describes the holiday cycle. “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions…” (Leviticus 23:2)
Whereas last week we delved into the ethical mitzvot, this chapter details rituals commandments. The following holidays are described: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Notice that our favorites of Hanukkah and Purim are not mentioned. These, it should be noted, are nowhere to be found in the Torah. This is why they are accorded minor status in the tradition, despite our fondness for them and especially our children’s love for them.
Of particular note as well is the order of the holidays. Shabbat stands at the head of the list. Also the Jewish year began with Passover not Rosh Hashanah during biblical times. During those times our holidays were constructed around our people’s agricultural sentiments. For farmers the year began with the Spring and was marked by the holiday of Passover. With the exception of Shabbat there were no holidays during the Winter in biblical times. Sukkot marked the end of seasons, and the conclusion of the harvests, in the Fall which is why it was the most important holiday called, “he-chag,” the holiday in the Torah. Shavuot marked the summer’s first fruits. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than being the most important days of the year were instead a prelude to the concluding holiday of Sukkot.
As the Jewish people moved farther away from the land, and in particular from farming the land, the calendar shifted. Rosh Hashanah became the season of personal introspection and repentance. The holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot came to emphasize their roots in the Jewish history of slavery, wandering and receiving of the Torah over their agricultural themes. Passover was connected in particular to the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot the first fruits and wheat harvest and Sukkot the conclusion of the farming season.
We of course live in a time when we are disconnected from the agricultural calendar. Our children have little sense of connection between the foods they eat and the seasons that give rise to particular fruits and vegetables. They have no idea that strawberries are for example a summer fruit. In our supermarkets you can find strawberries all year round. They are imported from other countries or grown in hothouses during the Fall, Winter and early Spring. We can now enjoy summer fruits all year round.
My question for this Shabbat is what have we lost as a consequence of this detachment from growing our own food? It is obvious what we have gained. (I love strawberries!) It is more difficult to discern what we have lost. And so at a time when our food is wrapped in cellophane and grown in countries thousands of miles away would it serve us well to recover the distant agricultural themes of our holidays? What would we and our children gain by reconnecting with these themes?