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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

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Commentary on Leviticus

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23.1–44 :

Sacred times. God conveys to Moses, in five speeches, the laws of the weekly Sabbath and the annual holy days. Each of the Torah law collections contains a calendar of annual festivities, and most include a Sabbath law (some mention the Sabbath more than once). The command to abstain from labor on the Sabbath is found in all the collections, as is the tradition of festivals coinciding with the major events in the agricultural year: the early grain ripening, the reaping of the first produce, and the final ingathering. Some of the names of the festivals are shared by more than one law collection, as is the intrinsic connection between the springtime “matzot” festival and the commemorative “pesaḥ” offering. The collections also agree that a central feature of at least some of the festivals is the “ḥag,” which means “pilgrimage” (later called “ʿaliyah” or “ascent”), namely, the obligation to appear before the LORD. Despite these similarities, the Sabbath laws and festival calendars found in the separate law collections differ in many ways. Tradition managed to combine all of the legislation into a coherent whole, creatively reconciling the contradictions and interpreting each repeated passage as providing some further detail. Critical scholarship generally views each version of the festival calendar as reflecting a stage in the historical development of the festivals. The laws in this ch provide a glimpse of the unique Priestly vision of the Sabbath and festivals. They are “sacred times,” i.e., dates set apart from the remainder of the calendar and designated as “belonging to” the deity. Like sacred objects, persons, areas, and utterances, they may not be treated as common. Thus, only in P are the festivals, like the Sabbath, days of cessation from work, since engaging in daily activity (that is, labor) would amount to the desecration of the holy, which Priestly law, especially H, is at such pains to prevent. Further, in the Priestly view, though the festivals are determined by the agricultural year, they are primarily God's special occasions. Thus they are days on which He is worshipped—by His priests, in His abode—in a manner exceeding the daily routine. The literary structure of the ch reflects these two features. It is organized as a calendar of precise dates on which a cessation from labor is to be observed and a special “food‐gift” offered to the LORD. Another Priestly festival calendar appears in Num. chs 28–29 ; that calendar is primarily concerned with the required offerings.

1–2 :

The caption. The terms fixed times of the LORD and sacred occasions express the underlying idea for the festival legislation. Which you shall proclaim: The translation reflects the rabbinic tradition (b. Rosh Hash. 24a) that the dates of the festivals are determined by the Israelites, i.e., the proclamation of the New Moon and the introduction of the intercalated month, upon which the entire calendar depends, are the responsibility of the Sages.

3 :

The weekly Sabbath. In the Priestly version of history, the weekly “shabbat” (lit. “cessation”) was consecrated at creation (see Gen. 2.1–3 ) but was not implemented until the Israelites had become a people, the Tabernacle was ready to be erected, and the worship of the LORD was about to be inaugurated there (Exod. 31.12–17; 35.1–3). The Sabbath law is repeated several times in H (Lev. 19.3, 30; 26.2; see also Num. 15.32–36 ). In the non‐Priestly literature the Sabbath and festivals are two distinct topics; only Priestly law, with its notion of sacred times, calls the Sabbath holy and mentions it alongside the festivals (see also Exod. 34.21 , the location of which may have been influenced by this text).

4 :

The repetition of the caption (see v. 2 ) gives the impression that the inclusion of the weekly Sabbath among the “sacred times” was not part of an earlier version of the ch. See v. 38 n.

5–8 :

The annual “pesaḥ” sacrifice, which is not a sacred occasion but which immediately precedes the first of these, the “matzot” pilgrimage. The historical explanation for each, the connection between the two, and the details of their observance, including the abstention from leaven, are given by P in Exod. ch 12 ; here only those aspects relevant to the calendar of “sacred occasions” are mentioned.

5 :

The first month, see Exod. 12.2 . On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight: The date of the evening is that of the preceding day (see (vv. 32 ; Exod. 12.18 ); only in postbiblical tradition was the method reversed and evenings given the date of the following day. A passover offering, “pesaḥ” (see Exod. 12.11–13 ) is the name of the sacrifice made in commemoration of the exodus; in postbiblical Judaism it became the name of the ensuing festival.

6 :

Feast, Heb “ḥag,” “pilgrimage.” In the non‐Priestly calendars there are three annual pilgrimages: the pilgrimage of Unleavened Bread (“ḥag ha‐matzot”), the pilgrimage of Harvest (“katzir”), also called Weeks (“shavuʿot”) and the pilgrimage of Ingathering (“ḥag haʾasif”) or Booths (“sukkot”). Here and in Num. 28.26–31 there are only two, and “shavuʿot” is observed as a sacred occasion but not as a pilgrimage. In addition, in the non‐Priestly tradition, the three pilgrimages are an absolute requirement, incumbent upon all males (Exod. 23.14, 17; 34.23–24; Deut. 16.16 ); in P, no such unqualified obligation is present. Those who do not make the pilgrimages must, however, observe the cessation from labor on the days designated as holy. You shall eat unleavened bread: Nowhere does P provide the rationale for this; the non‐Priestly traditions explain it as a commemoration of the haste in which the Israelites left Egypt (see Exod. 12.39; Deut. 16.3 ). The Priestly tradition thus preserves the agricultural origin of the eating of “matzot” in the early spring, marking the very beginning of the barley harvest. For seven days: The eating of unleavened bread lasts seven days; the pilgrimage, unlike “sukkot” (see vv. 34, 39–40 ) does not. According to Exod. 13.6 only the seventh day was observed as a pilgrimage; in our text it appears that the pilgrimage was observed on the first day, the day after the “pesaḥ” offering, followed by six more days of eating unleavened bread; this is stated explicitly in Deut. 16.7–8 .

7 :

You shall not work at your occupations: This phrase recurs in vv. 8, 21, 25, 35, 36 , prohibiting labor on the fully sacred festival days. It differs from the phrase “You shall do no work” used with regard to the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement in vv. 3, 28, 30 . Relying on Exod. 12.16 , Ramban interpreted the difference to mean that labors required for the preparation of food are permissible on festival days but not on the Sabbath and Day of Atonement.

8 :

Offerings by fire, see 1.9 n. The seventh day: The observance of the first and last days of the festival as full holy days, which became normative Jewish practice, is peculiar to the Priestly tradition (see vv. 36, 39; Exod. 12.16; Num. 28.25; 29.35 ).

9–22 :

The second speech contains a lengthy set of instructions for the rituals commencing after the “matzot” festival and culminating seven weeks later with the second of the sacred occasions.

9–14 :

The presentation (lit. “elevation”; see 7.30 n. ) of the “ʿomer,” or first sheaf of the new barley harvest, with its accompanying offerings, performed each year to secure the deity's blessing for the new crops.

11 :

For acceptance in your behalf, see 1.3–4; 7.18; 19.5; 22.19 . On the day after the sabbath: This phrase (appearing also in v. 15 ) became a major source of controversy in talmudic times (Sifra ʾEmor 12:4; b. Menaḥ. 66a). The Pharisaic sages, claiming that the word “sabbath” is used here in its nonspecific, literal sense (“cessation”) but does not indicate the weekly Sabbath day, vehemently asserted that the “ʿomer” is presented on the day after the day of rest at the beginning of the “matzot” pilgrimage, namely, the sixteenth of Nisan; otherwise the definite article in the phrase “the sabbath” would have no referent. Though this view has been accepted by Jewish tradition, the more natural sense of the phrase is that the ceremony was to take place on the first day of the week (Sunday) following the pilgrimage. This was the view of the Boethusians as well as the Qumran sect, while the Samaritans and the Karaites held that the Sunday during the “matzot” pilgrimage was intended.

14 :

As the presentation of the “ʿomer” marks the beginning of the new harvest, partaking of the new grain is prohibited until the ceremony has taken place.

15–22 :

The new‐grain (“first fruits”; see v. 20 ) offering, performed seven weeks later.

15–16 :

The precise counting of seven weeks is required in order for the cessation from labor observed by the population at large, wherever they are, to coincide with the Temple observances prescribed, since in P this festival is not marked by a pilgrimage (see v. 6 ). Only with the acceptance of the rabbinic interpretation of “the day after the sabbath” (see v. 11 ) and the establishment of the calendar did it become possible to specify a fixed date (6 Sivan) for this holy day; prior to this the fiftieth day would have fallen on a different date each year. The counting later became a ceremony in its own right, called, in commemoration of the sheaf of barley presented at its start, the “Counting of [i.e., from] the ʿomer.” The counting of seven weeks is also prescribed in Deut. 16.9, and even gives its name (“shavuʿot,” “Weeks”) to the festival observed at its conclusion (vv. 10 and 16; see also Exod. 34.22 ), but there it is to enable each landowner to determine the appropriate day for his own family's visit to the Temple. Here it has no name, but Num. 28.26 calls it “yom ha‐bikkurim,” “the Day of First Fruits” (see v. 20 ) and describes it further as “your Weeks.” The connection of “shavuʿot” with the giving of the Torah at Sinai is not found in biblical tradition; it was derived by the Rabbis, who held that the dates coincide.

17–20 :

The offerings presented on the fiftieth day (in addition to those enumerated in Num. 28.26–31 ). They consist of a unique offering of two leavened loaves called the “bread of first fruits” (see v. 20), in thanks for the new grain harvest and accompanied by appropriate additional offerings. Among the latter are two yearling lambs offered as a well‐being offering (“shelamim”). This is the only such offering made on behalf of the public, functioning here as a communal offering of thanksgiving.

20 :

First fruits: The word “fruit” is misleading; the reference here is to the new crop of wheat (see Exod. 23.16; 34.22 ) from which these loaves are produced; see also 2.14–17 .

21 :

On that same day, see vv. 15–16 n.

22 :

A partial quotation from 19.9–10 , added here by association to the context of harvest‐time.

23–25 :

The third speech ordains the sacred occasion observed on the first day of the seventh month. The beginning of the seventh month marks the beginning of the agricultural year and opens the season of holy days culminating two weeks later in the Ingathering pilgrimage. The non‐Priestly calendars are unfamiliar with this observance.

24 :

Commemorated with loud blasts, correctly, “remembrance by shouting”; compare “a day of shouting” [NJPS: “a day when the horn is sounded”] in the parallel law in Num. 29.1 . The Priestly literature contains a number of observances to remind God of the Israelite people (Exod. 28.12, 29; 30.16; Num. 31.54 ). These may be compared to the rainbow, designated by God as a reminder (to Himself!) of His promise to preserve humanity (Gen. 9.14–16 ). Num. 10.9–10 states that this is the function of the trumpet blasts sounded when Israel is in distress, to call their plight to God's attention and secure His assistance, or when celebrating festivals, New Moons, and appointed seasons. The annual “Day of Shouting” would thus be envisaged by the Priestly tradition as a day of Israel's crying out to God, to remind Him that they are His people and to secure His aid. In later tradition this observance developed in several directions. Though “teruʿah” literally means “raise a cry, shout,” it is used in Num. 10.5–10 in conjunction with the sounding of trumpets, and in Lev. 25.9 in reference to the ram's horn. This led to the conclusion that here too the sound is to be made by the ram's horn or shofar. With the eventual adoption of the autumnal New Year as the primary one, the first day of the seventh month in the vernal calendar became New Year's Day (“Rosh Ha‐Shanah”). Since, in the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East, the heralding of the New Year was particularly associated with celebrations of kingship, Rosh Ha‐Shanah became, among other things, a day to mark God's sovereignty as king. Finally, since it opens a period leading up to the annual Day of Atonement (see ch 16; 23.26–32 ), Rosh Ha‐Shanah became invested with the significance of the latter, and now marks the beginning of Judaism's annual ten‐day penitential period.

26–32 :

The Day of Atonement, also unknown outside of Priestly literature. On this day the Tabernacle is purged of the accumulated impurities and transgressions of the Israelite people (ch 16 ). The cessation of labor, which serves (along with the fast) to effect the purification and atonement rituals performed, marks this day too as holy time, a “sacred occasion,” thus incorporating it into the annual cycle of such dates.

27 :

Practice self‐denial, fast; see 16.29 n.

28 :

For it is a Day of Atonement, see 16.30 .

29–30 :

See 7.20, 21; 17.10 .

32 :

A sabbath of complete rest, a phrase used only of the Sabbath (v. 3; Exod. 31.15; 35.2 ) and the Day of Atonement (see also 16.31 ), highlighting the strict and total abstention required in order for the atonement rituals to be effective.

32 :

On the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, see v. 5 . Sabbath, cessation from labor.

33–42 :

The final speech, containing the laws for the “sukkot” festival and the concluding captions.

34 :

Feast, “pilgrimage”; see v. 6 . Booths, Heb “sukkot,” “huts” serving as makeshift, temporary shelters while laboring in the field or vineyard for several days at a time (see Isa. 1.8 ). The autumn pilgrimage is so named because its long duration—seven full days—necessitates the erection of such shelters to accommodate the many pilgrims during their stay in the Temple city (see vv. 43–44 n. ). Notably, the texts which do not specify that the fall pilgrimage lasts for seven days (Exod. 23.16; 34.22 ) do not call it sukkot, whereas vv. 39 and 42 , as well as Num. 29.12 , refer to it as “the pilgrimage of the LORD”—the pilgrimage par excellence. Rabbinic tradition too called it simply “ḥag.”

36 :

On the eighth day: As distinct from the “matzot” observance, the concluding holy day is added to the first seven. Apparently, the pilgrimage is to last seven days, while on the eighth day, not called a “ḥag” but simply a “sacred occasion,” a cessation from labor is to be observed by all—those who do not make the pilgrimage, those who do so but return home for the eighth day, and those who remain an additional day. The eighth day is unknown outside of the Priestly tradition. A solemn gathering, Heb “ʿatzeret” (see Isa. 1.13; Joel 2.15; Amos 5.21 ; etc); this day is therefore later called “shemini ʿatzeret,” “the solemn gathering of the eighth [day].” In Deut. 16.8 “ʿatzeret” is used for the solemnities on the final day of the “matzot” festival. Both apparently refer to local festive gatherings, as distinct from the pilgrimage to the Temple‐city denoted by the word “ḥag.”

37–38 :

A summary caption.

38 :

Apart from the sabbaths of the LORD : The Sabbath law in v. 3 was not originally part of the ch; see v. 4 n.

39–43 :

The closing section repeats the date and length of the pilgrimage, and the cessation of labor on the first and eighth days. Here, however, in place of the refrain “you shall offer food gifts to the LORD” are the additional observances of the festival. Since these are not sacrificial rites performed by the priests but are rather observed by the public at large, during their week‐long visit to the Temple‐city, they are not included in what comes before the caption in vv. 37–38 .

39 :

Observe the festival, lit. “make a pilgrimage”; see v. 6 .

40 :

The “taking” of the four species of branches and boughs is evidently a ritual of joyous acknowledgment of the current year's agricultural abundance. It may also have been a form of supplication for the next year's rainfall, expected to begin at this period of the year; in later times it was so interpreted. In Neh. 8.14–15 the branches were used for the construction of the booths, while according to rabbinic practice, they were gathered together in a bouquet and waved. Product, Heb “peri,” “fruit”; possibly also boughs or branches. Of hadar trees, lit. “majestic” or beau‐ tiful trees (see translators' note c). Though no specific identification can be determined, ancient tradition (b. Sukkah 31a) ruled that the fruit of the citron (the “ʾetrog”) is to be used. Boughs of leafy trees, traditionally, the myrtle. You shall rejoice, mentioned only here, a stark contrast to Deuteronomy, where rejoicing on the pilgrimages is mentioned several times (Deut. 16.11, 14, 15 ).

41 :

As a festival, “as a pilgrimage”; see v. 6 .

43–44 :

Dwelling in booths for the seven days of the pilgrimage is here prescribed as a requirement, incumbent upon the entire population. The rationale differs from the one suggested above (see v. 34 n. ) and is obscure. It is an attempt to historicize the central observance of the pilgrimage, suggesting that it commemorates the period of dwelling in the presence of the LORD's abode, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness. The notion that God housed the Israelites in booths in the wilderness is not attested elsewhere.

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