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Home » High Holidays, Re'e

The Festival and Shabbat

Submitted by on September 25, 2013 – 4:05 amNo Comment | 5,929 views

Sanctity and Joy

When a Jewish festival falls on Friday, it merges directly  into Shabbat. This gives us pause as we reflect on the differences between the festival and Shabbat.

On a practical level the difference is that actions proscribed on the Shabbat such as carrying in public domains and cooking are permitted during festivals. This is because the sanctity of Shabbat is greater than the festival.[1] Yet, joy during the festival is greater than Shabbat. The Shabbat is holier, the festival is more joyful. What is the significance of these distinctions?

Declaring it Holy

The Torah describes Shabbat as inherently holy and the festivals as holy occasions.[2] A holy day is more potent than a holy occasion. The former is inherently holy whereas the latter is only holy on occasion. The Shabbat is holy every week, festivals fall mostly during the week and weekdays are seldom holy, only when a festival falls on the weekday does the weekday have occasion to be holy.

The occasional holy day is less sacred than the inherently holy day, which is why the Torah uses the term Mikraei Kodesh to describe the festival. The contextual meaning of these words is holy occasion, but the literal meaning is holy declarations. We, the Jewish people, declare these days holy when we set the calendar and determine the festival’s date. We decide which day will be holy. We call the day.

Let us illustrate by way of example. Suppose there is a room filled with students and you need to talk to one of them. You would knock politely, enter when bidden and ask if the person you require may come out so you could talk to him in private. You would not barge into the room, dismiss the entire class and takeover the classroom for your discussion with the student.

The same is true of Shabbat. Shabbat is a day of holiness. When we require holiness for the festival we siphon it from Shabbat. We don’t barge into Shabbat and let the festival take over its holiness. We call out a measure of Shabbat’s holiness and use it for the festival. Festivals are not nearly as holy as Shabbat. We have merely called out some of Shabbat’s holiness – we have called it holy.

Hence it makes sense that the restrictions of Shabbat are greater than those of the festivals. The Shabbat restrictions underscore the sanctity of the day; the holier the day the fewer tasks we are permitted to perform and the more we should prepare in advance. Hence, Shababt is more restrictive than the festival.

Sudden Transformation

It is now incumbent on us to explain why the festival is more joyful. If Shababt is more sacred why do we rejoice more on festivals?festival and shabbat - innerstream

The answer lies in the regularity of Shabbat’s occurrence. Shabbat appears like clockwork every week. It is difficult to get excited over something that we enjoy all the time. It is rare for us to enjoy a holy Monday or Wednesday, hence when a Monday becomes holy it stimulates great joy. The greater joy of the festival is a reflection of its rare holiness rather than great holiness.

Another element that leads to joy is transformation. When something is always there we take it for granted. When something is lacking and suddenly appears we are overjoyed. BY way of example imagine the difference between the emotional response of a millionaire who wins a million dollar lottery and that of the pauper. The millionaire is happy, but not overwhelmingly so. He has so many millions, how much more joy can another million trigger? The poor person has been transformed. Overnight, he or she has gone from pauper to millionaire. This is sufficient reason for joy.

It is not necessary for the pauper to win a hundred million dollars to be joyful. The pauper would be thrilled with several thousand. When you have little, it requires little to make you happy. The weekday holds little sanctity. When the festival falls on the weekday, we are thrilled to have been granted some unexpected holiness on an otherwise mundane day. It matters little that compared to Shabbat the festival’s holiness pales. The key is that a mundane weekday has suddenly become holy. When you have little it takes little to make you joyful.[3]

The Same Coin

We now understand that the very thing that makes Shabbat holier than the festival makes the festival more joyful than the weekday. They are two sides of the very same coin.

Imagine the explosion of thrill that occurs when Shabbat and the festival fall on the same day or at the very least when the festival leads into Shabbat as it does on three occasions this High Holiday season. On such occasions the great joy of the festival merges with the greater sanctity of Shabbat to create an experience that marks us for life. It lifts us to the highest pinnacle and clasps us in the grip of transcendence for a full twenty-four hours.

What a thrill. What an experience. For that alone, this day deserves a L’chaim.



[1] Which is why Havdalah is chanted when we transition from Shabbat to festival, but not vice versa.

[2] Exodus 30:14 and Leviticus 23:2.

[3] This essay is based on the treatise on Lulav in the Siddur with Dach.

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