Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Holidays and the Temple

Jewish holidays are generally distinguished by their focus on the Temple. Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot are occasions of obligatory pilgrimage and sacrifice, while Yom Kippur focuses on the day's special Temple service. Each holiday has special communal sacrifices, and on these days we are commanded to blow trumpets in the Temple. The holiday prayer "yaale veyavo" is recited only in those blessings - Retzeh (prayer) and Boneh Yerushalayim (birkat hamazon) - whose subject is the Temple. And so on and so on.

What, then, are we to do these days, when the Temple is destroyed? Instead of being occasions of celebration, should not holidays become days of pain, when we are directly confronted with what we have lost? Tisha Beav - now a day of mourning - will turn into a festive day once the Temple is rebuilt; wouldn't it be appropriate for holidays to be commemorated the same way?

My answer to this is no, and the explanation comes in two parts. First, to explain what the purpose of holidays is, beyond the particular rituals we can no longer perform. And second, to explain how that purpose is still fulfilled today.

First: Holidays were an opportunity for closeness with God. Of course, God is "found" in every place, and there are many opportunities for closeness unrelated to Temple. But the atmosphere of holidays, the prohibition on work, the physical closeness to "God's house", and the special rituals and celebrations, made holidays especially good opportunities for individuals to approach God. Moreover, as the entire nation celebrated together, holidays became occasions of national closeness to God.

Second: Despite the loss of the Temple, I believe we can still achieve this special holiday closeness. In the Temple, Divine closeness was achieved through certain rituals, like the Yom Kippur sacrifice with precipitated the forgiveness of our sins. Those rituals were a commandment, and the resulting closeness was the reward. We (the religious community) still want to perform these rituals, but we are prevented by circumstances from doing so. Halachically, this situation is defined as a situation of "oness". In such a situation, having done everything we are capable of doing, we are still entitled to the reward.

One may argue that this is not a situation of complete "oness", since the Temple's destruction is caused by our sins, and by repenting we could cause it to be rebuilt. This is true on one level, but false on another. The process of returning to Israel, appointing a king, rebuilding the Temple, and offering sacrifices takes a certain amount of time. We mourn all year for the Temple, because we have this time yet are not using it appropriately in order to speed up redemption. But once the holiday has begun, it is no longer possible to do all the tasks needed to rebuild the Temple. Regarding that particular holiday, we are truly in a state of "oness". We still perform whatever rituals we are capable of, and God still rewards us with His closeness as if we had performed all the other rituals as well.


micha said...

Actually, I think that had the Torah not explicitly required an aura of unadulterated happiness (loosely translating "veyahisa akh sameiach") they probably would have become days of sadness.

Look at what happened to the omer period. They too were once days of joy and a special offering thanking Hashem for our spring grain crops. I am not sure how your argument fails for this counterexample, but it must in order to be valid.

micha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beisrunner said...

Interesting theory - I totally forgot about the mitzvah of simcha, which is unforgivable in this context.

But I also had in mind RH, YK, Rosh Chodesh which do not have the mitzvah of simcha, certainly not to the same degree. So I'm not sure your answer suffices.

I think the agricultural heritage of the Omer was simply forgotten (and never imparted much of a ritual character to the days to begin with), while later events such as the Crusades conspired to make it a time of mourning.

micha said...

I didn't intend to answer your question by invoking the pasuq, because you're operating on a different level. Halachic source on a legal plane is a different issue than asking what lessons we can take from the mitzvah.

Given the pasuq, the question you're asking would become one about the chiyuv deOraisa itself: what did HQBH intend when He made pilgrimage festivals that are to have a tenor of joy even when the pilgrimage is impossible?

Rather, my focus was on my 2nd paragraph. Your post would justify keeping omer as a period of joy too. Or, in light of your recent comment -- how were we permitted to forget the harvest / gratitude nature of the period? Why isn't there a similar obligation as the holidays share?

I thought we have an obligation of simchah on RH & YK. Hallel isn't said because the aura of yir'ah makes such an expression of the joy inappropriate, not because there isn't any. C.f. Yad, Hil' Chanukah 3:6 and Hil' Yom Tov 6:17-18 (where these are only 2 yamim tovim left to be included in "she'ar yamim tovim").

Beisrunner said...

what did HQBH intend when He made pilgrimage festivals that are to have a tenor of joy even when the pilgrimage is impossible?

The idea of "You shall rejoice before God", also appears regarding Temple rituals unrelated to the holidays (i.e. Devarim 27:7). I suspect that the same idea, when appearing regarding holidays, is a consequence of our visiting the Temple, and has no further cause. Thus, simcha nowadays would be a sort of "lo plug". I think this can be read even into the source you are using for simcha:
שבעת ימים, תחג לה' אלקיך, במקום, אשר-יבחר ה': כי יברכך ה' אלקיך, בכל תבואתך ובכל מעשה ידיך, והיית, אך שמח.
Which can be interpreted roughly as follows: "Seven days you shall do the pilgrimage, because God blessed your produce, and [on that pilgrimage] you shall rejoice." It does not mention simcha separate from the pilgrimage.

how were we permitted to forget the harvest / gratitude nature of the period?

The Omer may be a period in which people are naturally happy about their harvest (though in contrast, it may be a period in which they were anxious about losing their entire harvest to bad weather, see Shmuel Alef 12:17-19). And happy times are naturally good times to be grateful to God. But the Torah does not specify any Omer observances on an individual level which have anything to do with "simcha". This is in contrast to shalosh regalim, where the pilgrimage and rejoicing apply to each individual. So it's not clear that we as individuals are missing anything in our Omer observance. Yes, the historical basis for the Omer has been forgotten, but why should that matter in practice? The "theme" of the Omer is irrelevant (we today aren't farmers and have nothing special to rejoice over), and so are the technicalities (the Omer has no halachic implications except counting and sacrifices), so it seems to me nothing is left.

I thought we have an obligation of simchah on RH & YK.

You're right (at least regarding RH), but the obligation is certainly less than on shalosh regalim, and not explicit in the pesukim anywhere. And I think it fits to say that this level of obligation too is caused by the special Temple observances. The level of simcha is lower than on shalosh regalim because the level of personal involvement in the Temple service is less (we don't do melacha and on YK don't eat, but unlike shalosh regalim we don't visit the Temple).

I hope all this is coherent, it's late at night.