The “Rest” of the Holidays

By Jonathan Berkowitz and Jean Gerber

The Jewish calendar is replete with a variety of other days of observance.

Tu B’Shevat, known as the New Year for trees, is a minor semi-festival with no historical significance. In fact, there is no trace of it in the Torah. Rabbi Irving Greenberg explains that it may have arisen from the ancient custom of celebrating the first day of each season. As if the Jewish calendar weren’t mysterious enough, a Talmudic passage describes the year as being divided into six seasons. Tu B’Shevat seems to represent the start of one of them.

The Omer, the seven-week period from Passover to Shavuot was, during biblical times, a happy time. But in the rabbinic era, many attacks on the Jewish people took place during the Omer. The period became one of sadness and mourning, with bans on joyous occasions such as marriage. Lag B’Omer is the single-day exception to the period of mourning. Why then? According to tradition, it was the 33rd day after the Pesach seder that a Roman purge of Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped; Rabbi Akiva was a major figure in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. Another tradition is that it is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whom Kabbalists say is the author of the Zohar, the most important work of Jewish mysticism. And, in gematria, the word lag—spelled with a lamed and a gimel—has a value of 33.

Minor Fast Days

An old joke says that Yom Kippur is contradictory; it is a fast day, but one that goes very slowly. Several other fasts, days on which to afflict one’s soul, show up in our annual holiday cycle. These minor fast days are no less important in the Jewish year, but do not elicit the same degree of solemnity as Yom Kippur. In fact, we rarely pay attention to them.

Why do we fast? Theories abound: to do penance for a sin; to plea for Divine assistance; to raise one’s spiritual level by focusing on non-material needs; to prepare for another event or avert a calamity; or, to commemorate an historical event. We encounter many fasts in Biblical stories: King David pleading for the life of his son (with Batsheva); King Saul, before summoning the ghost of Samuel for guidance; pleas for rain or to avert catastrophic war.

And indeed, fasting alone could be considered insufficient. In the haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning, Isaiah scolds the people when true changes in behaviour do not accompany their fast. (Isaiah 57,58). And in the afternoon, the book of Jonah reminds us that Nineveh was spared destruction after the people fasted, prayed, and repented—even the animals joined in!

Here are three minor fasts that encompass some of the reasons mentioned above.

Tzom Gedaliah, which falls on the third day of Tishrei, commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah, who had been appointed head of the Jews remaining in the land of Israel after the Babylonians exiled most of the elite to Babylon. Opposed to what they saw as a quisling ruler, a

small army of zealots killed Gedaliah and his courtiers and then fled to Egypt. This did not, of course, alter the situation of captivity under the Babylonians, but caused considerable consternation among the Judean remnant who ordered a penitential fast.

Ta’anit Esther comes the day before Purim. Recall that Esther asked the Jews to fast and pray for her, before approaching the king to plead on their behalf.. Many observant women still fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of Esther’s perilous task. As we know, things turned out well for the Jews and badly for Haman and his followers.

The Seventeenth of Tammuz ostensibly recalls the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem in 586 BCE during the First Temple period. It occurs a couple of weeks before the ninth of Av or Tisha b’Av, when we commemorate the destruction of both of our holy Temples. The month of Av is a dire one in Jewish history, filled with events of destruction and mourning.

However, while Tammuz seems to be a month of catastrophe, there is hope. We read in Zachariah 8:9, that in the Messianic era, the “fast of the fourth month,” along with other fasts, “shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity. In that glorious time, people from nations of every tongue will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’”.

So, in that Messianic future, there will be no more fast days, major or minor. But “the earth

will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.”

Modern Holidays

The rabbinic holidays of Purim and Hanukkah recognized God’s hidden presence. God’s hiddenness is even more pronounced in the modern holidays of memory and celebration. Those are the four new “Yoms”: Yom HaShoa, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim.

Rabbi Nathan Laufer writes, “On Yom HaShoa we stand in silent commemoration with God to mourn the suffering and annihilation of six million Jews.” Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism), Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), and Yom Yerushalayim (a day to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War), reflect the Jewish people’s acceptance of our responsibility to continue God’s redemptive acts. Rabbi Laufer expresses this eloquently, “Through these modern days of commemoration and celebration, the Jewish people stand, as it were, shoulder to shoulder with God, not only in mourning, but in assuming the yoke of our national survival and flourishing.” His words are prophetic given the horrific events of October 7, 2023. Our responsibility for our own national survival has never been greater.

Shabbat: The “Rest” of the Holidays

Undoubtedly, you have noticed the absence of an essay about Shabbat, the most important holiday in Jewish life. We don’t celebrate it just once a year, but every single week. In Leviticus, Shabbat appears first on the list of sacred days. The Kiddush that brings in Shabbat names it “first of the sacred days.”

In addition to being the first of sacred days, Shabbat commemorates the creation of our world and redemption from slavery. How much more could one ask from a single holiday? Ahad Ha’am, founder of cultural Zionism, famously said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” So why have we not written about it?

The answer is that it is just too big a topic for a small space. It has been well described many times, and we recommend The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and The Jewish Way, by Irving Greenberg, among many other books.

However, we have never seen in the works of any of the great sages, scholars, or authors, this little nugget. The transliteration of the Hebrew word Shabbat becomes the English word Sabbath simply by moving the “h” from the second position to the end of the word!

Shabbat gives a taste of the future and the messianic age of peace. Shabbat is a day of rest, and that’s why we end this article about the rest of the holidays with the “rest” of the holidays.

Rabbi Laufer writes, “And like God who ceased His work of creation, on Shabbat, the Jewish people cease their work of creation in building the Mishkan [Tabernacle].” We, too, now cease our work in creating this book.