By April 9, 2008 Read More →

Sanctuaries in Time

Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The Jewish calendar utilized the ancient Babylonian system of employing lunar months
within a solar year. The eleven-day difference between the lunar and solar years was
dealt with by intercalating an extra month (Adar II) at the end of the winter,
approximately every three years. In Second Temple and rabbinic times, a complex system
of empirical observation was employed to synchronize the calendar with actual lunar
changes. While certain sectarian groups in Second Temple times, among them the
Boethusians and the Dead Sea sect, used a calendar based on solar months, this
innovation never gained substantial ground. Tannaitic Jews regarded the luni-solar
calendar as divinelyordained and as the ancient calendar of biblical Israel. Moreover, the
sectarian calendars in our sources were not as astronomically accurate.

Besides the need for a system of intercalation, it was so necessary to fix the exact day of
the new moon each month. Both of these functions involved a detailed procedure of lunar
observation undertaken in tannaitic times by a court of the patriarchal house. Thus,
although the Sabbath was considered to occur on the very day on which God had desisted
from labor during creation, the seventh day, and hence its sanctity had been fixed by God,
the festivals and other Jewish holidays are regarded as controlled by the people of Israel
through their system of courts. Rabbinic Judaism, therefore, recognized two kinds of holy
occasions, those determined by God and those determined by His people. In other words,
it was possible in the rabbinic view, for God to sanctify time, an act built into the very
order of creation, but it was the privilege of His people to be able to do the same in regard
to the festivals. In this way as in so many others, man becomes God’s partner in the
creation and perfection of the world.

As long as there was a Temple in Jerusalem, with sacrificial worship and the
accompanying rituals, the Jewish people had a sanctuary in space that allowed them to
commune with God. Tannaitic Judaism, as part of its adjustment to the destruction of the
Temple, placed ever greater emphasis on other sanctuaries. While this was certainly a
factor in the rise of the synagogue in amoraic times, the Sabbath and festivals had
already, in the tannaitic period, begun to replace the Temple and its sacrifices as the
sancta of Israel, becoming, as it were, sanctuaries in time.

The Sabbath

In the tannaitic sources, the main issue regarding the Sabbath was the conditions under
which one who accidentally violated the Sabbath was obligated to bring a sacrifice of
expiation. This question determined the content of the largest part of the tractate Sabbath
in the Mishnah. Indirectly, we learn from the tractate that the tannaim understood as
prohibited on the Sabbath a wide range of creative labors that were said to have been
performed in the building of the Tabernacle, the portable shrine, in the desert. Since the
Tabernacle was God’s sanctuary, the labors outlined in the biblical accounts of its
construction must have been the most important of creative labors. Since they were
designated melakhah, “creative labor,” and melakhah is prohibited on the Sabbath by the
Torah, they must be the ones that pentateuchal law intended to prohibit. By abstaining
from creative labors on the Sabbath one imitated the Creator, who, according to Genesis
(2-1–3), had rested in this way after bringing the world into being.

The positive aspects of Sabbath observance, such as the Sabbath meals, the reading of
the Torah, the special prayers of sanctification (Kiddush) and the concluding ceremony
(Havdalah), both of which are mentioned prominently in tannaitic sources, and the
requirements of rejoicing and dedicating the day to spiritual pursuits, were elaborated in
amoraic sources. By the close of the talmudic period, these aspects were thoroughly
spelled out in a series of laws designed to ensure that the positive character of the
Sabbath would not be lost in light of its restrictions. Observed as the rabbis intended, the
Sabbath provided a sanctuary in time from everyday work activities and created an
atmosphere of sanctity in home and family.

Festivals and Other Occasions

Along with the Sabbath, several other days were set apart by biblical legislation as
occasions for special sacrificial offerings. As such, they had special significance in First
and Second Temple times. In tannaitic times, after the destruction they were adapted to
the new situation that had become the norm and were given a more important place in the
home and synagogue.

First and foremost, by tannaitic times, were Rosh Ha-Shanah (the New Year) and Yom
Kippur (the Day of Atonement). In the absence of Temple and sacrifices, the High Holy
Days and the period between them, the Days of Penitence, became a period of
repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. The ceremonies and prayers for these days
expressed Rabbinic Judaism’s belief in free will and the human being’s ability to change
his or her life. The emphasis on God as king and sovereign on Rosh Ha-Shanah accented
such concepts as God’s remembrance of Israel and His use of the shofar to herald the
Sinaitic revelation and, in the future, the coming of the messiah. Yom Kippur became a
remembrance of the atonement service in the Temple, serving to replace the sacrifice
described in Leviticus 16.

Of ancient origins are the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), and
Sukkot (Tabernacles). In biblical times, these agricultural turning points were given new
significance as celebrations of the redemptive history of Israel. Now, in rabbinic times,
this meaning was deepened and heightened. The week-long Passover, the festival of the
barley harvest, became the focal point of the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.
Originally, in the days of the Temple, the Passover Seder had been a sacrificial meal at
which certain praises and a midrash were recited. After the destruction, the Seder became
a central part of the home ritual. Shavuot, a wheat harvest festival, was defined by
talmudic chronology as the day on which the Torah had been given at Mount Sinai, and
so it became the celebration of God’s covenant with Israel, an event which had followed
closely on the heels of the liberation from Egyptian bondage.

Sukkot, a seven-day celebration likewise connected with the Exodus, took on increased
significance as a fall festival at which the Jewish people asked for rain to nourish the
crops of the coming year. The lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), carried in
processions during this festival, while given many symbolic explanations, were
understood to express the fervent hope for a rainy winter and to represent the bountiful
crops and fertility of the land for which the Jew prayed at the onset of fall, the planting
season for grains. The sukkah (‘‘booth’’) in which the Jews were commanded to dwell
for the duration of the festival represented the temporary dwellings of the Israelites on
their way to the promised land but was also a reminder of the clouds of the Divine Glory
which had protected them in the desert, and, hence, of the fragility of human existence. In
the Temple a special water-drawing ceremony and willow procession expressed the
agricultural aspect of the holiday. In amoraic time, these ceremonies were increasingly
reenacted in the synagogue services. It was in the amoraic period that the last day of the
festival, the ninth day in the Diaspora (where an extra day was added to avoid confusion
regarding the exact date), began to take on significance as a festival celebrating the
completion of the reading of the Torah according to the Babylonian custom, which read
the entire Pentateuch in one year. Yet it was only in the Middle Ages that this day
developed its full significance and became known as Simhat Torah (Rejoicing in the

Two other holidays, Hanukkah and Purim, are of special importance because they were
instituted to celebrate Jewish victories over anti-Semitism and religious oppression. Both
of these holidays, because of their late origin, elicited some reservations before they were
finally accepted as part of the Jewish calendar.

Purim, based on the story told in the Book of Esther, commemorates the Jewish victory
over the courtier Haman and his supporters in the Persian Empire. While biblical scholars
in modern times have doubted the story’s historicity, talmudic tradition accepted it as
fact. The rabbis saw the tale’s humor and irony, but recognized the hand of God behind
the story line. In accord with the commands given toward the end of the tale, they spun
out detailed observances for the holiday—the reading of the Scroll of Esther morning and
night, gifts of food and alms to be given the poor, special holiday additions to the service
and the Grace after Meals, and a festive meal. Yet at the same time, there is tannaitic
evidence that the book’s canonicity was challenged and amoraic evidence that the
obligatory character of the Purim observances was questioned. Ultimately, authoritative
rabbinic opinion sided with the celebration of Purim. Yet the discomfort of some rabbinic
Jews with a story of deliverance in which prayer and God are not explicitly mentioned
can still be felt in our sources.

Hanukkah is a holiday commemorating the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucids in
168–164 B.C.E. The tannaim had little information about its origins and historical
background, for I and II Maccabees were not known to rabbinic Jews. Nonetheless, the
tannaim set down the regulations for the lighting of candles, and for additions to the
service and the Grace after Meals. Once again there was some hesitancy about the
commemoration, this time because the Maccabean priests had arrogated both the high
priesthood and the kingship to themselves even though the two offices were supposed to
be separate according to the Torah. It has been suggested that Rabbi Judah the Prince did
not include a specific tractate for Hanukkah in the Mishnah because of resentment over
this- he claimed to be a member of the Davidic house, which had effectively been
displaced by the Hasmonean priest-kings.

Besides these joyous holidays, there was a series of sad occasions, fast-days, to
commemorate destruction of the First and Second Temples. The most notable of these are
the Seventeenth of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av. Both of these fast-days are mentioned by
the prophet Zechariah (8-19) early in the Second Temple period, and originally they
commemorated the first destruction. However, we can only gauge their significance from
the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. Abstinence from food and drink,
special prayers, and the reading of the Torah all served to highlight the tragic quality of
the destruction. Although much of Talmudic Judaism developed in its aftermath, the
rabbis regarded this break in the intimate contact between God and the world to have
been the greatest disaster in Jewish history.

The various days surveyed here, both happy and sad, provided the rabbinic Jewish
community in Palestine and Babylonia with an opportunity to remember and transmit its
communal history and to forge its communal identity. Despite the many local differences
in observance, as well as the historical development of the various holidays, the basic list
of observances remained uniform from the mid-second century on. These days
constituted the Jewish ritual calendar, the rhythm of the Jewish year.

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