This week’s Torah reading may seem familiar because we frequently read sections of Emor during the year when we celebrate holidays, as we did during Passover. In particular, we focus on the calendar of the festivals that is included in this reading, beginning with Passover, which the Torah considers to be the first holiday of the year, and continuing with the counting of the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Before any of these holidays are mentioned, though, something else takes precedence:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: The appointed seasons of the Lord, which you shall call ‘holy’ — these are My appointed seasons. Six days shall you work, but on the seventh day, a Shabbat of complete rest, called ‘holy,’ you shall do no manner of work; it is a Shabbat for the Lord in all your dwellings” (Leviticus 23:1-3).
Even though the passage says it is about to list the “appointed seasons” of the year, Shabbat, which comes each week, precedes all of the holidays. Why? We can give a ritual answer: Shabbat comes first because the rituals of Shabbat take precedence over those of the holidays. The prayers of the holidays are altered when they fall on Shabbat, and even some holiday observances — like blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and waving the lulav on Sukkot — are omitted when the holiday falls on Shabbat.
Or we can give an historical answer: Shabbat comes first because it is mentioned first in the Torah, in the account of the creation of the world. Unlike the holidays, Shabbat does not mark or recall a moment in the history of the Jewish people. Instead, it is an observance built into the fabric of the universe and the pattern of human life long before the Israelites appear on the scene.
Or we can give a practical answer: Shabbat comes first because its observance impacts every aspect of life even more than the observance of the holidays. The impression that Shabbat has made on Jewish life throughout the millennia has no parallel in other aspects of Jewish observance.
The medieval sage Ibn Ezra offers still another answer. He explains that Shabbat precedes the holidays and is called an “appointed season” precisely because it occurs more frequently. He writes, “There are many Shabbatot throughout the year.”
Why would the fact that there are many opportunities to celebrate Shabbat give it a special status? Ibn Ezra is hinting at an ancient rabbinic principle often repeated in the Talmud: “Tadir v’sh’eino tadir, tadir kodem — the frequent takes precedence over the infrequent” (see e.g. Berachot 51b). We might think of that which happens infrequently — “once-in-a-lifetime” — being more precious and of greater significance.
But for the ancient rabbis, the more frequent an event, the more valuable its observance. They were interested not in one-time peak experiences but in cultivating habits of holiness that could transform human life.
The holidays of the Jewish year hold great potential for focusing our attention on the moments and values that have shaped Jewish history — achieving freedom, taking on responsibility, working toward purity. Shabbat, though, has the power to refocus our lives each and every week on what is most important through rest, prayer and learning. May we embrace its gifts to the fullest.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org .