IN THE SEVENTH MONTH by Rabbi ElliTikvah Sarah – SJN, October-November 2016
This year, October coincides almost completely with the seventh month of the Jewish year, Tishri, which like the seventh day of the week has a special sacred status.
In the biblical calendar in the Torah (see Leviticus chapter 23), only two festivals, connected by a special seven-week period, took place outside the seventh month of the year: the seven day festival of Pesach, Passover, which begins on the 15th day of the first month of the year, Aviv, ‘Spring’ – later known by its Babylonian name, Nisan – and Shavuot, Weeks, celebrated on the 50th day after the Shabbat in Pesach. Initially, without a fixed date (because the date of Shabbat in Pesach would change each year), the early rabbis set the date of Shavuot as the 6th of Sivan (another Babylonian name) by counting the days from the day after the first day of Pesach.
So, a seven-week period, book-ended by festivals, and then, the seventh month, completely packed with commemorations, from the very first day, known as zichron t’ru’ah, ‘a memorial of blasting’ in the Torah (Lev. 23:24), through Yom Kippur, literally, ‘the day of covering’ – called Yom Ha-Kippurim in the Torah (23:27) on the 10th day, followed five days later by the seven day festival of Sukkot (23:34), with Sh’mini Atzeret, the ‘eighth day’ of ‘closure’ concluding the sacred proceedings (23:36). In the biblical context, it is clear that there is a connection between all these sacred days. The people, summoned to Jerusalem for the first day of the seventh month, remained there for all the succeeding holy days.
Naming the first day of the seventh month as Rosh Ha-Shanah, the New Year (for years), the early rabbis, whose teachings are recorded in the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law (2nd century), designated the ten day period from the 1st to the 10th day of the seventh month as yamim nora’im, ‘days of awe’. Beginning with a day of ‘judgement’, din, and ‘remembrance’, zikaron, the blasts of the shofar (‘ram’s horn’), proclaimed, aseret y’mey t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning’, which concluded on Yom Kippur. Fixing the reading of the Torah in an annual cycle, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud (5th century), later added a new festival day to the calendar: Simchat Torah, ‘the joy of the Torah, to mark the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, and the inauguration of a new cycle once again. In progressive congregations throughout the world, instead of being an additional day, Simchat Torah is celebrated on Sh’mini Atzeret.
Integral to the sacred season of the seventh month, Sukkot is also connected to Pesach and Shavuot. Together, these three festivals form shalosh r’galim, the ‘three feet’ [festivals], originally rooted in the agricultural cycle, and also known as chaggim, ‘pilgrimages’, when our ancestors went to Jerusalem with the produce of the harvest (the singular, chag, is related to the Arabic, haj). In biblical times, Sh’mini Atzeret on the day after Sukkot, both, concluded the sacred period of the seventh month, and was also the day of closure for the annual festival cycle as a whole, which resumed again six months later with Pesach, in the first month of Aviv, ‘Spring’.
So: the sacred season of Tishri has begun. May the New Year of 5777, bring renewal for each of one of us, for our families, our communities, our people, and for the whole world. L’shanah Tovah! Rabbi Elli