The Idea of the Holidays
There are six holidays (Yamim Tovim) mentioned in the Torah: a) the first day of Pesaḥ; b) the seventh day of Pesaḥ; c) Shavu’ot; d) Rosh Ha-shana; e) the first day of Sukkot; f) Shemini Atzeret .
We are commanded to sanctify these days. We do this by not working then, by studying Torah, by rejoicing in the festival, and by thanking God for all the good that He has given us. All this leads us to remember the Lord, our God, Who chose us from among all the nations, gave us His Torah, sanctified us with His mitzvot, drew us close to His service, and called us by His great and holy name. In this way, we transcend our daily lives and mundane activities. We improve ourselves by perfecting our character and purifying our heart; we strengthen our commitment to Torah and mitzvot; and we recall our vital mission – repairing the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.
While all the holidays share these basic characteristics, each one also expresses a unique concept that we are privileged to internalize anew each year. The first day of Pesaḥ is the day when God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt to eternal freedom. In order to ensure that we remember that event, we were commanded to eat matza, bitter herbs, and the meat of the Paschal sacrifice on that night, and to tell the story of the Exodus. The seventh day of Pesaḥ is the day when God split the Reed Sea for us, led us through it on dry ground, and drowned the Egyptians who pursued us.
On Shavu’ot God gave us the Torah, through which we repair the world. Accordingly, we were commanded to bring two loaves of ḥametz (leavened grain) to the Temple on Shavu’ot. This teaches us that even the evil inclination, symbolized by ḥametz, which causes grain to puff up, can be perfected and purified by the Torah.
The first of Tishrei is the day the world was created. More accurately, it was the sixth day of creation, when man was created. We are commanded to make it a Day of Remembrance (Yom Zikaron), to blow the shofar, and to “wake up” and repent. There is an additional day of awe and holiness – Yom Kippur. Since its prohibitions are stricter than those of the holidays, it is not counted among them.
The first day of Sukkot is not tied into a specific event, but on it, we remember the divine providence we experienced when God liberated us from Egypt, led us through the desert, and enveloped us in clouds of glory. Sukkot takes place at the end of the fruit harvest, giving us the opportunity to conclude the yearly festival cycle by thanking God for the year’s fruit. Immediately following Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, which is the final celebration of the year. On this holiday we are privileged to experience extra closeness with the Lord, our God. It is thus a fitting time for us to complete the Torah-reading cycle and celebrate it.
Agricultural Seasons and Judgment Days
The names of the regalim (pilgrimage festivals) reflect the agricultural periods in which they take place. Thus we read:
“Three times a year, you shall hold a festival for Me: You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Pesaḥ)…at the set time in the month of Aviv (spring), for in it you went forth from Egypt…the Festival of the Harvest (Shavu’ot), of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Festival of Ingathering (Sukkot) at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the fields. Three times a year, all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the Lord” (Shemot 23:14-17).
Similarly, we read:
“You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread…at the set time of the month of Aviv, for in the month of Aviv you went forth from Egypt…. You shall observe the Festival of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year” (Shemot 34:18-23).
It is appropriate for Pesaḥ to be in the spring, when everything begins to grow. Shavu’ot is referred to as the Festival of the Harvest because the harvest of wheat, which provides man with his main sustenance, is completed then. Sukkot is called the Festival of Ingathering because this is when all of the year’s crops are gathered and brought home. At these times, people are naturally happy. In the spring, we are happy because of the rejuvenation of the crops after the bleak winter. During the harvest, we are happy because of the abundance of blessing in the crops. During the ingathering, we are happy because of the variety of good fruit which we have been privileged to gather. We were commanded to uplift and sanctify these naturally joyful feelings through the mitzvot of the festivals.
These natural processes reflect the spiritual processes that take place in the supernal worlds. Pesaḥ is a time of beginning and renewal; therefore, we left Egypt then and became a nation. Shavu’ot is a time when the growth process reaches maturity; therefore, we received the Torah then. Sukkot is a time of joyful celebration of bounty, at the culmination of the year’s agricultural endeavors, so we express our great joy for the Divine Presence resting upon us and for all the positive things that result from our living under God’s protection.
In other words, each festival represents the conclusion of a stage that we experience in both the natural and spiritual worlds. Pesaḥ concludes spring’s arrival after the dormancy of the winter, and is also the time of Exodus from Egypt. Shavu’ot concludes the first stage of growth. It is the time of both harvesting and the giving of the Torah. Sukkot concludes all the stages: we gather in the physical fruit as well as the spiritual fruit that give expression to the close relationship between the Jews and God. In order to link both the natural agricultural processes and the corresponding spiritual processes to the source of holiness, we were commanded to travel to the Temple on these three festivals, offer sacrifices, and rejoice before God.
The festivals are also judgment days. The Mishna tells us that there are four times of the year when the world is judged. On Pesaḥ, judgment is passed on grain, determining how much will grow until Shavu’ot. On Shavu’ot, judgment is passed on fruit, determining how much will grow during the summer. On Sukkot, judgment is passed on water, determining how much rain Eretz Yisrael will receive in the winter. On Rosh Ha-shana, all people are judged (RH 16a). If we observe the festivals properly, we will be judged favorably. By commanding us to observe the festivals, God has given us an opportunity to connect with Him in each season joyfully and thankfully, thus ensuring blessing for the next season as well.
Israel and the Seasons
The sanctity of Shabbat is fixed and enduring. Since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, Shabbat is always on the seventh day of the week. In contrast, the sanctity of the festivals depends upon the Jewish people. This dependency is twofold. First, the unique idea of each festival was revealed through the Jews. On Pesaḥ, God redeemed the Jews from Egypt; on Shavu’ot, God gave the Torah to the Jews; and on Sukkot, we remember the special divine providence experienced by the Jews. On Rosh Ha-shana, the Jews stand as emissaries for all creation, crowning God as ruler of the world.
Second, in practice, the timing of the festivals depends upon the Hebrew calendar, whose months are sanctified by the Jewish people. In other words, even though a Hebrew month is based on the lunar cycle, seeing the new moon does not automatically inaugurate and sanctify the incoming month. Only the beit din can sanctify the month, based on Jewish attestations to seeing the new moon. The Torah instructs: “This month shall mark for you (lakhem) the beginning of the months” (Shemot 12:2). The Gemara expounds: “This testimony is handed over to you (lakhem)”.
It is true that we now have a set calendar instead. This is because approximately 300 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the sages of Eretz Yisrael, under the leadership of Hillel the Second, understood that due to the exigencies of exile, it would be difficult for them to continue sanctifying the months. Therefore, they used a formula to calculate the calendar and to sanctify the months and years for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, sanctification of the months is still dependent upon the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, who calculate the months based on the formulas of the calendar and thus sanctify them. If, God forbid, the Jews were to disappear from Eretz Yisrael, the set calendar would not be binding, and the months and festivals would cease to exist. Fortunately, God promised us that this would never happen.
We see that the sanctity of the festivals is dependent upon the Jews, which is why the Sages formulated the festival berakha in the Amida and Kiddush as “Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies Israel and the seasons.” At first glance this would seem difficult. As is well known, we do not end a berakha by referring to two themes. Nevertheless, since the Jews sanctify the festivals, these two themes are not considered distinct; God sanctifies the festivals through the people of Israel (Berakhot 49a). In contrast, the sanctity of Shabbat is fixed and enduring, established by God. Accordingly, the formulation of the Shabbat berakha is “Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies Shabbat” (Pesaḥim 117b). Therefore, even though Shabbat is holier than and superior to the festivals, there is more of a mitzva to rejoice on the festivals, because the value of our deeds in this world is more apparent then.
Since the sanctity of the festivals is dependent upon the Jews, the sanctity of the Jewish people is revealed on the festivals and is absorbed by each and every Jew. This expresses Jewish unity, as does each festival in its own way. On Shavu’ot, we received the Torah when we stood united facing the mountain. On Pesaḥ, the korban Pesaḥ hints at the unity of the Jewish people and its uniqueness. On Sukkot, bundling together the four species expresses the unity among all parts of the nation.
Along these lines, in order not to create divisions among the pilgrims, on the festivals the Sages were lenient when it came to amei ha-aretz (those less knowledgeable). During the rest of the year, the Sages declared that the touch of an am ha-aretz rendered items impure, since some of them were not careful about the laws concerning purity and impurity. On the festivals, however, the Sages taught that one could rely upon their word for purity purposes. If an am ha-aretz declared that he was pure, he was to be believed, and his touch would not render food or sacrifices impure. The Sages connect this with the verse: “Gathered against the city were all the men of Israel, united as one man, friends” (Shoftim 20:11). We see that when everyone gathers together, they are all deemed friends, and thus reliable about matters of purity (Ḥagiga 26a; the Hebrew for friends is “ḥaverim,” which was also the rabbinic term for those who were careful about the laws of purity). The Sages also point to the verse: “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together (ḥubra lah)” (Tehilim 122:3). We see that Jerusalem, the city of festival pilgrimage, turns all Jews into ḥaverim.
The Mitzva of Simḥa
There is a positive mitzva to experience simḥa (joy) on the festivals, as it is written:
“You shall rejoice in your festival (ve-samaḥta be-ḥagekha)” (Devarim 16:14).
We have already seen that Shabbat and Yom Tov are “mikra’ei kodesh” and that it is a mitzva to sanctify them with festive meals and fancy clothing (Sifra, Emor 12:4). The mitzva of simḥa on Yom Tov adds another layer: having more meat and wine at Yom Tov meals than at Shabbat meals. Similarly, there is a mitzva to have fancier clothing for Yom Tov than for Shabbat. On Shabbat it is enough to wear respectable clothing, whereas on Yom Tov there is a mitzva to wear the nicest clothes. If one must buy festive clothes, it is proper to buy them before a festival.
There are four components to the mitzva of simḥa. First, the primary expression of the mitzva is to do something especially enjoyable, which causes one’s joy to permeate the entire festival. Given the differences between men and women, to bring men joy, festive meals with meat and wine should be held, and to bring women joy, new clothing or jewelry should be purchased for her before the festival. One item of clothing is enough to fulfill this mitzva. To make children happy, candy should be bought for them, as this is what makes them happiest.
Second, as described above, the term “mikra’ei kodesh” is applied to the holidays as well as Shabbat, and translates into a mitzva to sanctify them with festive meals and nice clothes. Since Yom Tov has an additional mitzva of simḥa, it is incumbent on both men and women to make sure that their Yom Tov meals and clothes are nicer than those of Shabbat. There is also a mitzva to study Torah on Yom Tov, because it is enjoyable.
Third, it is a mitzva to participate in whatever activities one generally enjoys – like singing, dancing, and going on outings.
Fourth, throughout Yom Tov it is a mitzva to be in a good mood and to avoid things that cause anguish. It is therefore forbidden to mourn, eulogize, or fast.
One must enjoy the festival and not rejoice in something that is liable to make him forget about the joy of the festival. For this reason, one may not get married on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed. “‘You shall rejoice in your festival’ and not in your wife” (MK 8b). One who gets married is so happy with his wife that he does not pay attention to the simḥa of the festival. However, one may get married right before Yom Tov and hold Sheva Berakhot at the Yom Tov meals because, in this case, the simḥa of the festival is primary, and the simḥa of the Sheva Berakhot does not detract from it but rather reinforces it.
Even though the mitzva of simḥa is explicitly mentioned in the context of the pilgrimage festivals, Rosh Ha-shana is included in this mitzva as well, because all biblical holidays are equated with one another. Nevertheless, the simḥa of the pilgrimage festivals is greater, as there is a mitzva then to make a pilgrimage to the Temple and to offer shalmei simḥa (festive peace offerings).
Women’s Mitzva of Simḥa
It is a positive commandment for women to rejoice on the festivals. Even though this is a time-bound positive commandment, it is incumbent upon both men and women, as the verse explicitly states:
“You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and daughter” (Devarim 16:14).
Furthermore, a man must join with his wife to eat the shelamim offering that was bought with the money of ma’aser sheni (second tithe). The source is the verse: “You shall feast there in the presence of the Lord your God, and rejoice with your household” (Devarim 14:26). The Gemara explains that “household” here means “wife” (Yevamot 62b). Even though women are not obligated to make a pilgrimage to the Temple and offer sacrifices on the festivals, nevertheless they have the same obligation of simḥa that men do. Therefore, women who did make the pilgrimage would fulfill the mitzva of simḥa through eating the peace offering. Women who did not come to the Temple on the festivals needed to find other ways to enjoy themselves.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple, women’s mitzva of extra simḥa is fulfilled through the purchase of new clothing or jewelry for the festival, as these bring women more joy than food. Even if they do not wear the new clothing throughout the festival, it still brings joy to the entire festival and constitutes fulfillment of the first part of the festival mitzva of simḥa (doing something special that gives one enjoyment) for women.
In addition to the first part of the mitzva of simḥa, there is a Torah commandment for women to delight in wearing their best clothes and jewelry, as well as through drinking wine and eating meat at the meals. This is the second part of the mitzva of simḥa. However, it is not necessary for a woman who does not enjoy drinking wine or eating meat to force herself to do so. Rather, she should eat the foods which make her happiest.
In the past, it was standard for the husband to be the one to buy clothes or jewelry for his wife before the festival, since in most families the husband was the sole provider and was in charge of the money and the purchases. Additionally, since there was not a wide selection of clothes or jewelry, a woman would enjoy any new item of clothing or jewelry which he bought. The very fact that her husband bought it for her would intensify her simḥa. In contrast, now that there are so many types of clothing and jewelry available, choosing has become complicated. In many families, it has become the norm for the wife to choose clothes or jewelry for herself, and for the budget to be set by the couple in accordance with their means. In order for the husband to participate in the mitzva, it is appropriate for him to encourage his wife to buy an item of clothing or jewelry for the festival. This way it can be considered a gift from him to her, which will increase her simḥa. There are men who make the mistake of spending hundreds of shekalim on a beautiful etrog, while spending very little on clothing for their wives. What they are forgetting is that buying clothes or jewelry for their wives fulfills a biblical mitzva, while buying an etrog that costs ten times as much as a basic kosher one fulfills only an optional enhancement (hiddur).
An unmarried woman, whether single or previously married, is obligated to fulfill all aspects of the mitzva of simḥa. She should buy an item of clothing or jewelry for the festival, have enjoyable festive meals, and participate in enjoyable events, while avoiding sad activities.
To Enjoy and Bring Joy to Others
The mitzva of simḥa requires a man to include his entire family in his enjoyment, and to include the poor and despondent as well. This is not just a pious act, but is the simḥa required by the Torah:
“You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities” (Devarim 16:14; see also 16:11). Rambam codifies this as follows:
One who is eating and drinking [on a festival] is obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow as well, along with the rest of the wretched poor. If one locks the doors of his home and eats and drinks with his wife and children, but does not feed the poor and embittered, he is not experiencing the simḥa of a mitzva, but only the simḥa of his gut. About such people the verse says: “It will be like mourners’ bread – all who eat of it will be impure” (Hoshea 9:4). Such simḥa is an embarrassment to them, as it says: “I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festival offerings” (Malachi 2:3). When we examine this issue, we see that the mitzva of simḥa has two components. The first is to celebrate together with one’s family and household members: “You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and daughter” (Devarim 16:14). The “you” here includes both members of a couple, because a husband and wife are considered one unit. In fact, when the Torah speaks more briefly of this simḥa, only the wife is mentioned: “Rejoice with your household” (Devarim 14:26). This teaches us that a husband’s mitzva of simḥa is primarily to make his wife happy. Similarly, a wife’s primary responsibility of simḥa is to make her husband happy. We find this in practice as well, as follows. A man’s primary enjoyment is through the festive meals, which traditionally his wife would prepare for him; while a woman’s primary enjoyment is through new clothes or jewelry, which traditionally her husband would buy for her.
As a couple, they then have the responsibility to include the rest of the household members in their enjoyment, as there is no simḥa on the festival without family participation. Indeed, all Jews customarily celebrate the festivals together with their families. Every family member must make efforts to maintain an atmosphere of good feeling throughout the festival, especially during the meals. This includes refraining from saying hurtful things and making efforts to be friendly and bring joy to everyone at the table. Through this, they will be privileged to experience true simḥa.
Some Jews are influenced by secular culture, which is estranged from family values and the sanctity of the festival. Consequently, they find their family festival celebrations burdensome and frustrating, leading to tensions, hurt feelings, and fights. The more these Jews improve their understanding of family values and the sanctity of the festival, the easier they will find it to avoid hurting their relatives and to compliment them and make them happy. Thus, they will be privileged to experience the blessing of the festivals with joy and peace.
The second component of the mitzva of simḥa is to bring joy to one’s neighbors and acquaintances who are poor or lonely. As the verse states:
“You shall rejoice in your festival with…the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities” (Devarim 16:14). Generally speaking, in the past the orphan and widow were poor as well, since there was no one to provide for them. As for the “stranger,” a convert who has left his birthplace and family is likely to suffer from loneliness. The mitzva to provide simḥa to the poor is fulfilled primarily by giving them charity, and the mitzva to provide simḥa to the lonely and broken-hearted is fulfilled primarily by inviting them to join the festival meals.
It is noteworthy that the Torah commands us to include the Kohanim and Levi’im in our simḥa. Their job was to teach and educate the Jewish people, both young and old. We can infer that today too, we should provide simḥa to Torah scholars and teachers.
The Festive Mood and the Prohibition of Mourning and Sadness
It is a mitzva to be in good spirits for the duration of the festival. At first glance, this would seem to be an easy mitzva, since everybody wants to be happy. However, in practice this mitzva is difficult to observe, because ever-present worries and tensions work against one’s happiness. Even so, this is the mitzva incumbent upon us during the festivals. We must transcend our worries and concerns, overcome our disappointments, and rejoice with God. To do so, we must remember that God chose us from among all the nations, gave us His Torah, sanctified us with His mitzvot, and brought us to the good land so that we could merit full and good lives – lives that have value and sanctity, and that can elevate the entire world and endow it with blessing and guidance until the world is completely redeemed. We will thus consider the great mission with which each of us is tasked. We remember all the good things in our lives. We strengthen our faith and recognize that all the hardships and exiles in Jewish history have had a positive purpose – to refine us, elevate us, and bring us closer to achieving our ultimate purpose. These meditations put us in a joyous mood throughout the festival.
There is no complete simḥa unless both body and soul are involved. Therefore, the festival mitzva of simḥa includes physical enjoyment – eating, drinking, and wearing nice clothes – as well as spiritual enjoyment – studying Torah and reciting the festive prayers.
On the festival, everyone must avoid whatever worries or saddens him. Additionally, he should not lose his temper or get angry. There are people who do not know how to enjoy spending time with their family. At every family gathering, they find a reason to cause a fight, bring up old grudges, and make their relatives miserable. This is all because they do not understand the great sanctity of the festival. Their festival observances are all performed by rote, devoid of spiritual content. As we have seen, these people should focus on the values and holiness of the festival, and this will help them become happier. They will avoid criticizing family members and keep away from remarks that are likely to be painful. Instead, they will try to complement their family members and whomever else they meet. They will thus be able to enjoy themselves and bring joy to others during the festivals; these blessings will spill over into the weekdays as well.
Since it is a Torah commandment to be happy on Yom Tov and Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, one may not engage then in sad activities, even if the sadness is connected to a mitzva. Thus, one may not fast for penitential purposes on a festival, and may not eulogize or lament the dead. If the deceased is a Torah scholar, he is eulogized before the burial, because the honor due the Torah supersedes the holiday.
Similarly, it is forbidden to mourn on a festival. If someone dies before the festival, the mourning period ends with the start of the festival. Even if the mourner had a chance to mourn for only one moment, the mourning period ends once the festival begins. In contrast, if one dies during the festival, the mourning period begins after the festival. During the festival, the mourner should do his best not to cry or be sad. He should rather occupy himself with the festival and its mitzvot . If it is Sukkot, he is not exempt from the mitzva of sukka even if he is sad. He must overcome his anguish and sit in the sukka . At the same time, even though he is not yet sitting shiva, his friends and relatives may come to comfort him.
Taken from “Peninei Halakha: Laws of the Festivals”