Learning From Bank Holidays

Why do banks have holidays? I’m not sure about the secular answer to that question, but I do have a sense of the Jewish answer. Originally, ‘holidays’ were ‘holy days’. The Torah (see Leviticus chapter 23) records the first holy days of the people Israel: Shabbat (the Sabbath), Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (weeks), Yom T’ru’ah, ‘the day of blasting’ (the shofar), later known as Rosh Ha-Shanah (literally, ‘the head of the year’), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (Tabernacles) – in that order.

Holidays were once ‘holy days’, which are holidays, as everyone today understands the word – days, when people do not work. As we read in Leviticus 23 concerning Shabbat, which was then, and remains, the model for the major Jewish holy days: m’lachah lo ta’asu – ‘you shall do no work’ (:3).

So, what is really meant by ‘holy days’ – sacred days? The Jewish sense of the sacred is that which is ‘set apart’: the seventh day is set apart from the six days of the working week; festival days are set apart from the other ordinary days of the year. The first mention of the sacred in Torah concerns the seventh day. We read in Genesis chapter 2: ‘God blessed the seventh day va-y’kaddeish oto – and made it sacred – because on it God ceased from all the work involved in creation’ (:3).

Work means productive activity, and sacred days are days when that productive activity ceases. So: banks have holidays! But in our unceasing 24/7 global culture, which ensnares us in a world-wide-web in every aspect of our lives, not just in cyberspace, perhaps, we have reached the point when only banks have real holidays? A time when banks alone have days when all those tasks which keep the wheels of the daily round turning, cease? How many people switch off their computers, mobiles and smart-phones and cease from work for one day a week – Saturday or Sunday (let alone the whole ‘weekend’)? How many people don’t even ‘switch off’ when they ostensibly go on ‘holiday’?

During the next two months, the banks in England will have a holiday – on Monday May 7th. During the same period, together with Jewish congregations the world over, BHPS will celebrate Pesach and Shavuot and mark the seven-week journey of our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt, to the revelation of their liberator-God at Mount Sinai. Perhaps, this year, we might think of turning the first and seventh ‘holy days’ of Pesach and the ‘holy day’ of Shavuot into real holidays? It’s a thought…