What has happened to time during this coronavirus pandemic? A number of people have said to me that they find themselves forgetting what day it is. For those not working and staying at home, in the absence of the routines that structure their lives, days seem to merge without differentiation. Only the daily death toll reminds them that time is passing; not the number itself, but the accumulating total.
For the passing days to be marked by death, rather than by life, is shocking. Of course, the world over, people die every day – always – and every day, new lives come into the world. Every day. And every day, right now, there are myriad signs of new life all around us as spring reaches its blossoming zenith.
Nevertheless, it is much harder to mark time when we spend most of our days in our domestic domain, separated from others beyond our immediate household. This week’s Torah portion, Emor, sets out at Leviticus chapter 23, the festival calendar as celebrated in Temple times. Importantly, it begins with Shabbat, the mini weekly festival that serves as a model for all the festivals of the year. We read:
Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete cessation [Shabbat Shabbaton], a holy convocation [mikra kodesh]; you shall do no manner of work; it is a Sabbath to the Eternal in all your settlements.
When we read this verse about Shabbat, we learn that the seventh day is set apart from the other six days of the week by two key features: The cessation of work and the sacred gathering together of the community. The root meaning of Shabbat is to ‘cease’, and the expression Shabbat Shabbaton by the repetition of the root [Shin Beit Tav] conveys the sense of an absolute ceasing. Meanwhile, the words, mikra kodesh, sometimes translated as ‘sacred occasion’ convey much more than this. ‘Sacred convocation‘ is a more accurate translation, conveying the root meaning of mikra [Kuf Reish Alef], to ‘call’: ceasing from work, however absolute, is not sufficient; observing Shabbat involves a sacred calling of the community to gather together.
As we read on in Leviticus chapter 23, we discover that these twin-features of Shabbat are also at the heart of all the festivals, beginning with Pesach in the spring, followed by the offering of ‘first fruits’ in the early summer, and culminating in the sacred days of the seventh month: the day of ‘blasting’ – t’ru’ah; the day of Atonement [Yom Ha-Kippurim]; the seven-day festival of Sukkot; and the concluding ‘eighth’ day – Sh’mini Atzeret. Each festival is described as mikra kodesh, and work is forbidden.
Incidentally, in Temple times, the day of conclusion marked by Sh’mini Atzeret not only marked the end of the autumn Festival period, but also indicated a kind of shutting up shop for the winter, until the onset of spring and the inauguration of the new cycle once again with the arrival of Pesach. The other festivals we may be familiar with in between these sacred days – in particular, Simchat Torah, marking the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle, Chanukkah, the festival celebrating the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE, Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, and Purim, centring on the reading of the biblical Book of Esther – were all inaugurated after the destruction of the last Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Leaving aside the thorny issue of whether or not most Jews work on Shabbat and the biblical festivals, it is clear that during this coronavirus crisis, it has been impossible to gather together to celebrate Shabbat. At this very moment, I am leading the service in an empty synagogue, accompanied only by one member of the congregation, Oshik, who has kindly volunteered to look after the technical side of streaming our Shabbat and festival services during the lockdown. At the end of the service, Oshik will tell me how many people were watching – and I know that that number will include members and friends of the congregation, who were not only watching, but participating – reading and singing with me, using the hardcopy or PDF of the Shabbat morning service, and following the scriptural readings, either from their own Chumash, or by using the PDFs circulated by email.
So, we are connected together in time, but not in space – which has actually been a major theme of the life of the Jewish people ever since we no longer lived together in one land and made pilgrimage to the Temple to mark the sacred days of the year. For almost 2000 years, the Jewish people have lived all over the world, our daily lives – and even some of our Jewish practices – influenced by the cultural contexts of the societies around us. Gathered together in communities, we have not shared space as a people, but rather, only sacred moments in time – albeit, impacted by the time-zone differences across the globe. This sense of sharing sacred moments in time has been heightened since the coronavirus crisis – even to the extent that families living several time-zones apart, celebrated the Pesach Seder together. One of my closest friends, who lives in London, and whose family live in Vancouver, with one nephew in Japan, working out the time differences, shared a Seder that started at 3 PM in Vancouver, 11 PM in London and 8 AM in Tokyo.
So, Jewish life is marked by sacred moments in time. But what about the time in between? The time between Shabbat and Shabbat? The time between Festival and Festival? Interestingly, there are two time-periods in the Jewish year, when we mark the days ‘between’, day by day: during the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur, and right now, between Pesach and Shavuot.
At first sight, marking one day after another seems straightforward – by definition – but when it comes to the period between Pesach and Shavuot, the daily marking of time takes on a deeper resonance. The passage in this week’s parashah, Emor, concerning this period, relates that on the day after the Sabbath – which in the context is the Sabbath of Pesach – the priest would wave a sheaf – an omer – of grain, and that on the day after the seven cycles of seven days of counting the omer, on the fiftieth day, there would be ‘a new meal offering to the Eternal’. There is no mention directly of a festival. A few verses further on, there is a reference to ‘the bread of first fruits’ – lechem ha-bikkurim – and elsewhere in the Torah, the day that became known as Shavuot, meaning ‘Weeks’, is referred to as Yom Ha-Bikkurim, ‘The Day of First Fruits’, and Chag Ha-Katzir, ‘The Feast of the Harvest’.
Significantly, the festival is not given a date in the Torah. All we know is that it takes place on the fiftieth day, following the seven weeks of the counting of the omer. After the Temple was destroyed, and it was no longer possible to bring offerings of the first fruits of the harvest, the early rabbis reinvented the festival as z’man matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’, by situating the seven weeks in the context of the Torah narrative of the journey of the ex-slaves through the wilderness, from Egypt to Sinai. They also fixed the date by interpreting the word ‘Sabbath’ in the phrase ‘You shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath’ to mean from the day after the first day of the festival. Since Pesach begins on the 15th of Nisan, counting seven weeks from the 16th ensures that the fiftieth day falls on the 6th of third month, which became known as Sivan.
To this day, in the absence of the Temple and the priesthood and offerings, Jews still count the omer. Counting the omer is not just the survival of an ancient practice, it is also a celebration of the power of marking time during a very special time-period. After all, the omer days don’t just link two festivals in the Jewish calendar; the accumulating days have a power of their own: seven cycles of seven. Indeed, to bring out the power of the seven cycles of seven, we don’t simply count in days, but also in weeks. And so, as we say in the traditional formulation of the daily counting: ‘Today is the thirtieth day of the omer, making four weeks and two days of the omer’.
Perhaps, during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we might find it helpful to mark the passing days, at least, until Shavuot by counting the omer each day. But what then? Should we continue to count the passing days? As a child, I remember counting the days until the end of the school year. How many of us have done that! Counting days only works when there is certainty about the goal.
And so, we are being challenged to do more than mark time in this crisis. We are being challenged to make our days meaningful even when on the surface one day may look very much like another. We can do this by creating regular routines, like exercise, listening to and playing music, reading, playing games, participating in online classes and discussion groups, pausing for coffee-times and tea-times – and by making mealtimes special, by trying out new recipes and sitting at the table. Towards the end of Emor, we are reminded that each day during Temple times, the priests would bring pure olive oil and light the m’norah, the seven-branched lampstand, so that it would burn as a regular light – neir tamid.’ Through our daily routines, we, too, can mark each day with the light of our lives.
As with all ancient peoples, there is a circular quality to Jewish time; from week-to-week, from month-to-month and from year to year, the cycle turns. However, Jewish time also has a dynamic impulse that continually erupts through the cycle. On Shabbat, we share the greeting, ‘Shabbat shalom’, and look forward to a future time of peace. At Pesach, towards the end of the Seder, having retold the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, we fill an additional cup of the fruit of the vine and set it aside for the prophet Elijah, the prophet whose role it is to herald the coming of the Messiah – or the messianic age depending on your perspective – and we open the door in anticipation of his arrival.
Jewish time is a spiral, and whether or not we feel it, our lives are spiralling, too. Yesterday, was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. We were not able to have mass gatherings, but many of us did step outside of our homes for a special tea and looked across to our neighbours and exchanged greetings. The images of those door-step and front-garden celebrations shared in the news are very powerful, reminding us that even when we are at home, we are participating in the life of the world. And just as we held past and present together in that moment, so too, we can acknowledge our present difficult circumstances and recognise that the future is in our hands. The days are not passing in vain, and while what is lost can never be recovered and those who have died will not be moving on with us, what we have learned and continue to learn during this crisis, day after day, will enable us to shape the days to come.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
9 May l 2020 – 15 Iyyar 5780
Emor, Leviticus 23:3. ↑
The festival of Simchat Torah was introduced after the annual reading of the Torah was established. In traditional communities Simchat Torah is held on the day after Sh’mini Atzeret. In progressive communities, it is held on Sh’mini Atzeret. ↑
Lev. 23:11; 15-16. ↑
Lev. 23:20. ↑
Pin’chas, Numbers 28:26. ↑
Mishpatim, Exodus 23:16. ↑
Lev. 24: 1-4. See also: T’tzavveh, Exodus 27:20-21. ↑