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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Emor (Leviticus 22:26-23:16) – The Importance of Time Off

>For the people of Britain it’s been a good couple of weeks. First we had the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, which allowed us four days out of the office, a fitting end for the festival of Pesach. And then thanks to William and Kates’ decision to get married on a Friday, we received another holiday bonus, with Friday for the wedding (and I might add it was a wonderful ceremony) and Monday as the May Day Bank Holiday. I don’t think it is any coincidence that over that period of time, everyone appeared to be in an good mood. Now I realise that the unseasonal excellent weather also contributed to the rising happiness index, but I am in no doubt that the long weekends had a lot to do with the smiles on everyone’s faces.

Quite often we fall into the Monday-Friday routine, which sees us lurching from weekend to weekend, essentially ‘surviving’ the working week, so that we may have two days of respite, before beginning the cycle all over again. I don’t know about you, but I was very ready to accept three-day working weeks and four-day weekends as the model for life from now on.

However, we should not be complacent about simply having one day off each week, let alone two. One of my favourite Shabbat readings is by the author Francine Klagsbrun; she shared the experiences of her father, a Russian immigrant to America at a time when there were no labour laws (I’ve shared it here before). She recalls him saying: ‘People worked long hours, seven days a week, without rest. But imagine, more than three thousand years ago the Bible commanded that all work stop for an entire day every single week, and not only for the ancient Israelites but for all who lived among them, including slaves. And not only for people, but for animals as well. What a revolutionary practice that was.’

In this week’s Torah portion, as God introduces the Jewish calendar: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions’ (Leviticus 23:2). Before moving to look at the festivals themselves God reaffirms the obligation of Shabbat: ‘On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion’ (Leviticus 23:3).

While we may grow complacent of Shabbat as a day off from work and a festive occasion, we should not lose sight of the importance of the day, and the fact that it is an ordained holy day from God. It is at the beginning of the festive calendar. Shabbat in many ways forms the basis for the other festivals, which adapt the Shabbat obligations for their specific contexts.

Alongside Shabbat the other festivals (just like our British Bank Holidays) provide us with an opportunity to break the routine of the regular calendar with ‘sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time’ (Leviticus 23:4). Succot and Pesach sit exactly six months apart, and between them, in both directions we have a variety of festive days to make sure that the calendar’s routine is broken up at regular intervals.

On a weekly basis Shabbat provides us with a day of rest, and at regular intervals our festivals provide us celebratory occasions. At this time of the year as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, our anticipation for this next festival can hardly be contained, and perhaps this is the reason why we count the Omer, providing a channel for our excitement to build as we prepare to celebrate.

But in case Shavuot seems too far away, or if the next Bank Holiday is not soon enough, Shabbat appears each and every week to ensure that the cycle of work is broken once every seven days. I guess it’s lucky that it didn’t take God ten days or more to create the world.

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