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The standard Jewish liturgical year as used by most of the world’s Jews has slowly developed over the millennia from a combination of festivals laid down in the Jewish scriptures, events established by the eminent rabbis of their time periods, and customs which have developed through centuries of tradition. In more recent times more secular events, such as Yom Ha’atzmaut which celebrates the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, have been added to the liturgical year, blurring the distinction between the sacred and the profane, and religious and secular holidays. The aim of this is to ensure a Jewish uniformity of practice, to encourage Jewish education in the history of Judaism and to keep a constant but stable cycle by which Jews can live their lives. Days, weeks, and the year are all marked out by religious practices, from the daily rhythm of day and night based on the account of creation in Genesis, punctuated by the three daily prayers, to the week marked out by the six days of work and one day of rest on Shabbat, to the yearly calendar with its seasonal flow of festivals and Torah readings. The daily, weekly, and yearly events of the Jewish liturgical year act as signs of remembrance, of God, events in Jewish history, and the interaction between the two.
The origins of the liturgical year are lost to time, but in the era just before the end of the Second Temple period was mainly focussed on daily animal sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem performed by the priests on behind of the Israelites. These were punctuated by Shabbat and the festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as Passover and Shavuot, and supplemented by individual religious devotions. The liturgical year was rooted in the agricultural seasons of Israel and mandated by the Torah in Leviticus: 23:1-2: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed festivals.” However, with the destruction of the Temple in 70AD and the dispersion of the Jewish people across the Roman Empire, this method of marking out the year became impractical. The far-flung communities of Diaspora Jews developed their own liturgical years and practices apart from the priestly class, which became a cause for concern among the growing movements of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism, an attempt to reorient Judaism around study, prayer and Torah rather than the Temple and sacrifice, rapidly took over as the dominant thread of Judaism, and as Jewish communities began to spread further and further from the Levant, considered this non-uniformity a real threat to Jewish survival. Sacha Stern writes that “Throughout this period of expansion, the question of solidarity, cohesion, and communitas between the various rabbinic communities became increasingly pressing.” Although some people have argued that the development of a fixed calendar came from Christian and Islamic influence on the minority Jewish communities, Stern disputes this and says that this fixed liturgical year developed in its own right: “the change that occurred to the rabbinic calendar was less the result of external pressures than of internal historical processes. … the emergence of the fixed rabbinic calendar went hand in hand with the development of the rabbinic community of the late Roman period. … The institution of a standard, fixed calendar was a significant contributor to the unity of the rabbinic community or—as the rabbis saw it—of the Jewish people.” The efforts of the rabbis to create some kind of religious uniformity also resulted in the abandonment of the use of the lunar cycle to determine the months of the year, as “the older calendar, described in the Mishnah and based on empirical sightings of the new moon, was replaced with the fixed, calculated calendar that is in force today.” This new calendar was eventually adopted across the Jewish world and is still in use today, lending a uniformity of structure across the entire Jewish world.
The most distinctive and regular part of the Jewish liturgical year is the day of rest, or Shabbat. On every seventh day, Jews are commanded to refrain from work and remember that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish philosopher, wrote that “[Shabbat] is the static foundation of the year which – aside from the sequence of weekly portions- is informed with motion only by the cycle of other festivals.” This weekly cycle imposes a structure on the week in both a religious and secular way – the first six days are designated as time for business and work, with Shabbat on the seventh day. This not only provides a sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane, but also provides a natural end to the week before the cycle begins again. This weekly cycle then feeds into the yearly cycle; again, Franz Rosenzweig commented, “The year, all of life, is built up on the shift from holy to the profane from the seventh to the first day, from perfection to outset, from old age to early youth.” This regular ebb and flow of sacred and profane time enforces a sense of continuity and constant preparation or experience of holiness. It is one of the festivals in the Jewish calendar that is joyful, dedicated to enjoying the present moment and the world God has created. Just as creation remains an ongoing process, so must Shabbat. Randi Raskover explained, “Shabbat provides a peaceful and stable counterpoint to the other festivals that take the Jews back to the “anguish and bliss” of Jewish historical time. … Just as God did not create the world once and for all but must renew the creation daily, so the Jewish people cannot observe Shabbat once a year but must observe and renew Shabbat weekly.” This constant process of renewal and remembrance brings a real sense of structure to the liturgical year, endlessly repeating itself and providing a meaningful continuity for religious practice.
One of the central practices of Shabbat is that of the parsha, or weekly Torah portion. This practice was introduced in the 6th Century BCE by Ezra the Scribe as a way of encouraging Torah literacy. This is not a religious requirement in the Torah – indeed, Deuteronomy:31:10-11 implies that the law should be read only once every seven years! However the system has developed over several thousand years and is now an integral part of the Jewish liturgical year. Under the current system of public Torah reading, one section of the Torah is read aloud every week in the synagogue during the Shabbat services, and often a talk will be given on its meaning or relevancy to news events of that week. There are several types of parsha cycles, although the most common are the one year cycle practised by orthodox congregations, where the entire Torah is divided in 52 sections, and the three year cycle, which spreads out the portions over a much longer time period which consequently makes the portions much shorter. However, the origin of these cycles are unclear: Jacob Mann claimed that “Except for the Festival readings and even here much doubt remains, there is no evidence of a cycle of Scriptural readings linked with the calendar. The so-called “Triennial cycle”… is probably of a later date, and was not tied to a particular season of the year” It is therefore unknown who established this practice so firmly into Jewish religious practice, despite its importance to the structure of the liturgical year; some Orthodox Jews refer to weeks by their parsha names in casual conversation because of their unchanging centrality to the rhythm of the liturgical year. However, whichever cycle is used, the weekly Torah readings impose religious study into the liturgical year, bringing greater meaning to Shabbat: in studying the Torah systematically, one can observe the intervention of God throughout history.
In addition to the weekly liturgical cycle, the year is also punctuated with various religious festivals and days. These mark important events in the history of Judaism, usually linked to the intervention of God in the affairs of Israel described in the Torah. The major festivals of the year are ones that are prescribed by the Torah: Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shavuot. Two festivals were instituted by the rabbis based on historical events in the Hebrew Bible, Hanukkah and Purim. There are also several minor fasts. Each festival listed in the Torah is related to a pivotal Jewish event; for example, Pesach, or Passover, is conducted to remind Jews of the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were liberated from bondage in Egypt. Although the content of the calendar is largely fixed, to provide continuity of rhythm and tradition, occasionally by universal agreement other events and festivals can be added. Mark Whitters has made an argument that the Book of Esther was written in large part because of rabbinic attempts to institute the festival of Purim, with Mordecai, the Moses-like figure in the Book, concerned with “trying to promote a world-wide Jewish celebration for a feast of Diaspora”. The arrangement of the festivals is, however, still largely based around the agricultural calendar in Israel – the Counting of the Omer (a measure of barley) in the countdown to the festival of Shavuot, a custom which is still practised in most Jewish communities is very much a sign of this. This can be very alienating to urban Jews who cannot relate to such traditions; however, it can also be very grounding, providing continuity between generations of Jews as well as a link with nature, and by extension, God’s creation. Thus, even though the the liturgical year may appear to be outdated at times with so many festivals dedicated to agricultural celebrations, the meaning of the year goes deeper than just a backwards look to the origins of the Jewish community. By keeping a rhythm with the agricultural year, itself in keeping with the changing seasons, the liturgical year also roots Jews in their past and their present.
The re-founding of Israel in 1948 also affected the Jewish liturgical year. Arnold Eisner argued that the establishment of the state of Israel changed very little, stating that, “except for a prayer for the State which was added to Sabbath services and an episodic celebration of Yom Ha-atzma’ut, did Israel effect any major change in the American Jewish liturgical calendar. The point was not to bring the State closer or to know it close up, we might say, only to knowand rejoice that it was there.” However, shortly after the creation of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate created several national days of remembrance which are now commemorated both inside and outside Israel. These include Yom haShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron, to honour Israeli Defence Force veterans and victims of terrorism, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. This are observed by most Jewish denominations, including the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. Furthermore, it may be argued that the three secular days have assumed greater importance as Israel comes under heavy criticism for its involvement in the West Bank and Gaza, and as the living witnesses of the Holocaust slowly begin to die off, leaving the next generation to develop new ways of ensuring the Holocaust is not forgotten. The presence of three non-religious festivals which have been added to the Jewish liturgical year demonstrate that the meaning of the year is inextricably entwined with the history of the Jewish people as well as just its religious practices. Rosenzweig also thought this, saying, “the few memorial days have, because that history is past, turned into permanent fixtures. … Now they occur annually, having become rigid, though they are historical festivals- as rigid as the history of our people.” Thus Jews are constantly connected through the liturgical year to their nation’s history, both as a people and as a faith. This gives it structure and meaning.
In conclusion, the continued survival of Judaism as a religion, in contrast to the state religions of surrounding nations, is largely owed to the successful development of a meaningful liturgical year, which serves to constantly remind Jews of pivotal events that have underpinned the historical experiences of Israel and to allow them to remember and commemorate those experiences. The structure of that year, fixed for several thousand years after the destruction of the Temple, has maintained the Jewish community in the Diaspora. The centrality of Shabbat to the Jewish liturgical cycle led Ahad HaAm, a prominent Jewish philosopher of the nineteenth century, to say “More than the Jewish people has preserved the Shabbat, the Shabbat has preserved the Jewish people.” Similarly the rhythm of the annual festivals, rising and falling in the year in an eternal cycle of remembrance through participation, leads to a stable background structure by which a Jew may live their life in harmony with their community. The recent development of Israeli national holidays that have been added to the Jewish liturgical year in the Diaspora as well demonstrates that this principle of communal observance still holds, uniting Jews together in observance of their religious obligations. It may be argued that it is not so much that Judaism has imposed structure and meaning to the Jewish liturgical year, but that it is the Jewish liturgical year that has imposed structure and meaning on Judaism.
- New Revised Standard Bible, Anglicised Edition, (Oxford University Press, 1995)
- Ball, Milner, Called by stories: biblical sagas and their challenge for law, (Duke University Press, 2000).
- Eisner, Arnold, “Reflections on the State of Zionist Thought”, Modern Judaism, Vol. 18 (1998), 253-266.
- Ford, Marcia, Traditions of the Ancients: Vintage Faith Practices for the 21st Century, (B & H Pub Group, 2006).
- Rosenzweig, Franz, The Star of Redemption, (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
- Goldstein, Bernard, and Cooper, Alan, “The Festivals of Israel and Judah and the Literary History of the Pentateuch”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1990), pp. 19-31.
- Kepnes, Steven, Jewish Liturgical Reasoning, (Oxford University Press US, 2007).
- Mann, Jacob, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, (Ktav Publishing House, 1971).
- Neusner, Jacob, The Study of Ancient Judaism Volume I: Mishnah, Midrash, Siddur, (University of South Florida,1992).
- Nocent, Adrian, The Liturgical Year, (Liturgical Press, 1977).
- Raskover, Randi, Liturgy, time, and the politics of redemption, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006).
- Rich, Tracey, “Minor Fasts”, jewfaq.org. Found at: http://www.jewfaq.org/holidaye.htm
- Riskin, Shlomo, “Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Miketz Hanukkah Genesis 41:1-44:17 “, ohrtorahstone.org. Found at: http://www.ohrtorahstone.org.il/parsha/5764/miketz64.htm
- The Jewish Agency for Israel, “From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: The Jewish Year – An Overview”, jafi.org.il. Found at: http://www.jafi.org.il/education/FESTIVLS/tish/02.html Accessed 30th April, 2009.
- United Jewish Communities, “MyJewishLearning.com: Overview: History and Development of Shabbat “, ujc.org. Found at: http://www.ujc.org/page.aspx?id=38931 Accessed 30th April, 2009.
- Stern, Sacha, Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, Second Century Bce-Tenth Century Ce, (Oxford University Press, 2001).
- Whitters, Mark, “Some new observations about Jewish festal letters”, Journal for the Study of Judaism Vol. XXXII, pp. 272-288.
- Zerubavel, Eviatar, “Easter and Passover: On Calendars and Group Identity”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Apr., 1982), pp. 284-289.
 Sacha Stern, Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, Second Century Bce-Tenth Century Ce, (Oxford University Press, 2001), pg 211.
 ibid, pg 155.
 Franz Rosenweig, The Star of Redemption, (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), pg 313.
 Randi Raskover, Liturgy, time, and the politics of redemption, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), pg 118.
 Nehemiah 8.
 Jacob Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, (Ktav Publishing House, 1971), pg xviii.
 Shlomo Riskin, “Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Miketz Hanukkah Genesis 41:1-44:17 “, ohrtorahstone.org. Found at: http://www.ohrtorahstone.org.il/parsha/5764/miketz64.htm Accessed 30th April, 2009.
 Tracey Rich, “Minor Fasts”, jewfaq.org. Found at: http://www.jewfaq.org/holidaye.htm Accessed 30th April, 2009.
 Mark Whitters, “Some new observations about Jewish festal letters”, Journal for the Study of Judaism Vol. XXXII, pp. 278.
 Arnold Eisner, “Reflections on the State of Zionist Thought”, Modern Judaism, Vol. 18 (1998), pg 257.
 The Jewish Agency for Israel, “From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: The Jewish Year – Overview”, jafi.org.il. Found at: http://www.jafi.org.il/education/FESTIVLS/tish/02.html Accessed 30th April, 2009.
 Franz Rosenweig, The Star of Redemption, pg 368-9.
 United Jewish Communities, “MyJewishLearning.com: Overview: History and Development of Shabbat “, ujc.org. Found at: http://www.ujc.org/page.aspx?id=38931 Accessed 30th April, 2009.