One of the most prominent segments of our parasha is known as Parashat HaMoadim, the Section of the Festivals. Its 44 verses comprise the 23rd chapter of Vayikra and serve as an encyclopedic presentation of the biblically-based festivals. It begins exactly as we would expect: “And the L-rd spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: The L-rd’s appointed [holy days] that you shall designate as holy occasions. These are My appointed [holy days]’” (23:1-2).
Following the words, “these are my appointed [holy days],” we would naturally anticipate a listing and exposition of the moadim, beginning with Pesach and concluding with Sukkot. Yet the next verse inexplicably refers to Shabbat: “[For] six days, work may be performed, but on the seventh day, it is a complete rest day, a holy occasion; you shall not perform any work. It is a Sabbath to the L-rd in all your dwelling places”(23:3).
This is followed by the introduction that we originally expected: “These are the L-rd’s appointed [holy days], holy occasions, which you [i.e. the Sanhedrin] shall designate in their appointed time” (23:4).
Rashi, based on several Midrashic passages, notes the inclusion of Shabbat in the midst of the moadim and asks: “Why does the Sabbath [designated by G-d,] appear here amidst the Festivals [designated by man, the Sanhedrin]?” His answer is a classic example of rabbinic analysis: “To teach you that whoever desecrates the Festivals is considered [to have transgressed as severely] as if he has desecrated the Sabbath, and that whoever fulfills the Festivals is considered as if he has fulfilled the Sabbath [and his reward is as great].”
In Rashi’s view, the placement of Shabbat at the outset of our chapter is meant to convey the singular import of the moadim by noting their close equivalence to Shabbat.
Rabbi Nissan Alpert zt”l was one of the great roshei yeshivah of Yeshivat Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan and perhaps the most celebrated student of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. In his posthumous work Limudei Nissan, Rav Alpert presents a deep insight regarding the connection between Shabbat and the moadim that informs our understanding of Rashi’s gloss:
“[The reason why Shabbat appears before the festivals] is to emphasize that it is the mother of all the moadim, and the holiness of these [appointed] times flows from Shabbat. By way of explanation, this means that it is possible to extend the holiness of Shabbat to the other moadim. It is as if Hashem said, ‘I have sanctified the Shabbat, now, I give you [the Jewish people] the power and the permission to consecrate the rest of the appointed times.’ Moreover, just as it is the purpose of the Shabbat to cease from the creative activities of the workweek through complete and total [spiritual] relaxation in order to draw near to Hashem, so, too, this should be our orientation on the other moadim. In other words, our actions and behaviors on these days should be aimed at strengthening our faith and trust in Hashem” (Parashat Emor, page 50).
Rav Alpert teaches us four important lessons regarding the special connection that obtains between Shabbat and the moadim:
1. Shabbat is stated before the moadim because it is the “mother” of the festivals.
2. The holiness of the moadim extends directly from the holiness of Shabbat.
3. Just as Hashem consecrates Shabbat, the Jewish people are given the power and permission to sanctify the festivals.
4. The purpose of the moadim is similar to that of Shabbat; namely, we should utilize the holy moments of both the Shabbat and the festivals to strengthen our faith and trust in the Master of the Universe.
A parallel approach toward solving our problem was offered by the leading 14th-century Talmudist and posek Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, known as the Maharil. He offers a beautiful kabbalistically-infused explanation as to why Shabbat precedes the Torah’s discussion of the Moadim:
“We find in the Zohar (Emor 95:1): ‘Shabbat is called kodesh (holy) but not mikra kodesh (holy occasion). Yom Tov (a festival day), however, is called a mikra kodesh [by the Torah].’ [Yet] there is a contradiction here! It states in Parashat Emor: ‘[For] six days, work may be performed, but on the seventh day, it is a complete rest day, a holy occasion (mikra kodesh); you shall not perform any work. It is a Sabbath to the L-rd in all your dwelling places.’ Shabbat is also called a mikra kodesh!
“This seeming contradiction, however, can be explained in the manner that we have already written: Yom Tov receives [holiness] from Shabbat. This means that within Shabbat, there is an aspect of Yom Tov to enable Shabbat’s [holiness] to positively flow into Yom Tov … Now we understand why Shabbat is called mikra kodesh — in order to allow Shabbat’s [holiness] to flow into and affect the Festivals” (Likutei Maharil, Devarim).
In my estimation, the Maharil’s answer to our question is the most spiritually edifying of all. He teaches us that the moadim, though consecrated by man, are nonetheless infused by the holiness of Shabbat. Therefore, each festival day has the potential to draw us closer to our Creator so that we may experience the sanctity of Shabbat on yet another level.
With Hashem’s help, may we merit to feel G-d’s presence every Shabbat, every Yom Tov, and every day of our lives.