Where the Holidays Went: Shemitah and the Shalosh Regalim

This was published in the most recent edition of Kohelet's student Torah publication, Hakol Nishma. You can find all the articles here. Chag sameach!

Is it possible to imagine a Jewish calendar year without the shalosh regalim – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot? According to the majority of commentators, one Midrash can.

In context of Shavuot, the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (Shemot 23:16), cited by Rashi (ibid. s.v. shalosh) suggests, “And the holiday of harvest the first of your labors: It states the three holidays on the Sabbatical year, so that the holidays will not be twisted (“yistarsu”) from their place.” The Mechilta’s suggestion, that the holidays somehow would be uprooted from their organic locations once every seven years, is at once jarring and ambiguous. What exactly does the term “yistarsu” mean? And why should Shemitah be different?

Some (Mirkevet HaMishnah Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh 4:16) suggest that the Mechilta merely means to teach that since it is prohibited to extend Shemitah by declaring a leap year (Sanhedrin 12a), by necessity the holidays (specifically Pesach and Shavuot) must remain in their respective places and do not take place later on in the year. This reading, while blunting the sharp edge of the Mechilta, seems to contravene the simple rendering of the term “yistarsu.”

Most, therefore, understand the Mechilta to be suggesting that there truly are no regalim on Shemitah. What could possibly be the basis for such a suggestion? How can we conceive of a Jewish year without a Sukkah, Seder, and cheesecake?

In his commentary to the Mechilta (Ha-Torah Ve-Hamitzvah 225), Malbim suggests that since the holidays mark the stages of the annual harvest, and given that fields are meant to lie fallow during Shemitah, there is simply no reason to celebrate these chagim. R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah 23:17) suggests a variation on this theme: the holidays are intended as a corrective to the self-congratulatory mindset of kochi ve’otzem yadi, in which the farmer asserts that the land belongs primarily to him and not to God. Since the farmer does not produce during Shemitah and thus is not subject to this spiritually corrosive mentality, there is no need for the remedy provided by the holidays.

It might be possible, however, to suggest an additional approach. The chagim are termed mikraei kodesh, days of the declaration of holiness. What exactly does the Torah intend by this turn of phrase? Ramban, in his commentary to Parshat Emor (Vayikra 23:2), suggests, “And the explanation of ‘mikraei kodesh’ – that on this day all are called and gather to sanctify Him, for there is a commandment upon all Jews togather in the house of God on the holiday to sanctify Him publicly…” Thus, for Ramban, mikra kodesh denotes a time singularly devoted to the worship of God.

Much of Ramban’s depiction of the regalim may be said for Shemitah as well. In the introduction to his classic work Shabbat Ha’aretz, written in defense of the sale of the land as a (suboptimal) solution to the challenge of contemporary Shemitah observance, Rav Kook offers a glimpse as to the ideal Shemitah year. The goals of the year, he suggests, are to enable the Jewish nation in its entirety to reconnect with their spiritual dimension by temporarily disengaging from the physicality of the land.

In light of Ramban and Rav Kook’s analyses of the chagim and Shemitah respectively, we can return to the Mechilta. If the purpose of the holidays is to carve out extended time for matters of spirituality, and Shemitah similarly affords a year-long Sabbatical, the shalosh regalim become superfluous once every seven years.

Of course, as a matter of practical halakhah we do not follow this suggestion of the Mechilta, and for good reason. Our experience of Shemitah today, even in Israel, does not begin to approach Rav Kook’s spiritual vision. Ramban’s view of mikra kodesh, on the other hand, is more realistically within our grasp. Both Shemitah and the holidays remind us of the importance of setting aside time for religious renewal. Indeed, for precisely this reason, it is impossible to imagine our year without that spiritual boost afforded by the holidays, including our renewed acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot.