Shemini Atzeret and Sanctifying Time

Happy Shemini Atzeret! It’s a holiday. I’m blogging.

The Torah says not to work. On Shabbat, while I don’t follow all the traditional rules, I don’t post online, e-mail, or type on a keyboard. That’s work: מְלָאכָה (melakhah), the prohibited creative work that changes that state of the world. (As opposed to עֲבֹדָה (avodah), labor. No, leading services isn’t melakhah just because you’re a paid cantor.)

Last year, I went to work on some holidays, thinking: if my company wasn’t open, I’d be in synagogue. Now that I’m a “full-time Jew,” I don’t have an excuse, except that it can be really hard to make sacred time.

Shemini Atzeret is its own holiday because we celebrate one-day Biblical festivals for two days in the Diaspora, since ancient times when the Diaspora was Syria and Babylon. In Israel and in Reform congregations it’s concurrent with and overshadowed by Simchat Torah. There were historical reasons about seeing the new moon, but crucially, it means humans determine the days of the festivals. I learned last week this is why the festival Kiddush ends מקדש ישראל והזמים (Mekadesh Yisrael vehazmanim, “sanctifies [the people of] Israel and the times [of the year],” whereas Shabbat, on a God-given seven-day cycle, doesn’t need Israel to make it holy, so Kiddush ends simply: מקדש השבת (Mekadesh HaShabbat, “sanctifies the Sabbath”). I find it more authentic to be liberal with the extra day of a festival. I also believe it’s important to join a community, so, even though last night/today is the holiday in Israel/Reform congregations, I’ll celebrate Simchat Torah tonight/tomorrow along with my Conservative congregations.

When I used to go to work on holidays I wouldn’t say anything on social media: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What I’ve found working in the Jewish community this year is that it’s more respectful to people to be honest about what I’m doing. Pretending I didn’t see an e-mail from my synagogue job when I’m checking e-mail is not particularly increasing holiness in the world. (I still avoid e-mail on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.) Maybe some synagogue won’t hire me someday because someone read this, and they expect the Cantor to be a model observant Jew. As a Jewish educator, I’d rather discuss what it means to sanctify holidays and observe mitzvot, and how Judaism can be meaningful and valuable even when it’s not easy and you’re not perfect at it.

And for those of you who find that Shemini Atzeret is the peak of your holiday season—maybe I’ll get better at sanctifying holidays next year.

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