No Assembly Required: The Individualized Aspects of the Shalosh Regalim

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Michael Bernstein

As ever, time waits for no one―as we are forced to pause, the calendar rolls on. We arrive now, still in isolation, at the second of the shalosh regalim (the three pilgrimage holidays; regel in the singular). Around the world, many synagogues are already facing the possibility that they may be closed through the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) and Sukkot―the possibility that this year, we will miss communal gatherings for the full cycle of the regalim. (While this cycle would cross from 5780 over into 5781, agriculturally the regalim are structured to run from Pesah to Sukkot, from springtime to the last harvest.)

This eventuality might feel like a deeper disruption than what we are now experiencing. After all, even in the absence of the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple), the regalim are characterized by the gathering of Jews to celebrate together, whether in our local synagogues or with family elsewhere. The essence of coming together in our synagogues or for large meals on any of the regalim is an echo of the national assembling and feasting in Jerusalem when the Beit ha-Mikdash stood. Each synagogue is a mikdash me’at (“mini-Temple”); each shared meal is an evocation of the shalmei hagigah (holiday peace offering). Even in the absence of a Beit ha-Mikdash, we still find ways to come together. We gather for sedarim even without the korban Pesah (paschal offering); we gather for all-night Torah study on Shavuot; we gather for the celebration we call “simhat beit ha-sho’eivah,” itself merely an echo of the original celebration from which it takes its name (originally a big party in observance of the water-libation offering; nowadays, just a big party); and we gather for circuits with the arba minim (four plant species) on Hoshana Rabbah and with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah. The component of a regel that involves gathering in Jerusalem in order to “be seen” by God lies dormant, but its corollary effect has remained prominent: both seeing and being seen by numerous other Jews who are also celebrating.

Yet our tradition provides us with ways to see each of the regalim as operating not just on a communal level, but also on an individualized one. It is true that the three holidays share one particular way of relating to one’s interface with the Divine: going with all other Divine-seekers to where the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) “is.” That commonality defines the three holidays as a set. But in each case, we can identify a narrower conduit to the Divine that is built into the holiday, independent of its role as an occasion for communal gathering.

Rabbinic tradition (Mishnah Sukkah 3:12) teaches that originally, the only location where the arba minim were taken on each day of the holiday of Sukkot was the Beit ha-Mikdash. Everywhere else (termed “the medinah”), people would take arba minim only on the first day. In my view, this splitting of the mitzvah into two location-dependent sub-mitzvot with different time frames seems to be a resolution of a tension in Leviticus 23:40: first we are instructed to “take [arba minim] on the first day” and then to “rejoice before Hashem your God for seven days.” The clause commanding arba minim is attached to the first day, but Hazal (for example, in Sifra Emor 16:9) read the rest of the verse as also pertaining to arba minim. They thus define an aspect in which the mitzvah does in fact apply to all seven days, deriving the criterion of being in the place that is “before Hashem”―this being the Mikdash. (I admit I am not aware of a rabbinic passage that explicitly formulates this derashah as an attempt to avoid the conflict between “the first day” and “seven days” in the same verse; the aforementioned Sifra simply quotes, “Rejoice before Hashem your God for seven days” and then adds, “But elsewhere, not all seven days.”) According to Rambam on Mishnah Sukkah 3:12 (alluding to a comment he makes on Mishnah Maaser Sheni 3:4), “the medinah” refers to anywhere except Jerusalem―so anyone who made aliyyah le-regel (the pilgrimage to Jerusalem) and was in the city would perform the mitzvah on all seven days.

Nowadays, those who buy arba minim are not just making one-day investments to fulfill their mitzvah on the first day of Sukkot. In the absence of the Beit ha-Mikdash, we have adopted the ritual behavior of taking arba minim throughout the holiday (except on Shabbat). But while this behavior is expressly described (for instance, in the continuation of that Sifra) as a remembrance of the Mikdash, it does not only reflect a commemoration of the defunct Mikdash practice; rather, it also reflects something original to the mitzvah in and of itself. The commandment of arba minim in the rabbinic reading of Leviticus 23:40 stipulates a status quo in which some people are gathered in Jerusalem to visit the Mikdash while others are in “the medinah,” having not made aliyyah for this regel (for whatever reason). Our contemporary fulfillment of arba minim throughout the holiday of Sukkot is thus not merely an echo of an absent Mikdash practice. In a sense (though not formally), it is an expansion of the model of the first-day obligation outside Jerusalem, a mitzvah which is special to the shalosh regalim but by design applicable only for those who have not made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as commanded. The rabbinic idea of arba minim points to the verse instructing us to take arba minim on the first day and highlights that it is not even primarily about the people who have made aliyyah le-regel! The verse is telling us what to do if we have to stay home! In developing the parameters of the mitzvah of arba minim, Hazal detach it from the context of aliyyah le-regel per se, and they assign textual legitimacy to its fulfillment at home.

The mitzvah of arba minim on Sukkot is an avenue to the Divine that is available to individuals who are apart from those who have gathered together―not just as an imitation or commemoration of the “real” version for gathered-together folks in Mikdash times, but as a feature incorporated into the mitzvah itself on a textual level. Through the performance of this special holiday mitzvah, individuals have the opportunity to approach God on Sukkot without the company of the congregation. That opportunity is not an echo of anything; rather, it is built into the holiday and the mitzvah.

The korban Pesah is a little harder to approach with this attitude―as practiced, its performance is inextricably tied to the Mikdash. In the time of the Beit ha-Mikdash, the offering was so tied to one’s ability to physically make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in a state of purity that the mechanism of Pesah Sheni (“Second Pesah”) existed to give more people the chance to engage in the mitzvah. Yet even there, the essence of the mitzvah can be seen as the connection of the Divine not precisely to the assembled crowd, but to each particular household. The korban Pesah is an offering that combines aspects of korban yahid (an individual’s offering) and korban tzibbur (a communal offering). Like a korban yahid, a series of individual animals are slaughtered, rather than just one animal slaughtered for the benefit of all the people. Like a korban tzibbur, all the Jews participating fulfilled it at the same time―everyone involved had to bring their korban Pesah on the afternoon of the 14th of the month. For most korbanot tzibbur, the entirety of Am Yisrael is represented at the time and site of sacrifice by a rotating roster of anshei ma’amad (appointed proxies from each of the 24 districts of the Land; see Mishnah Taanit 4:2). In the case of the korban Pesah, each animal must be accompanied by a representative member of the particular haburah (group) that will be consuming it. Unlike most korbanot yahid, such as shelamim (peace offerings)―of which one is permitted to invite others to partake of the meat without prior designation―in the case of korban Pesah, each animal is limited to the members of its haburah (the members being those who had been designated prior to sending their animal to be slaughtered with their representative).

It seems that while the performance of the korban Pesah in practice depended on the gathering of Jews in Jerusalem, its essential nature existed apart from that prerequisite. What the korban Pesah really did was establish a connection with the Divine―not broadly connecting the entire community, but rather narrowly connecting the Divine with each mini-tzibbur, each haburah of korban Pesah-eating Jews. Ideally, a haburah consisted of enough people to consume the whole korban in one night, but the concept applied to a haburah smaller than that―even as little as just a few people. Ostensibly, a “haburah” of even just one person was valid. Although it would be hard to avoid violating the prohibition of leaving over uneaten meat, a solitary individual still had the opportunity to fulfill the korban Pesah obligation.

When we sat this year to hold our sedarim, many of us found ourselves with a smaller haburah than usual. Though most years we are used to a seder table set for extended family and other guests, this year we instead put out only a few place settings, or perhaps even just one. But even as our usual sedarim fragmented into sheltered-in-place, smaller sedarim, each one of those households’ evocations of the Beit Ha-Mikdash-era seder was (conceptually, at least) just as robust as ever. It is not the gathering-together characterization of the regel that defines the korban Pesah; its parameters are individualized―they are at the household level. Each haburah in Jerusalem in the time of the Mikdash interfaced with the Divine via the medium of the korban Pesah, doing so in a manner for which the existence of the Mikdash was only tangentially necessary, in a manner to which the presence of all the other Jews in the same city was almost irrelevant. Each haburah individually engaged with the mitzvah, all simultaneously, but not as a single massive communal entity. In this sense, Pesah has long modeled for us what it means to be celebrating as a tzibbur while each of us, or each family among us, is be-yehidut.

When it comes to Shavuot, the day’s special observances consist entirely of harvest offerings. One is the shtei ha-lehem (“two loaves” of the new wheat harvest), a true communal offering, which caps off the Pesach-to-Shavuot counting of the omer. However, we do not call Shavuot “hag shtei ha-lehem.” Even in a verse that describes the shtei ha-lehem (Numbers 28:26’s “new grain offering”), the Torah designates this holiday as “Yom ha-Bikkurim,” using the name of the other harvest observance that it initiates: bikkurim, the first-fruits offering, which can be brought anytime during the Shavuot-to-Sukkot span of the regel cycle. As described in rabbinic literature (Mishnah Bikkurim 3:2-6), bikkurim seem to be a centralized and communal institution. A procession forms, each village sending its contingent with their first fruits to the local ma’amad city (district capital) to assemble and march. Celebratory bands join up in the environs of Jerusalem; the whole display is enhanced by auxiliary adornments and musical accompaniment (one could almost imagine parade floats). Eventually, this vast procession of Jews streams right into the Temple court, and the bikkurim ceremony begins: each Jew delivers their first fruits and performs the ritual in succession with the guidance of the kohanim.

But if we set aside the Mishnaic description of bikkurim and focus on the Biblical text, we get a different view of the practice: “Take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Hashem your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The use of the singular form here indicates that bikkurim are an individual offering, a direct reflection of the relationship between the Divine and each person who tills a plot of cropland. The obligation of bikkurim is not a communal one, and it does not take effect upon the entire Land at once. It is a particular obligation on each person or household, taking effect individually based on when each specific farmer sees the first-ripening produce in their own plot. With or without a communal procession, bikkurim are a reflection of each Jew’s relationship with God at home. We bring bikkurim to the Beit ha-Mikdash, but unlike the shtei ha-lehem, it is not a communal offering that is of the Mikdash. Bikkurim are of each Jew’s home, of each grower’s home soil.

Bikkurim is a mitzvah that directly links one’s own home to God. Each Jew who goes to the Beit ha-Mikdash on this regel presents the first seasonal product of their own home, and the offering itself is a function of that private home. The Beit ha-Mikdash is just a repository. “Yom ha-Bikkurim” is by nature a name that evokes individual dedication.

Ordinarily on Shavuot, we gather to learn all night long (or at least until late into the night). We show our communal dedication to Torah. We focus on the concluding suffix of “zman matan Torateinu”―the “ours”-ness of the Torah. This year, we must focus on the “bikkurim” of “Yom ha-Bikkurim,” the Torah which we nurture in our own homes, in our own separate plots of spiritual soil. Our kabbalat ha-Torah (acceptance of Torah) and limmud Torah (study of Torah) is renewed year after year, sprouting new appreciations and new insights. And, like the farmer in Mishnah Bikkurim 3:1 who takes note of this and ties on a string while saying, “These are bikkurim,” our task each time is to be mindful and recognize similarly: “This is the product of the home soil God has given me.” Time ticks on, and while this cycle of regalim may pass without assembly, the calendar will come back around. Next year’s holiday of bikkurim will be on its way just as soon as this one is on its way out. For now, in the absence of communal celebration, what we each have to offer is the product of our own individual homes, and as they say in I.T., “That’s not a bug; that’s a feature.”

It is Yom ha-Bikkurim, and the Shekhinah makes house calls.

Michael Bernstein, MSW, is a stay-at-home dad and Jewish Studies freelancer. He lives in Riverdale, Bronx, NY.