“What is the most important Jewish holiday of the year?” I’ve known at least a few rabbis and educators who have asked this question. Most respondents say something like Yom Kippur or Pesach, when the answer these rabbis and educators were looking for was–Shabbat.
One can easily make a case for Shabbat as the most important Jewish holiday of the year. The more one observes it in a meaningful way, the more it becomes an important day in one’s life. It’s an invitation to set aside some time and make it special, whether one is alone, with family or friends, or with members of his/her community or congregation. This is the first of three holidays that occur this weekend.
Here at Temple Israel, we spend part of Shabbat morning studying the Torah portion which, this week, is Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24). Much of it describes the duties of the kohanim (priests) in ancient times, including the kindling of lights and the providing of twelve loaves of challah that were to be on display in the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. It’s interesting that the kindling of lights and the providing of challah were later considered to be the responsibilities of women in traditional Jewish societies.
Women were/are traditionally expected to bear children and to raise them; to keep the house, to light the Shabbat candles on Friday nights and provide the challah. They were exempt from most ritual commandments and yet, ironically, they served very much like the ancient priests, providing the structure that enabled us to function day-by-day, week-by-week in a meaningful way.
The Jewish home is often referred to as the mikdash me’at, a miniature version of the Holy Temple, and the kitchen table is often compared to the altar on which offerings are made. It’s there around the table where important conversations were had and where our core values were transmitted, thanks in large part to our mothers who often officiated over our meal-time rituals. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
The second holiday this weekend is Lag BaOmer. The name refers to the 33rd day of the Omer, the period of forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuot. The first 32 days of that period are regarded in traditional Jewish communities as a semi-mourning period, hearkening back to a plague that killed thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, a first century Talmudic scholar. Lag BaOmer is counted as the day on which the plague ceased, thus becoming the day on which mourning rituals are abandoned and replaced by picnics, bonfires and other joyful celebrations. This year, Lag BaOmer begins on Saturday night and continues through Sunday, May 14th.
The third holiday this weekend is Mother’s Day. Although it’s not a Jewish holiday, volumes have been written about Jewish mothers, and most of us have lots of good things to say about our own mothers. And in keeping with Jewish values, it’s appropriate to designate some special time to give thanks to and for the mothers in our lives. And what better way to do that than to bring your mother, or your entire family, to tomorrow evening’s Shabbat dinner and Friday service at which we will honor our mothers with special prayers and songs.
Our Religious School will be closed on Sunday so that everyone can celebrate Mother’s Day. And those who want to celebrate Lag BaOmer will be free to do that as well. You might consider planning a picnic in order to celebrate both holidays at the same time! But however you choose to celebrate, give the mothers in your life the love and honor they deserve. You’ll be glad you did on this most important weekend.
R’ Moshe Tom