Religious Holidays, Values, and Rituals: Mishnaic Perspectives
Religious celebrations and their associated rituals reveal some of the most important values of a community as well as the place of these values in households and families. Overall, the impact of religion on the social cohesion of a group can be inferred from the ways that the ideals of holiday celebrations are constructed. As a basis for understanding how Mishnah constructs the community we ask, what were the core features of the Mishnaic conception of religious holy days and holidays and their rituals? How are these holidays to be marked and celebrated in the public and private spheres? This paper explores the Mishnaic conception of Judaism as expressed in diverse religious holidays, weekly and annually over the seasons. Our approach emphasizes how social science understands the significance of both public and private/home religious celebrations and rituals and shows that holidays and rituals identify the religious values that make Jews a distinct community. We draw mainly on Mishnah’s division of “Moed” (Appointed Times) that focuses directly on holidays and their related rituals. The main themes of Mishnah show how Jews are to be differentiated from non-Jews, how historical events are marked in a Jewish way, and in turn how the Jewish community is distinctive. We learn from the Mishnaic texts the “ideals” and ideas of religious rituals and holidays, not necessarily the empirical reality of holiday celebrations or ritual activities that characterized the community that they constructed.
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I use my own translation of the standard Mishnah Hebrew text organized by Pinchas Kahati (12 vols.) and by Chanoch Albek (6 vols.). For technical and helpful English translations see Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (London: Oxford University Press, 1933); Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
I treat the Mishnaic text as our “evidence” and draw from these texts what we understand as the Mishnaic perspectives on religious holidays, rituals and values. I have not compared these perspectives systematically with those emergent from the Biblical portrayal or with the holidays and religious rituals of later texts or other religious traditions.
Jacob Neusner, Judaism: the Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 23.
We make a similar theoretical argument with regard to “family” as a core institution as constructed by the Mishnah, connected to other dimensions of social life even as we explore family structure and values in depth to allow us to raise new questions. See C. Goldscheider, “Social Science and the Mishnah: Family Structure, Kinship, and Life Course Transitions” European Association of Biblical Studies. Cordoba, Spain, July 2015.
Lightstone argues more generally that Mishnah’s treatment of holidays is “episodic”. The seemly comprehensive nature of Mishnah is an epiphenomenon of its literary-rhetorical style leading to the spinning out of many differentiated hypothetical cases in which to rule on a number of topics. See for example Jack Lightstone, “Textual Study and Social Formation: The Case of the Mishnah.” Studies in Judaism, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 1, 2017.
Lightstone suggests that this may well reflect the literary-rhetorical tendency of the Mishnah to spin out hypothetical cases rather than reflect perceived Sabbath observance in the community. See Lightstone, Ibid.
New (i.e., postbiblical) holidays such as Hanukah and Purim appear to have been largely unformed in the Mishnah, but were often described as part of Biblical commandments. Thus, for example, the Talmud asks “Mai Hanukah” (What is the meaning of Hanukah?) not simply as a rhetorical question and there is a significant dispute between Schools of Hillel and Schools of Shamai about the number and sequence of Hanukah lights (Talmud Bavli—Shabbat 21b) as there is a dispute in the Mishnah over the sequence of the Havdalah ritual at the conclusion of the Sabbath (Berachot 8, 5).
See tractate Eduyot, 1, 4–5. See also tractate Hagigah 1, 8 for a powerful statement of how the Rabbis constructed the rules on holidays and that were only marginally connected to Biblical sources.
‘Academic’ in Louis Jacob’s phrase. Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 18.
It is unclear from a simple reading of the text when this feast occurs since the literal reading is that the festive meal takes place directly after the High Priest leaves the holy of holies, while some report that it was “motzaei Yom Kippur” for example, after Yom Kippur had ended.
This contrasts with the feast on Passover when home rituals seem to substitute for the Pascal sacrifice. See our discussion below of Passover and compare Baruch Bokser, The Origins of the Seder (University of California Press, 1984).
See Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, “The Human Will in Judaism: The Mishnah’s Philosophy of Intention.” Brown Judaic Studies 103, 1986.
The parallel to the taking the Lulav on Shabbat is discussed in the Mishnah in tractate Succah 4, 3. See below.
Unless otherwise noted all references in this section refer to the Tractate Shabbat. Abraham Goldberg, On Shabbat, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Jerusalem, 1976 (Hebrew) deals extensively with the different textual variants in this tractate. As far as I can determine, there are no consequences of these variants for our analysis.
There is a clear implication that everyone is part of a household. Beginning Shabbat with Kiddush is dis-cussed in another context referring to the disagreement of the House of Hillel and House of Shamai about sequences. These points are scattered else-where. See specifically tractate Berachot, chap. 8.
There is an attempt to link “work” to activities in the Tabernacle to reinforce the legitimacy of Rabbinic rules in the post-Temple period.
There are distinctions between the rich and the poor in the discussion in the first chapter about passing goods from public to private space. While the stereotype of the rich who possess property and the poor who take handouts from the rich is clearly stated, there do not seem to be differential ritual consequences or different rules for the rich and poor. One exception is LUF, a bean or flower that is more appropriate or more likely for a poor person to eat and that is permissible to carry on Shabbat (18, 1). Compare the discussion of voluntary contributions for the Temple to Jerusalem by wealth and size of household in Hagigah 1, 5.
There is a note in the Mishnah about B’nei melachim (6, 9 and 14, 4) as in the tractate Berachot (1, 2 ) with reference to the timing of reading the Sh’ma prayer but that is clearly exceptional, particularly noting Rabbi Shimon’s position in Shabbat 14, 4 that all Israelites are the children of kings.
There is an interesting digression in Eruvin Mishnah 2, 6: A Rabbi Elai “heard (three rules) from Rabbi Elazar”. These rules are related to Eruv and also to eating some vegetable to fulfill the obligation of Maror at the Passover Seder. Rabbi Elai asked his students for confirmation that Rabbi Elazar said these things and got no one to agree (and by inference the Halakha for all of them is not like Rabbi Elai). This suggests not only the power of the Rabbis to develop the law but the need to confirm Rabbinic rulings by obtaining normative consensus. Without that consensus the rules do not become obligatory. The attempt to mitigate the limits of travel in the Mishnah may reflect some of actual changes in urbanized set-tings. See Jack Lightstone, “Urban Re-Organization in Late Roman Palestine and the Early Rabbinic Guild: What Toseftan Evidence Indicates about the City and its Institutions as an Emerging Salient Category in the Early Rabbinic Legal (Re-) Classification of Space,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, 2007: 36/3–4: 421–25.
See Calvin Goldscheider, “Inclusion and Exclusion in the Mishnah: Non-Jews, Converts and the Nazir,” Journal for Studies in Judaism, Humanities and the Social Sciences, vol. 1, 2017.
This is derived from an explicit Torah text, Exodus 12, 16. In several places in the Mishnah, Hillel in contrast to Shamai, takes the position that particular activities are permissible on the Holiday but not on Shabbat, for example carrying from private to public places, heating up water for washing that is not for food preparations further distinguishing Yom Tov from Shabbat (Beitzah 1, 5; 2, 5).
In no case that I know of is “large” or “small” household defined or are unmarried, divorced or widowed women living alone counted toward any household size except their father’s or their children’s. And it is likely that the notion of independent living of women or of men was not a viable option in a family-household oriented community or culture. On social class factors in the Mishnah see Calvin Goldscheider “Inequality, Stratification, and Exclusion in the Mishnah: An exploratory social science analysis” in Jeffrey Stackert, Barabra Porter, and David Wright (eds.) Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch (CDL Press, 2010): 565–84. On family and households see Calvin Goldscheider, “Social Science and the Mishnah: Family Structure, Kinship, and Life Course Transitions” Paper presented, European Association of Biblical Studies, Cordoba, Spain, July 2015 and the sources cited therein.
According to the Gemara (Hagigah 7a) this also applies to Shavuot which is seven days long (rather than the one day specified in the Torah)! The inclusion of Shavuot in this option is not mentioned in the Mishnah. There seems to be no clear replacement in the post sacrificial system for the three types of sacrifices to be brought when coming to the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals (Hagigah 1, 6). The designations of Pentecost as the time of “giving of the Torah” is first mentioned in the Gemara and not in the Mishnah (see tractates Shabbat 88A and Pesachim 68B).
See also tractate Eduyot 1, 4–5 on why minor opinions are retained.
See Baruch Bokser, The Origins of the Seder (University of California Press, 1984) on the Mishnaic conception of the Seder.
Jeffrey Rubenstein, The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods (Brown Judaic Studies, 1995).
See the discussion in Jeffrey Rubenstein, The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods (Brown Judaic Studies, 1995).
Compare with the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur described in tractate Taanit 4, 8.
How far this goes to explain why it was abandoned while other home and private rituals were retained is a question to ponder; some public rituals connected primarily with the Temple seem more likely to be abandoned others to be retained or redefined.
This suggests that family celebrations in the Mishnah have a different meaning perhaps as part of small gatherings of Rabbis and their disciples rather than ‘family’ specific activities.
The places in the Mishnah that mention Hanukah are in tractates Bikkurim 1, 6 (timing); Megillah 3, 6 (Torah reading); Rosh Hashanah 1, 3 (New moon); Taanit 2, 10 (fasting); Megillah 3,4 (Torah reading) and 3, 6; Baba Kama, 6, 6 (sparks for damages); Moed Katan 3, 9 (type of mourning).
There is a confusion of Hanukah as Succot Sheni and its new reconstructed meaning of the found cruse of oil. Therefore the Gemara asks Mai Hanukah (What is the meaning of Hanukah)? The answer is in Shabbat 21B along with the argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (part of chapter 2 of Shabbat). Shammai argues that Hanukah is justified by examining the sacrifices on Succot wherein the sequence is large numbers of sacrifices diminishing by day (hence 8 days). Hillel says that the increasing daily number is justified by “increasing” in holiness. But the Talmud only considers context of the found cruse of oil as critical. No reference to the Book of Maccabees where the issue is Lulav and Etrog! (there is no mention of either the name of the Holiday and the ritual of lighting). When the Talmud asks about the blessing over the candles on Hanukah (Succot 46: A) they refer either to a verse of listening to the instruction of the Kohen or Levite (Deut. 17:11) or “Ask your father and he will tell you”. In both cases it is the legitimacy (equal to the Torah) of rabbinic authority and the power of tradition that is at issue.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by J. W. Swain (New York: The Free Press.  1965).
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