Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav, Shabbat Ha-Gadol 5764/ April 3, 2004


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Three Types of Slavery, Three Freedoms

Yehiel Amrami

Hod Ha-Sharon



The Torah mentions the festivals in detail three times:  in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28-29, and Deuteronomy 16.   An additional general reference is made to Passover and Tabernacles, in Exodus 23:14-18, where the Feast of Weeks is also hinted at through the reference to “three times.”   This raises the following questions:

1)       Why does the Torah repeat this information so many times?

2)       Do these three festivals have something in common, which sets them apart from the remaining holidays of the Jewish people on other days of the year?

Our first question was already anticipated by Sifre Deuteronomy (Re’eh, par. 74), which presents the following reasons for the threefold repetition:

Observe the month of Abib (Deut. 16:1).   Three places the festivals are mentioned:  in the Priestly Code (Leviticus 23), where they are presented because of their sequence [i.e., ordered according to the seasons of the year], in the Pentateuch [book] of the Census (Numbers 28-29), because of their sacrifices [here the requisite offerings for each festival are detailed], and in Deuteronomy (ch. 16), because of the leap year [1] [i.e., to instruct us regarding the commandment of declaring leap years].

Nahmanides in his commentary on Deut. 16:1 explains that the repetition in Deuteronomy of the commandments regarding the festivals is an elaboration of the commandment, adding instructions and rules beyond those which we have already learned from the previous places the festivals are mentioned. Here is the quote:

Observe the month of Abib – an elaboration on the commandments of the festivals, for the Torah mentioned them previously.   In the Priestly Code the sacrifices were mentioned – you shall make an offering by fire to the Lord – but here they are not mentioned at all.  But [here] the Israelites are cautioned that they must bring them to the place that He will choose, and must rejoice before Him, for as He commanded them to bring the second tithe before the Lord, … He continued to make clear that everyone is obliged to come before the Lord and celebrate before Him three times a year through the offerings of well-being that they make before Him.   The dates of the Festival of Passover and of Tabernacles are not mentioned, but the months in which they occur are alluded to in brief, for this had all been mentioned elsewhere.

Nahmanides proceeds to mention the new elements that are added in Deuteronomy regarding each festival.  Regarding Passover, the new command is to declare a leap year:   Observe the month of Abib that Passover always be in no other season than spring (aviv).   For the Feast of Weeks, it is the obligation to count weeks as well – You shall count off seven weeks – and not just days, as said in Leviticus:  you must count … fifty days.  For the Feast of Tabernacles:  You shall hold [lit. make] the Feast of Booths, [with the emphasis on “make”], to exclude using a ready-made sukkah or a stolen sukkah.

We can add to his remarks that in Deuteronomy the Torah notes precisely when each festivals falls in terms of the agricultural season of the year.

Regarding our second question, whether the three festivals have a theme in common, I would like to follow in the wake of Dr. Meir Gruzman’s book, Al ha-Mo’adim.  In this regard he writes about three types of slavery:   physical enslavement, one person serving another in bondage; cultural enslavement, where a person has no culture or thoughts of his own and always imitates others, thinking like them and acting like them; and personal enslavement, where a person is arrogant and conceited, putting all his trust entirely in himself, as if he had all the power and ability, the way Pharaoh is cited in Ezekiel as saying, “My Nile is my own; I made it for myself” (Ezek. 29:3).

According to Dr. Gruzman, the purpose of the festivals is to release human beings from these three types of bondage, so that they can worship the Lord in body, spirit (culture) and person, according to the following order:

Passover is the diametrical opposite of the first type of bondage, physical enslavement.  When the Israelites left Egypt and were delivered from the yoke of Pharaoh they were called upon to become servants of the Lord:  “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants:   they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your G-d” (Lev. 25:55), and from that time on they remain G-d’s servants for all generations.  The Israelites are not servants bound or obligated to anyone else, save for this relationship to their Lord.

The Seder ceremony, reading the Haggadah and performing all the symbolic acts contained therein, as well as reciting Hallel on the eve and day of the festival, express our acceptance of servitude to our Lord in Heaven and our rejection of servitude to any other body.

The Feast of Weeks is also intended as an apposition to slavery, but this time to the second type of bondage, cultural enslavement.  This festival, marked by the experience of receiving the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, attests to the uniqueness of Jewish culture, given to us alone and not to any other people.  The people’s famous proclamation, “na’aseh ve-nishma’ – we will do and obey,” made prior to receiving the Torah, indicates that without knowing the contents of the commandments the Israelites were willing to hold out their hands and receive them, only to hear and comprehend their meaning later.  By accepting the Torah the Israelites freed themselves of the Egyptian cultural heritage and became freemen who concern themselves solely with the Lord’s Torah and commandments, i.e., spiritual servants of the Lord.

The Feast of Tabernacles, as well, like its two senior “brothers,” stands in apposition to slavery, but this time to the third type – personal, individual bondage.

The Feast of Tabernacles, as we know, is the festival of ingathering of fruits.  During this season a person takes stock of the achievements in his work through the course of the year, and hence this season might be dangerous from the Jewish point of view, lest the farmer become caught up in self-aggrandizement, saying, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Deut. 8:17).  From here it is but a short way to “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Deut. 32:15).   Herein lies the danger of self-enslavement, which is considered the worst of all types of slavery, and it is against this that we have the commandment of building a sukkah.

The object of leaving our homes and going to dwell in a sukkah, which has no solid roof and is made of “the waste from the threshing floor and grape press” [this is the Talmudic expression for the skhakh, which must come from plant matter], is to make us see and feel how fleeting, defenseless and powerless we are in our world.  Recognizing this moderates our aspirations towards superiority, might and strength, and increases our sense of dependence on G-d and the awareness of our insignificance in the face of the Creator of the Universe.

This is also what lies behind our prayer for rain in the musaf service of Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah.  Precisely as the festival of the fruit harvest draws to a close the farmer begins to have fears about what lies in store for the future.   All at once he realizes that his future is in the hands of Heaven, in the hands of He who holds the key to the rains.   Making reference to the rainy season is intended to restore the farmer’s balance, bringing him back to the realization that he is not omnipotent, and thus to suppress self-enslavement.

Thus we see that the three festivals comprise a broad educational system designed to teach human beings to worship the Lord in body, spirit (culture) and person (or personality).

[1] Leap year, ibbur .  A variant reading is tzibbur , the public, but the former is to be preferred, according to Rashi on Deuteronomy 16:1:  Observe the month of Abib – Observe prior to its coming, to be sure that it be fit as Abib [during which month we are commanded] to offer the omer , and if it is not – then declare a leap year.”