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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:31 You shall not do any work - an everlasting statute for your generations in all your dwellings.
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Here we are, not just in the middle of the Torah's great chapter on the feasts, but in the middle of the commandments for Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements. Technically, this verse appears to be redundant, since this commandment - to do no work - is given explicitly just three verses earlier (v. 28), was given seven chapters earlier (16:29) and will be given in the next major divison of the Torah, B'Midbar 29:7. But the Torah does not waste words, so it must be telling us something significant that is not told elsewhere.Ibn Ezra suggests that it is repeated, "to add the proviso that it is a law for all time, when and wherever." Neither of those criteria are present in the other texts. Rabbi Hirsch explains that "the validity and importance of Yom Kippur are entirely independent of time and place." Ovadiah Sforno adds that "although atonement is no longer attained through the altar, it is an obligation of the day, as it is, in exile." Let's take a closer look at some of the words and their context to see what they may be able to teach us.
Starting at the beginning, the Torah consistently uses the phrase in verses 28-31 - in fact, throughout the chapter dealing with all the biblical festivals including the weekly shabbat. Depending on the translation this appears as "all work" is forbidden, "no work" may be done, or "do not do "any work". But what is 'work'? The Torah uses two words for work: , for higher level activities such as planning, designing and creating and , for activities such as menial, routine work or - perhaps surprisingly - worship. Although only the first is used here and throughout this section, the second is surely included. The rabbis defined 39 classes of 'work' connected with the construction of the Mishkan, ranging from writing and weaving to planting and reaping, via grinding, spinning and curing along the way. All these essentially creative tasks are classed as work that must not be performed on Yom Kippur. TheRadak wryly comments, "literally, 'do not do any work', not even the least bit."
Finishing the verse are the phrases , "an everlasting statute for your generations" and , "in all your dwellings". These have already been used together in verse 14, forbidding the consumption of new grain until the day of early firstfruits, and verse 21 where it mandates the festival of Shavuot at the end of counting the Omer. The latter first appears as part of the instructions for the first week of Matzah: "in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread" (Shemot 12:20, NJPS). As the third in the sequence of commands - preceded by "eat unleavened bread for seven days" (v. 18, NJPS) and "no leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days" (v. 19, NJPS) - it is widely taken as prohibiting leaven throughout the land of Israel and extended to any Jewish house whether in the Land or the Diaspora. We should notice that all these commands are commanded for all generations - essentially, permanently, for ever - and in all places where Jewish people are to be found even though no sacrifices can be brought and no services held in the Temple, whether in Israel or in Exile.
We should also observe that this verse is followed by the command, "On the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath" (Vayikra 23:32, NJPS). The words "from evening to evening" are unusual; Baruch Levine tells us that it "appears only in this verse; it is not said of any other sacred occasion, even the regular shabbat. Indeed, it is uncertain as to whether in biblical times the Shabbat and the festivals began on the prior evening, as became the custom in later Judaism. Given that uniqueness, it is likely that, except for Pesach, all other festivals, even Shabbat, began at dawn in biblical times." Levine notwithstanding, Rashi draws on the Sages (b. Yoma 81a) to tell us that this is "to enjoin against work of night just as work of day." This is a full twenty-four hour sunset-to-sunset prohibition of work; it is to be a complete ceasing and rest.
Contemporary commentators too shed important light on our text. John Hartley points out that, "even though the high priest is the key figure in the solemn ceremonies at the Tent of Meeting ... the entire community contributes significantly to the spiritual merit of this day by fasting and abstaining from all earthly pleasures."1 This makes it sound as though while the Torah unmistakably calls for a central ritual performance, the day is more participatory than a cursory reading of the text would suggest. Mark Rooker goes a little further, judging that this section of the "legislation has the responsibility of the congregation in view rather then the priesthood."2 The Cohen HaGadol must carry out each step of the ritual carefully and responsibly; that is his duty on behalf of the people. The people must observe their part of the day also: ceasing from work and afflicting their souls; that is their duty on behalf each other and the nation as a whole including the High Priest. That is why Samuel Balentine writes that "in G-d's judgement, the failure to cease from human labour in recognition of the rest that joins the community to G-d's rhythm of working and resting is a capital offense. It puts the community and, indeed, the world, at risk in a way that is no less serious than taking another's life."3
Stepping aside from the minutiae of the thirty-nine classes of m'la'cha, how is this resting and fasting supposed to work? It seems that over the years, Israel - or at least, some of Israel - hadn't got the hang of it at all. The prophet Isaiah voices the people complaining toHaShem that He isn't taking any notice of them when they fast: "Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?" (Isaiah 58:3, NJPS). What's going on here, the people say; "we did what You asked, but nothing happened." Not so, says HaShem. Hear His reply: "Because on your fast day You see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist!" (vv. 3-4, NJPS). The priest may have carried out the ceremony perfectly, but the people didn't do their part; they fasted from food, but carry on with their business activities and in an unrighteous way! HaShem points to the apparent public observance of the ritual and asks the question, "Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the L-RD is favourable?" (v. 5, NJPS). Absolutely not! HaShem is crystal clear about what He seeks: "No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin" (vv. 6-7, NJPS).
Yeshua's well-known story about the Sheep and the Goats separates between the two groups on the basis of the way they have responded to the picture of fasting that Isaiah describes. To the Sheep, Yeshua says, "I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me" (Matthew 25:35-36, ESV), while to the Goats, He says, "I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me" (vv. 42-43, ESV). Both groups express surprise: "Lord, when did we do [or not do] this?" and Yeshua tells them, "As you did [or did not do] it to "one of the least of these, you did [or did not do] it to Me" (vv. 40, 45, ESV harmonised). Sobering words, but John writes, "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does G-d's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17, ESV). Why and how do you fast?
Jewish tradition is very clear that all the commandments and regulations of Yom Kippur as well as the other festival days, may - indeed, must - be set aside in order to save life. When it is a matter of life and death, you do whatever you have to do to save life.3 In modern Israel, hospitals remain open for emergency admissions; doctors and ambulances are on duty to treat those with life-threatening conditions. For them, being at work is their fast! But how seriously do we take the injunction to do no work and to rest? Do we set our own convenience above the Torah? On a wider scale, how particular are we do do exactly what G-d has said and when He has said? Or do we, on the contrary, dissemble, re-interpret and justify, pretending or reasoning that the words don't apply to us. As far as Matthew's recounting of Yeshua's story seems to be concerned, the only difference between the Sheep and the Goats is what they did and didn't do.
1. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 388.
2. - Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 289.
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 180.
4. - The three exceptions to this are worshipping idols, sexual immorality and murder. These remain forbidden at all times and under any circumstances.
Further Study: Vayikra 16:29; Nehemiah 5:10-12; Isaiah 58:10-12; Romans 12:2
Application: Sometimes, the Torah seems so uncompromising and inconvenient in its requirements. But then again, so does Yeshua. By His Spirit we are empowered - if we will do it - both to do and to want to do His word. The only question is: are you prepared to listen and obey His voice today?
Comment - 10:41 08May22 Joshua VanTine: Keith Green's, of blessed memory, song about the Sheep and Goats crescendos loudly at the conclusion of this finely constructed drash. Just as our Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth did and does, may we find the courage to do, do the works we have been created for in Messiah.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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