By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we learn of the commandment for the Children of Israel to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrim festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
The Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16 states, שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל זְכוּרְךָ אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר, בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת, וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת, וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם רֵיקָם , Three times a year all your males should appear before the L-rd your G-d, in a place that He will choose: on the Festival of Matzot, the Festival of Shavuot, and the Festival of Sukkot; and he [the Jewish visitor] shall not appear before the L-rd empty-handed.
The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:17, further states that the Jewish visitor should bring, אִישׁ כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ , Everyone, according to what he can give, according to the blessing that the L-rd your G-d gives you.
Among the three gifts the Jewish visitors were required to bring were, שַׁלְמֵי חֲגִיגָה –“Shalmei Chagiga,” the festival peace offerings which were brought in honor of celebrating the particular holiday. The עוֹלַת רְאִיָּה —“Olat R’iyah,” the elevation offering, intended to mark the pilgrim’s visit to the Temple. The third offering was שַׁלְמֵי שִׂמְחָה —“Shalmei Simcha,” a peace offering that was eaten to enhance the joy and happiness of the occasion. The value of all these sacrifices is to be commensurate with the prosperity which G-d has blessed the donor.
In order to truly enhance the joy of the holiday, it was not sufficient for the head of the family to only gather with family and friends to participate in the festival offerings. It was most important to invite the poor, the destitute, and especially the Levite to join the family in the festivities. After all, a Jew can only be truly joyous when bringing gladness to the hearts of others as well.
Since the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are aligned with the agricultural festivals, it is important to make a distinction that each of these festivals is much more than a celebration of nature. In Exodus 23:14, the Torah states, “You shall celebrate unto Me,” meaning G-d, in a way that will ensure that Jewish celebrations are not pagan celebrations or celebrations of nature or season.
The Abarbanel records five reasons for visiting the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the three major holidays:
1. G-d gave the Jewish people three extraordinary gifts: Freedom, Torah, and the land of Israel. On Passover, Jews thank G-d for their freedom, on Shavuot they thank G-d for the gift of the Torah, and on Sukkot they thank G-d for the gift of the land of Israel.
2. By visiting Jerusalem on the festivals, Jews confirm the fundamental belief that with G-d’s help, nothing is impossible.
3. By gathering as a community in Jerusalem, the people will be spiritually inspired by the pageantry and public presentations of the rituals performed by the priests and the Levites.
4. Sharing the joyous festivals together with the rest of the People of Israel will affect the way they live together in peace and harmony throughout the rest of the year.
5. The people who live far away from Jerusalem will have the unique opportunity to be in Jerusalem, to meet the great sages and the members of the high courts in order to discuss religious issues with them. They will also have a chance to visit the great academies of learning in Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin, enhancing their education and knowledge.
Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his Daat Sofrim , notes that the verse in Deuteronomy 16:16, speaks about שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה , that Jews should appear in Jerusalem three times, whereas in Exodus 23:14, the verse uses the language שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים , three feet, three occasions, or three steps. While they both mean three times, the fact that the Torah in Deuteronomy uses the word פַּעַם —“pa’am” and in Exodus רֶגֶל —“regel”, underscores the difficulty of leaving one’s home and making the challenging trek to Jerusalem.
Through the exegesis, the rabbis learn that only healthy people who are able to go on their own two feet are required to fulfill this mitzvah. Those who need to be driven on a cart or require a stick to walk are exempt.
Rabbi Abraham Chill in his book, “The Mitzvot,” concludes that Jews today are also expected to celebrate festivals with great fervor and enthusiasm, with meat and drink, and, just as in Temple days, be joined by the less fortunate.
The absence of sacrifices today can be fulfilled vicariously by giving donations to charities that support Torah learning and help the destitute, which are recognized as being equal to the sacrifices that were given in ancient times.
May you be blessed.