by Rabbi David Eisenman
It is by now well-known that the Vilna Ga’on’s learning towards the end of his life focused on reading Tanach (Bible) very closely, and finding in the nuances of the Torah bases for the entirety of our system of halakha (Jewish law).
One striking instance of this can be seen in the The Vilna Ga’on (Gra’s) revolutionary explanation of a seemingly simple pasuk (verse) in this week’s parshah (Torah portion). Vayikra (Leviticus) 23 is a list of all the mo’adim, the holidays, starting from Pesach and ending with Sukkot. This list is introduced in 23:2, “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them [these are] the holidays of Hashem, that should be designated as Holy Days.” Verse 3 then continues. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day it is Shabbat Shabbaton …, you may do no work [on it]” Then verse 4 begins listing the Mo’adim.
Asks the Gra: First, verse 3 seems completely out of context—verse 2 introduces a list of the Mo’adim, a list that begins in verse 4. Verse 3 is about Shabbat, most certsinly not a mo’ed. What is that verse doing here? And second, why is the Seventh Day that this verse mentions— Shabbat—referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton,” and not just as Shabbat?
The Gra suggest reading verse 2 completely differently from its simple meaning, and reading it in a way that supports the halakha that one may cook on yom tov (holidays), but not on Yom Kippur.
Suggests the Gra: The six days referred to in verse 3 , days on which work may not be done, refer to the six days during the year which are mo’adim, but in which we may cook: Rosh HaShanah, the first day of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, The first and last days of Pesach, and Shavu’ot. (Of course, we are speaking of the ideal calendar, not the chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel) calendar, with its second days of each of these yom tovs.) These are the six days the Torah is referring to, on which one may work. The seventh day on which one may not work is Yom Hakippurim, a day on which cooking is forbidden, and a day which is referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (e.g., Vayikra 23:32).
Thus, our pasuk is not at all out of context: it introduces the mo’adim as a whole, and introduces us the basic difference between them and Shabbat Shabbaton. With this explanation in mind, we see that Shabbat is not mentioned at all in this verse. A great example of how deeply one must dig when reading the Torah.