Though it is entirely without consequence, Jews occasionally debate which is the most important or holiest day of the Jewish year. Some might argue that honor goes to Passover, first because it is the foundational holiday of the Jewish people, and, second, because it is the cornerstone for setting the Jewish calendar. Others argue that it is Yom Kippur: the holiest day of the year. But from the commentary of the Vilna Ga’on another candidate emerges for consideration.
After introducing the sacral calendar, the Torah proceeds to list the Sabbath as the first of the Jewish holidays (Leviticus 23:3). But this listing is problematic. Shabbat is called a “sign” (Exodus 31:17), never a “convocation” or “appointed time.” Hence, it is out of place among other holy days that are convocations. Further, the sages of the Talmud make a point of the fact that all the holidays are scheduled by rabbinic determination. That is the import of the phrase “that you shall call them” (Leviticus 23:2). God empowers the Jewish people through their experts to fix the time for holiday celebrations. Purim, for example, could fall on any one of five days depending on circumstance (Megillah 1:1). It was up to the rabbis to determine which date fits for any given year. This is certainly not the case for Shabbat that was fixed by God and recurs every seventh day.
Given the problematic nature of this listing, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, known as the Vilna Ga’on (d. 1797), suggests an alternative reading. When the Torah refers to the seventh day upon which no manner of work shall be done (v. 3) the Torah is not referring to the Sabbath day. Rather, the Torah is referring to Yom Kippur. He explains that Jews celebrate seven holy days during the course of the year: Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, the first and last days of Pesah, the first day of Shavu’ot, and Yom Kippur. On all but Yom Kippur Jews may prepare foods necessary for that day. Thus, the Torah states: “on six days you shall do your work but the seventh shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths…” (v. 3).
It would seem, then, that the Vilna Ga’on is singling out Yom Kippur, lending support for considering it the most important of all Jewish holidays. However, Yom Kippur is included in the subsequent listing (Leviticus 23:27-32) along with the other holidays. It is qualitatively different but still part of the sacral calendar. There is only one holiday that stands apart: Shabbat. So while, according to the Vilna Ga’on, Shabbat is not the subject of the Torah in Leviticus 23:3, its exclusion suggests its uniqueness, raising it above all the other holidays. Of course the recurrent celebration of Shabbat makes it overly familiar and seemingly less important. But that is not the case.
The holiday that merits our utmost attention is Shabbat.