Judaism: Shavuot is King David's Holiday
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
What Does the First Commandment Signify?
The first of the Ten Commandments doesn't seem to be commanding anything. It is a statement, “I am the Lord your God”.
One explanation is that the Decalogue is – as the Hebrew aseret hadib’rot makes clear – ten statements or principles, not necessarily ten commands. If, however, the ten are counted as mitzvot there still is a way of understanding Number 1 as a command – “I am to be the Lord your God”.
The true significance of that interpretation is suggested by a Hassidic saying in the name of the Rabbi of Kovrin. He looks at the words of Moses in Deut. 5:5, “I stood between the Lord and you at that time”, referring to the people’s reluctance to hear the voice of God, and their clamour for Moses, not God, to speak to them.
Says the Rabbi of Kovrin, what often stands between God and us is the “I”, the anochi, the human ego. When we boast and say, “I am great, I am powerful, I am clever”, we are posing one “I” against another. We can’t both be “I”. The Decalogue says, “The Divine ‘I’ must be your God, not the human one...”
King David's Festival
The hero of Shavuot ought by rights to be Moshe Rabbenu, who brought the Israelites to Sinai to receive the Torah and then went up the mountain to get the detailed laws that were not proclaimed in the Revelation. But Moshe gets hardly a mention: if the festival has a hero it is King David.
David is the most beloved figure (his name even means “loved”) of all the kings of Israel and Judah. It is he who established the dynasty that will one day make Israel and the world messianic.
Every stage in David’s career has garlands woven by the generations: from shepherd boy, harpist and poet, scholar and sage, friend – and enemy – of royalty, to warrior and outlaw, and finally to the throne of Israel – every moment is grounded in the Biblical story and embellished by midrashist and muse.
No wonder Ezekiel says, “David my servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.” Whether the word “shepherd” has a capital or a small “s” the result is the same – David’s progeny personify the end-of-days regime when the kingdom will be restored and the Messiah will rules.
But David is no mere political figure. He is the “sweet singer of Israel” whose psalms (never mind how many were his own work) speak with the poetic voice of Israel’s faith – about God and the city of God, about Israel and the heart of Israel, about righteousness, justice, truth and peace – the whole value system that informs and inspires the emotion and intellect of the generations of our history.
No wonder the Jewish badge is the Shield of David, no wonder his shield is the centrepiece of Israel’s flag, no wonder the Sabbath-night meal is the se’udah of King David, no wonder his tomb is a place of pilgrimage, no wonder Jerusalem is the City of David and its best hotel is named after him and stands in King David Street.
But the Shavuot connection needs more explanation. Shavuot is David’s Yahrzeit. Moses and Aaron have dates established in their memory, but no Biblical Yahrzeit has acquired a whole yom-tov for itself. Not that the majority of the Jewish world are aware of it: David himself would forgive them as long as they honoured the Torah which was given on Shavu’ot and to which he devoted his hours so zealously.
Interestingly, there is more Torah study today than for centuries, even more than in the great days of Eastern Europe. Once Jews learnt Torah because that was the done thing. Today they choose to learn; yeshivot are a great growth industry. Bialik wrote a sad piece about God being fed up and demanding the Torah back. These days He has little to complain about.
Some Polish Jews would light 150 Yahrzeit candles on Shavuot to recall David and his 150 psalms.
Shavuot is the time when we read the Book of Ruth. Not merely because David was her descendant and this is his Yahrzeit, but if she were covered by the verse, “A Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord”, this would have denied David the throne. But the sages say, “Moabite, not Moabitess”, so David is safe, as is the Davidic Messiah. Both owe their status to the rabbinic oral Torah, which underscores Shavu’ot as the anniversary of both the written and the oral tradition.
Another link is that 6 Sivan, the day the Pharisees accepted for Shavuot, is based on the rabbis’ interpretation of “the morrow of the day of rest” in Lev. 23. To them a festival (in this case Pesach) is a “day of rest”, whilst the Sadducees took “day of rest” as Shabbat and started counting the time to Shavu’ot from a Sunday. Neither Shavuot nor King David would be possible without the Oral Torah.
According to the Zohar, Adam admired David so much that he forfeited 70 years of his own life and gave them to David. In return, a modern Midrash might say, David brought extra life, inspiration, comfort and joy to the world of Adam’s descendants.