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Judaism: Thoughts on Shavuot

Published: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 5:26 PM


In Judaism, mysteries have a habit of becoming controversies, none more so than in the case of Shavuot, otherwise known as Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. Shavuot generated one of the great arguments in Jewish history. It is not too much to say that on its outcome the future of Jewish people turned.

The mystery of Shavuot is twofold. The first is that uniquely among the Jewish festivals it has no date; the Bible gives it no explicit place in the Jewish calendar. Instead, it is to be arrived at by counting seven weeks after the beginning of the Omer, the offering brought from the barley harvest, the first crop to ripen in the spring. ‘And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the wave offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count seven weeks’ (Leviticus 23:15).

The second is that alone of the pilgrimage festivals it has no overt historical content. The Jewish festivals have a double character. They belong to cyclical time – the seasons of the year. And they belong to linear time – they recall formative moments in Jewish history. So Pesach is the festival of spring and also the time when we re-enact the exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is the festival of the autumn harvest and the time when we re-live the journey through the wilderness in temporary dwellings or tabernacles. But as we read the biblical description of Shavuot, half of the festival seems to be missing. Its seasonal significance is clear. It is called the ‘Feast of the Harvest’ and the ‘Day of First Fruits’. But the historical dimension is absent. So Shavuot raised two questions that were to become the subject of deep controversy: when was it celebrated, and why?

The argument became acute in the days of the second Temple when Jews were divided into several groups, most notably the Sadducees and Pharisees. We know all too little about this period, but we can say this. Of the two groups, the Sadducees were the more affluent and influential. They were closely connected to the Temple hierarchy and to the political elite. They were as near as Jewry came to a governing class. The Pharisees drew their support from the poorer groups of the population, and they had a distinctive ethos. Whilst the Sadducees saw Jewish identity in terms of the State and its institutions, the Pharisees saw it in terms of personal piety and scrupulous observance of the Law. In particular, they had a passion for education. They built academies and schools and devoted their days to the study of Torah.

There were several doctrinal differences between the two groups, but one in particular was crucial. The Pharisees gave equal authority to the twin sources of Judaism, the Written Torah (especially the Mosaic books) and the Oral Torah, the unwritten traditions which accompanied the biblical text, interpreting and supplementing it. The Sadducees accepted only the Written Torah, not oral tradition. This was to become the key issue in the debate over the date of Shavuot.

The Torah had specified that the counting of seven weeks should begin on ‘the day after the Sabbath’. The Sadducees took this literally. The counting should begin on Sunday, so that Shavuot would always fall on Sunday seven weeks later. The Pharisees invoked tradition and argued instead that in this case `sabbath’ meant ‘festival’, specifically the first day of Pesach. The counting should begin on the second day of Pesach, so that the dates of Pesach and Shavuot were linked. The argument between them became acute — inevitably so, since there can be few more divisive situations than one in which two sections of the population are celebrating the same festival on different days.

When we read about religious controversies, we are often surprised and even dismayed that so much passion should be spent on matters that seem so slight. This is usually because we fail to understand the deeper issues at stake, issues rarely spelled out by the protagonists at the time. Between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, I suspect, lay an argument that had little to do with the meaning of the word `sabbath’ and everything to do with the nature of Jewish history and character.

The Sadducees read the message on the surface of the Bible. This said that Shavuot was an agricultural festival whose date was determined by the barley harvest. There were even Sadducees who argued that the Almighty must have had farmers in mind when He decided to fix Shavuot on Sunday: at the end of the harvest it gave weary workers a long weekend! The religion of Israel was the religion of a people in and on its own land. It was about kings and priests, the Temple and sacrifices, farmers and fields, the seasons and their celebrations.

The Pharisees, though, read not only the text but also the subtext. They sensed the link between the two great events with which the history of Israel began: exodus and Sinai, liberation and revelation, the going out from Egypt and the giving and receiving of the Law. That was what the mysterious counting of seven weeks was about. It represented not the duration of the harvest, but the forty-nine days between Moses leading the people out of Egypt and their assembly at the foot of the mountain to receive the Torah. Shavuot was not simply an agricultural festival. It was a historical festival with a precise date and content. It was the anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai, the day of the Giving of the Law.

Occasionally there are arguments that are decided by history, and this was one. In the year 70 of the Common Era, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel came to an end and a millennial exile began. The movement represented by the Pharisees became the dominant force in Jewish life for the next eighteen hundred years. Of the Sadducees almost nothing remained: no literature or philosophy, no lasting trace of their influence. The once ruling class vanished within a generation.

It could hardly have been otherwise. The things on which they based their identity – the Temple and its priesthood, the land and its farmers, Jerusalem and its seat of power – were gone. Had Judaism been nothing but these, it too would have disappeared. Jews would have argued (as Spinoza did, many centuries later) that the end of their sovereignty meant the end of the covenant. God had given Israel a law and a land, a law for the land. The loss of one spelled the demise of the other.

You could not celebrate Shavuot, the harvest festival, when you had no fields to harvest. You could not observe your own law when you had no country over which you ruled.

Judaism owes its continued existence to the fact that, two thousand years ago, the Sadducees were not the only force in Jewish life. There were others, the Pharisees, who did more than read the Torah’s written text. They listened to it with an inner ear. In it they heard Moses’ warning that the people of Israel would suffer exiles. They understood that the Law had been given in the wilderness to signal that it applied everywhere, outside the promised land as well as within. They knew that this was the crucial fact about Israel, that even without a land it still had a Law, and even in exile it still had the covenant.

When you can no longer celebrate Shavuot as an agricultural festival, you can still observe it as the anniversary of the giving of the Law.

The controversy over the date and significance of Shavuot – fought over the meaning of a single word – was nothing less than an argument about the terms of Jewish history, about whether the key event in the Hebrew Bible was the giving of the land or the Law. That there has been Jewish history for the past two thousand years is due in no small measure to those who successfully argued that Shavuot was more than a celebration of the land. There is something left even when the land is lost, and that is what Shavuot recalls: the giving of the Torah, text of the eternal covenant between God and His people.

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My earliest memories are of the time when we lived together with my grandparents in Finsbury Park. My maternal grandfather, a stout and gentle man with a rich head of silver hair, owned his own synagogue – I never discovered why. He was not a rabbi, though he was the son of one, and he presided over a little house of prayer a few doors away from where we lived.

As his grandson I was given a special privilege during the Sabbath morning services. When the reading from the Torah scroll was over, and the scroll had been raised and rebound in its velvet covering, I would take the silver bells which were its ornamentation and, lifted by my father (I was two at the time), I would place them on its wooden handles. The scroll was then ready to be placed back in the ark.

From that day to this I have been awed by the love Jews have for the Torah. Generally speaking, we are not a reverential people nor is ours a religion of holy objects – with one exception: the Torah scroll itself. In its presence we rise. On the day we complete its reading, we dance with it as if it were a bride. The Torah alone comes near to the sanctity we attach to human beings.

If, God forbid, a Torah scroll is dropped, the congregation fasts. If, even worse, a scroll is desecrated or destroyed we mourn as if someone had died and we bury it as if it were a person.

My great-grandfather once travelled, in the 1870s, from Lithuania to Jerusalem, a long and hazardous journey in those days, carrying with him a Torah scroll he had commissioned so that he would have one from which to read in the Holy Land. He spent the whole journey carrying it, never letting it out of his sight so that it should not fall. It stayed there, in one of the little synagogues in the Old City, until the Jordanians destroyed it and the synagogue in 1949.

I never knew my great-grandfather. He died before I was born. But from photographs (he had stern eyebrows but otherworldly eyes) I can imagine him cradling the scroll in his arms as if it were a child.

Jewish spirituality is quite simply the story of a tempestuous love affair between God and a people: the story of a marriage whose contract is the Torah. Every weekday, Jewish men bind the strap of their tefillin (phylacteries) around their finger as if it were a wedding ring, and recite the moving words of Hosea:

I will betroth you to me for ever

I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,

In love and compassion

I will betroth you in faithfulness

and you will know the Lord. (Hosea 2:2.1-2.)

But it has not been an easy marriage. The prophets speak of Israel’s infidelities, and were they alive today they would do so again. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job contend with God for His apparent injustices, and had they foreseen the Holocaust what would they have said? There is argument, even long periods of estrangement.

Yet, said Isaiah, there is no divorce. And for the prophets and the rabbis the Torah itself was the proof. It was Israel’s never-to-be-rescinded marriage contract with God.

So Jews studied it and wrote commentaries to it. Wherever they were, and however harried and distressed, they gathered together to debate and meditate on its words. In the shtetl, the small township of Eastern Europe, when Jews met, one would say to the other: `Zog mir a shtickl Torah – Tell me a little Torah.’ Its words were their intimations of infinity, its letters the solid shapes of mysteries to be decoded.

They would stay up long into the night arguing over its meaning, each hoping to hear a chiddush, a ‘new’ interpretation, ‘new’ in inverted commas because all true interpretations had already been revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai.

But especially on Shavuot they would stay awake all night, for as the mystical treatise, the Zohar, said: All the wedding guests must stay with the bride on the night before her wedding, rejoicing with her in her preparations for the great day. Shavuot was the wedding day between God and Israel.

In our prayers every day we say:

Blessed be our God …

Who gave us the Torah of truth

And planted in us everlasting life.

Those who study Torah become part of an unbroken conversation that has continued throughout the centuries in which all Israel’s prophets and sages participated. To become a sentence in that conversation, a letter in the scroll, is what we and our ancestors understood as everlasting life.

Chag sameach!