Shavuot Guide for the Perplexed

A Shavuot primer from a former ambassador of Israel.

Amb. (ret.) Yoram Ettinger

Judaism יורם אטינגר
יורם אטינגר
צילום: Hadas Parush/Flash90

(Based on Jewish Sages).

1. It has been customary to pave the road to Shavuot – from Passover - by studying the six chapters of The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkey Avot in Hebrew), one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah) - and a compilation of common sense principles, ethical and moral teachings and underlying inter-personal relationships. 

Examples of its teachings are: 
*"Who is respected? He who respects other persons!" 
*"Who is a wise person? He who listens to other persons!" 
*"Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his own share!" 
*"Who is a hero? He who controls his urge!" 
*"Talk sparsely and do plenty;" 
*"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"
*"Don't be consumed with the flask, but with its content."
*Conditional love is tenuous; unconditional love is eternal."
*"Treat every person politely."
*"Jealousy, lust and the obsession with fame warp one's mind."

Thus, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are dedicated to enhancing one's behavior, following in the footsteps of the Jews, who forged/enhanced their own national character during the 40 years from the Exodus until their return to the Land of Israel.

2.  Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah, and its 613 statutes - an annual reminder of critical values which shape faith and human relationships.

The Torah was received in the desert, on Mount Sinai which is not a dominating mountain, highlighting humility/modesty, the most critical values of human relationships and leadership.  Humility/modesty characterized Moses, the exceptional law-giver and leader, who earned only one compliment by the Torah: "the humblest of all human beings."Abraham (אברהם), King David (דוד) and Moses (משה) are role models of humility. Their Hebrew acronym (Adam - אדמ) means "human-being,” and is the root of the Hebrew word for "soil" (אדמה).

3.  Shavuot reflects the 3,500 year old trilateral linkage between the Land of Israel(pursued by Abraham), the Torah of Israel (transmitted through Moses) and the People of Israel (united by David). According to King Solomon, "the triangular cord cannot be broken!" 

The Torah of Israel forged and enhanced the character of the People of Israel, and both have been nurtured by the Land of Israel – a unique territorial/spiritual platform. 

Shavuot – a spiritual holiday – follows Passover – a national liberation holiday: from the liberation of the People of Israel (the Exodus) to their spiritual liberation/enhancement through the Torah or Israel, in preparation for the return to the Land of Israel.

Shavuot is celebrated by decorating homes and synagogues/temples with Land of Israel-related crops and flowers.

4.  Shavuot (Pentecost) was, originally, an agricultural holiday, celebrating the first harvest/fruit by bringing offerings (Bikkurim-ביכורים) to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Following the destruction of the second Temple and the exile in 70 AD - which intensified the need to entrench Torah awareness in order to avoid spiritual and physical oblivion - Shavuot became a Torah-driven historical/religious holiday. 

5. Shavuot – which is celebrated on the 50th day following Passover -  has 7 names: The holiday of the fiftieth ((חמישים, יובל, the holiday of the harvest (קציר), the holiday of the giving of the Torah (מתן תורה), Shavuot (שבועות), the holiday of the offerings (ביכורים), the rally (עצרת) and the assembly (הקהל). The Hebrew acronym of the seven names is "The Constitution of the Seven” - חקת שבעה. 

The Torah played a key role in shaping the US Constitution and the American culture, as well as the foundations of Western democracies.

6.  Shavuot reflects the centrality of "seven” in Judaism.  The Hebrew root of Shavuot (שבועות) is Seven (שבע - Sheva), which is also the root of "vow” (שבועה – Shvoua), "satiation” (שובע – Sova) and "week” (שבוע – Shavoua'). 

Shavuot is celebrated 7 weeks after Passover.

God employed 7 earthly attributes to create the universe (in addition to the 3 divine attributes).  

The Sabbath is the 7th day of the Creation in a 7 day week. 

The first Hebrew verse of Genesis consists of 7 words.

According to Genesis, the 7 beneficiaries of the Sabbath are: "you, your son and daughter, your male and female servants, your livestock and the stranger." 

God created 7 universes – the 7th hosts the pure souls, hence "Seventh Heaven.” 

There are 7 compartments of hell.

There are 7 basic human traits, which individuals are supposed to resurrect/adopt in preparation for Shavuot. 

The are 7 key Jewish/universal leaders – the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aharon, Joseph and David – who are commemorated as distinguished guests (Ushpizin in Hebrew) during the holiday of Tabernacles, representing the 7 qualities of the Torah. 

7 generations passed from Abraham to Moses.

There are 7 species of the Land of Israel (barley, wheat, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive and date/honey.

In Hebrew, number 7 represents multiplication (שבעתיים–Shiva'tayim).  

Grooms and Brides are blessed 7 times during the wedding ceremony.

There are 7 major Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot); 

7 directions (north, south, west, east, up, down, one's inside); 

7 continents and 7 oceans and major seas on the globe; 7 world wonders; 

7 notes in a musical scale; 7 days of mourning for the deceased; 7 congregants read the Torah on each Sabbath; 7 Jewish Prophetesses(Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Abigail, Choulda and Esther); 7 gates to the Temple in Jerusalem; 7 branches in the Temple's Menorah; and the 7 Laws of Noah.  

Moses was born and died on the 7th day of the Jewish month of Adar.  

Jethro had 7 names and 7 daughters. Joshua circled Jericho 7 times before the wall tumbled-down. 

Passover and Sukkot (Tabernacles) last for 7 days each.

The Yom Kippur prayers are concluded by reciting 7 times "God is the King.”  Each Plague (in Egypt) lasted for 7 days. The Jubilee follows seven 7-year cycles. 

According to Judaism, slaves are liberated,and the soil is not-cultivated, every 7th year.  

7.  Shavuot is celebrated 50 days following Passover, the holiday of liberty.  The Jubilee – the cornerstone of liberty and the source of the inscription on the Liberty Bell(Leviticus 25:10) - is celebrated every 50 years.

Judaism highlights the constant challenge facing human beings: the choice between the 50 gates of wisdom (the Torah) and the corresponding 50 gates of impurity (Biblical Egypt). 

The 50th gate of wisdom is the gate of deliverance.  The USA is composed of 50 states.

8.  Shavuot sheds light on the unique covenant between the Jewish State and the USA: Judeo-Christian Values.  These values impacted the world view of the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Separation of Powers, Checks & Balances, the abolitionist movement, etc.

John Locke wanted the 613 Laws of Moses to become the legal foundation of the new society established in America.

Lincoln's famous 1863 quote - "government of the people, by the people, for the people" - paraphrased a statement made by the 14th century British philosopher and translator of the Bible, John Wycliffe: "The Bible is a book of the people, by the people, for the people.”

9.  Shavuot is the second of the 3 Jewish Pilgrimages (Sukkot -Tabernacles, Passover and Shavuot - Pentecost), celebrated on the 6th day of the 3rd Jewish month, Sivan.  It highlights Jewish Unity, compared by King Solomon to "a triangular cord, which cannot be broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:12).  

The Torah - the first of the 3 parts of the Jewish Bible – was granted to the Jewish People (which consists of 3 components: Priests, Levites and Israel), by Moses (the youngest of 3 children, brother of Aharon and Miriam), a successor to the 3 Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and to Seth, the3rd and youngest son of Adam and Eve.  

The Torah was forged in 3 manners: Fire(commitment to principles), Water (lucidity and purity) and Desert (humility and faith-driven, tenacious defiance of odds). According to The Ethics of the Fathers, The Torah is one of the 3 pillars of healthy human relationships, along with labor and gratitude/charity. The Torah is one of the 3 pillars of Judaism, along with the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. 

10.  Shavuot highlights the eternity of the Jewish People. Thus, the first and the last Hebrew letters of Shavuot (שבועות) constitute the Hebrew name of the third – and righteous - son of Adam & Eve, Seth (שת). The Hebrew meaning of Seth – שת – is "to institute” and "to bestow upon” (Matan-מתן  in Hebrew).  The Hebrew word for thebestowing of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is Matan Torah (מתן תורה).

11. Shavuot (שבועות) is a derivative of the Hebrew word "Shvoua'” (שבועה) – vow, referring to the exchange of vows between God and the Jewish People.  The origin of Shavuot occurred 26 generations after Adam and Eve. The Hebrew word for Jehovah (יהוה) equals 26 in Gimatriya (assignment of numerical values to Hebrew letters). There are 26 Hebrew letters in the names of the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham (אברהם), Yitzhak (יצחק), Yaakov (יעקב) Sarah (שרה), Rivka (רבקה), Rachel (רחל) and Leah (לאה).

12.  Shavuot highlights the Scroll of Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, son of Jesse, grandson of Ovad, who was the son of Ruth. The Scroll of Ruth is the first of the five Biblical scrolls, which are studied during five Jewish holidays: Ruth (Shavuot), Song of Songs (Passover), Ecclesiastes (Sukkot), Book of Lamentations (Ninth of Av), Esther (Purim).

Ruth was a Moabite Princess and a role model of loyalty ("Your people are my people and your God is my God”), gratitude, responsibility, reliability, respect of the other person/religion and faith.  Ruth stayed by her mother-in-law, Naomi, who lost her husband, Elimelech (President of the Tribe of Judah) and two sons. 

Naomi went through family, economic and social calamities, similar to those experienced by Job: both lost their close family and financial assets; both complained to God; both preserved confidence in God and reconstructed their families; both were role-models of faith-driven patience and endurance.  Naomi's sufferings were punishment for emigrating from the Land of Israel during difficult times.  Leaders do not desert their people when the going gets rough! 

Ruth's Legacy: Respect thy mother in-law (!); be driven by conviction over convenience; and be cognizant of the central role played by women from Sarah, through Ruth, until today. 

The total sum of the Hebrew letters of Ruth (רות) - in Gimatriya – is 606, the number of laws granted at Mt. Sinai, which together with the 7 laws of Noah form the 613 statutes of Moses.  According to the scroll, "Ruth [the daughter-in-law] was better than 7 sons.”

The Scroll of Ruth highlights the Judean Desert and Bethlehem as the Cradle of the House of David, Jewish history and the Land of Israel.

13.  Shavuot is the day of the birth/death of King David (as well as the day that Moses was saved by Pharaoh's daughter), the great-grandson of Ruth, who united the Jewish People, elevating them to a most powerful position. The David-Torah linkage demonstrates that physical and spiritual leadership are mutually-inclusive when governments are driven by values.

According to Deuteronomy (17: 18-20), the king must write his own Torah scroll, in order to refine his character, gain knowledge and absorb leadership qualities, mostly humility. Contrasting King Saul, King David assumed responsibility and accountability for his sins. He did not just talk the talk; he walked the walk! 

150 candles are lit at King David's tomb on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, consistent with the 150 chapters of Psalms mostly attributed to David. Number 150 is the numerical value of Nest (קן), the warm environment of the Torah. David's personal history (from shepherd to king) - and Jewish history - provides a lesson for individuals and nations: Despair is not an option; every problem is an opportunity in disguise (from slavery in Egypt to sublime deliverance at Mt. Sinai and then in the Land of Israel). 

14.  The two portions of the Torah, which are recited/studied around Shavuot are נשא and בהעלותך, which mean – in Hebrew - spiritual enhancement and elevation. נשא is the longest portion of the Torah (176 verses), highlighting the inauguration of the ancient tabernacle and altar.  בהעלותך highlights the Menorah(Candelabrum) of the ancient tabernacle, which had seven branches, similar to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot.  

15.  Dairy dishes are consumed during Shavuot commemorating Divine Providence. According to the Kabbalah (a Jewish mystical school of thought), milk represents divine quality.

Babies – a Divine creation – are breast fed by mothers.  Dairy dishes commemorate the most common/humble food - of shepherds like King David - during the 40 years in the desert, on the way to the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Israel.  Unlike wine, milk is poured into simple/humble glasses. 

The total sum of milk (חלב) is 40 in Gimatriya, which is equal to the 40 days and nights spent by Moses on Mt. Sinai and the 40 years spent by the Jewish People in the Desert.  40 is also the value of the first Hebrew letter (מ) of key Exodus personalities and terms: Moses (משה), Miriam (מרים), Manna (מן), Egypt (מצרים), Desert (מדבר), Menorah (מנורה), Tabernacle (משכן), Mitzvah-Commandment (מצווה), etc. 

There were 40 generations between Moses – who delivered the "Written Torah" – to Rabbi Ashi and Rabbi Rabina, who concluded the editing of the Mishnah, the "Oral Torah." The first and the last letters in the Mishnah is the Hebrew "מ”, which equals 40 in Gimatriya.

From "The Ettinger Report, Yoram Ettinger, Jerusalem, author of "Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative" . For feedback and speaking engagements in the US, Canada and Israel: