Shavuot: What did we celebrate?

Insights into the holiday we have just celebrated that we can take with us.

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Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple
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HE MITZVAH OF SHAVU'OT

The rabbi of my childhood synagogue called Shavu'ot the Cinderella festival, because in many circles it is rather unloved.

The other festivals have colourful symbols to make them popular – the Seder on Pesach, the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, the lulav and sukkah on Sukkot, the chanukiyyah on Chanukah – whilst Shavu'ot seems to lack any specific observance to give it excitement and appeal.

A rachmonus; one has to be sorry for Shavu'ot. There are blintzes and cheese-cake, certainly, but they are second-rank citizens in the roll-call of Jewish observance.

Yet those who are prepared to look more deeply discover that Shavu'ot is not so badly off after all. Its emblem is no single feature of the Torah, but Torah itself.

Not the physical scroll, though that is high in the spiritual armoury of Judaism, but its contents, message and inspiration. Like Pesach, Shavu'ot says, "Come and taste" – but the taste we are offered is Torah.

According to the Talmud (Shab. 31b), one of the six questions we will be asked when we seek admittance to the World to Come is "Did you set aside times for Torah?"

The way to answer the question is to heed the call of Shavu'ot and allocate time every week, indeed every day, to advancing our Torah knowledge.


A DATE & NAME FOR SHAVU’OT

Shavu’ot has no Talmudic tractate of its own, unlike Pesach, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, even Purim.

(There is no tractate of Hannukah, but that’s a different problem.)

There is no date specified for Shavu’ot in the Torah: all we have is a law to count 49 days of the Omer and keep the 50th as a festival.

The Pharisees and Sadducees debated about when to begin the count, so that each group kept Shavu’ot on a different date.

The accepted tradition is that Shavu’ot is the anniversary of the Revelation upon Mount Sinai, though the Torah spells out the agricultural aspect, Shavu’ot as the Day of the First Fruits.

Even the name of the festival is a problem – is it “Shavu’ot”, weeks, or “Shevu’ot”, oaths?

If the second view is correct, one could speak of two oaths – God’s promise that He will not abandon Israel, and Israel’s promise that it will not abandon the Torah.

We prefer the option of calling the yom-tov Shavu’ot, the Feast of Weeks. In Greek it became Pentecost, “fifty”; Judaism called it “Atzeret, “conclusion”, linking it to Pesach as Sukkot is linked to Sh’mini Atzeret.

The idea? Pesach gave us physical freedom but the Torah given on Sinai completes the liberation.

The story is that Shavu’ot indeed has a story. The Torah source clearly links Pesach and Shavu’ot by means of the Omer, so once we have a date for Pesach we know how to calculate Shavu’ot.

True, the Sadducees argued about the date when the counting began, but they have been left behind by history.

When we ceased being an agricultural people we moved our emphasis to the historical, ethical and spiritual side of the three pilgrim festivals.

Shavu’ot needed an extra effort, since the text did not precisely state that the giving of the Torah coincided with the festival of the First Fruits, but tradition made the connection and gave us, as Rabbi Jakobovits put it, a festival which “denotes the first ‘ripening’ or ‘maturing’ of Israel: through the giving of the Torah the purpose of Jewish history began to come to ‘fruition’”.


READING THE TEN COMMANDMENTS PUBLICLY

Great attention is paid by most people to the Ten Commandments. The Talmudic rabbis, however, had their doubts about whether reading the Decalogue publicly was a good idea.

They worried that “the sectarians” – the early Christians – were giving the wrong impression (Ber. 12b) in suggesting that only these commandments came from God whilst the rest of the 613 mitzvot were given through the angels as a punishment for Jewish sinfulness.

Hence the daily reading of the Ten Commandments was suspended, though one could read them privately (which explains why some prayer books print them at the end of Shacharit, though they do not figure in the statutory liturgy).

Saadya Ga’on and others suggested that all the 613 commandments were hinted at and enshrined in the Decalogue, which is thus a summary of the whole of halachah.

We read the Decalogue three times in the synagogal year – in Parashat Yitro when the weekly Torah reading reaches this point, in Parashat Va’et’channan as part of the regular Torah reading (though this version is not quite identical with the first) – and on Shavuot, which marks the Revelation on Mount Sinai.


EAGER OR RELUCTANT?

There are two views about the giving of the Torah.

One view says that the Israelites accepted the Torah willingly when they said “Na’aseh v’nishma”, “We will obey and we will hearken” (Ex. 24:7).

The other view argues that the people were reluctant; therefore God upended the mountain over them and said, “If you accept the Torah, all will be well, but if you refuse, 'sham t’heh k’vurat’chem', ‘there your graves will be'”.

According to another version God said, “If you accept the Torah, you will survive, but if not, I will turn the world back to chaos, 'tohu vavohu'” (Shabbat 88a; Rashi to Ex. 19:17).

Which view is correct? Were the people eager – or reluctant?

The answer is probably, “Both!”

The odds are that they were ambivalent. One group were prepared to go ahead and make a commitment, whilst others held back and said, “Don’t rush in – are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”

Arrival at the Red Sea produced the same dilemma; one group advocated a bold commitment – “Let’s stride into the water” – whilst another counselled caution and prudence – “Let’s wait and see!”

Human experience often oscillates between “yes” and “maybe”. God’s threat to bury the people alive if they did not accept the Torah, or alternatively to turn the world back to chaos, was a necessary shake-up for our ancestors.

It’s no less relevant to our age of confusion and uncertainty.

Full commitment frightens some people, but holding back and refusing to act can be a worse option and threaten our very survival and the future of our civilisation.






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