The holiday with five names

Shavuot is all about acquiring the Torah and the Land.

Daniel Pinner, | updated: 14:00

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

The Festival of Shavuot is called by five different names.

The Torah calls it variously חַג שָׁבֻעֹת, the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10, 16:16); חַג הַקָּצִיר, the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23:16); and יוֹם הַבִּכּוּרִים, the Day of the First-Fruits (Numbers 28:26).

The standard name for the Festival in Rabbinic literature is עֲצֶרֶת, Gathering or Concluding Festivity, which Midrash (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 7:2 and Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 782) expands to הָעֲצֶרֶת שֶׁל פֶּסַח (the Concluding Festivity of Pesach).

And in our liturgy, this Festival is called זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ, the Season of the Giving of our Torah.

These five names show the three aspects of Shavuot: The first is the conclusion of Pesach. The second is the celebration of the natural agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. And the third is the celebration of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This one-day Festival synthesises all three elements. As an almost-contemporary gadol ba-Torah explains:

“Although liberated from enslavement to Egyptian idolatry, [the Jews] had not yet received the Torah which would transform them into a holy nation. Hence, the Pesach Festival is called זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ (the time of our freedom) – freedom from servitude, the time when Israel was transformed into a nation. But the Shavuot Festival is the continuation of that process, when they received the Torah and transformed into a holy nation… In order to reinforce this principle of a holy nation, God linked Pesach (the Festival of national freedom) to Shavuot (the time when God gave us the Torah) by the Counting of the Omer” (Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d, The Jewish Idea, Chapter 23).

We have an ancient tradition of studying Pirkei Avot every Shabbat afternoon from Pesach to Shavuot: Rabbi Amram Gaon, the Rosh Yeshivah in Sura, Babylon, in the 9th century, already notes this tradition in his Siddur (Prayer Book).

The Alter Rebbe, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, cites this practice of reading one chapter of Pirkei Avot every Shabbat after Minchah from Pesach to Shavuot (Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Piskei ha-Siddur). The Askenazi custom has extended this to reading Pirkei Avot every Shabbat after Minchah from Pesach to Rosh Hashanah (gloss of the Ram”a, Shulchan Aruch. Orach Chaim, Laws of Shabbat 292:2; see also Mishnah Berurah 553:9).

This custom also links Pesach with Shavuot, and is particularly apposite: Pirkei Avot opens with the words, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, and handed it over to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets handed it over to the Men of the Great Assembly” (Pirkei Avot 1:1).

Thus from the outset, Pirkei Avot establishes both the source and the chain of tradition of the Torah – the perfect introduction to Shavuot, זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ, the Season of the Giving of our Torah.

Pirkei Avot actually consists of only five chapters, even though every edition (both those in the Mishnah and in the Siddur) today includes a sixth chapter.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) explains, in his commentary to Pirkei Avot, introducing this sixth chapter: “This chapter does not form part of the Sayings of the Fathers, or of the official Mishnah. When custom assigned a chapter of Avot for the Sabbaths between Passover and Pentecost, a reading was required for the sixth Sabbath. This ‘Chapter on the Acquisition of the Torah’ was selected for the purpose, because its contents harmonized so well with the spirit of Avot”.

This chapter, officially called קִנְיַן תּוֹרָה (Acquiring the Torah), is of course a very natural and appropriate introduction to Shavuot, the Festival which celebrates our national acquisition of the Torah [1].

Its opening words are: “The Sages taught [this chapter] in the style of the Mishnah – blessed be he who chose them and their Mishnah!”

As Rabbi Joseph Hertz notes, this is ambiguous: it could mean, blessed be He, meaning G-d, Who chose the Sages and their Mishnah; or it could refer to any student who “chooses” the Sages and their Mishnah as his subject to study – again, a most inspiring introduction to Shavuot.

Almost every aphorism in this Chapter of Acquiring the Torah expresses the greatness of Torah. It opens:

“Rabbi Meir says: Everyone who busies himself with the Torah for its own sake merits many things; and not only this, but it would have been justified for the entire world to have been created just for him. He is called friend, beloved, a lover of the Omnipresent, a lover of Mankind. It garbs him with humility and fear [of G-d], and prepares him to be righteous, pious, upright, and faithful. It keeps him far from sin and brings him close to virtue. And through him, everyone derives the benefit of wise counsel and sound knowledge, understanding and might” (Pirkei Avot 6:1).

Reading this on the Shabbat afternoon immediately before Shavuot – which this year means just hours, maybe scant minutes, before Shavuot – inspires us with the greatness of the Torah whose giving we are about to celebrate.

Who was Rabbi Meir? Does he have any special connexion with Shavuot?

Rabbi Meir was the son of Niron, a General in the Roman Army who converted to Judaism shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple (Gittin 56a). As the son of a convert, he has an especially intimate relationship with Shavuot, which celebrates Israel’s national conversion to Judaism: our national acceptance of the Torah is the paradigm for every subsequent convert to Judaism (see the Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah/Laws of Forbidden Relationships 13:1-4 and Tosafot Yom Tov, Pesachim 8:8, s.v. טובל).

Rabbi Meir was also passionately devoted to the Land of Israel. A fourth-generation Tanna (late 2nd century), he lived at a time when Israel was in turmoil: the Holy Temple had been destroyed and the Bar Kochba Revolt had already been suppressed, but the Jewish population of Israel was still boiling with revolutionary fervour, constantly rising up against the Roman occupiers.

Rabbi Meir was Rabbi Akiva’s closest disciple (Eiruvin 13a); indeed he had received his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from his mentor Rabbi Akiva when he was yet a young man (Rashi to Sanhedrin 14a, s.v. ולא).

So it is eminently apt that Rabbi Meir begins the Chapter of Acquiring the Torah, leading us into Shavuot which synthesises Torah and the Land of Israel.

The very last authority to be quoted by name in Pirkei Avot is Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma:

“Said Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma: Once I was walking along the way, when a certain person met me and greeted me with ‘Shalom’ [‘Peace’]. I returned his greeting of ‘Shalom’. He said to me: Rabbi, from which place are you? I said to him: I am from a great city of Sages and Scribes. He said to me: Rabbi! Do you want to live with us in our place, and I will give you a thousand-thousand golden dinars and precious stones and pearls? I said to him: My son! Even if you give me all the money and precious stones and pearls in the world I will live solely in a place of Torah...” (Pirkei Avot 6:9).

Who was Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma?

He was a third-generation Tanna, who was born and died a few decades earlier than Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Hanina ben Teradiyon called him “Rabbi”, “my Master” (Avodah Zarah 18a) – Rabbi Hanina ben Teradiyon, whose daughter, Beruriah, married Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma lived at a time when the Romans enacted many harsh decrees against the Jews, but he had good connections with the occupying power which used (to the best of his ability) to alleviate those decrees. Indeed when he died, all the great Roman rulers accompanied him on his final journey and eulogised him with great respect (Avodah Zarah 18a).

Shortly before he died, he told Rabbi Hanina ben Teradiyon: “I won’t be surprised if the Romans burn you with a Sefer Torah!” – which grisly fate indeed befell Rabbi Hanina ben Teradiyon shortly after Rabbi Akiva was murdered by the Romans (ibid.).

So Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma was also intimately connected with the Land of Israel, desperate to do whatever he could to protect the Jewish community from the Roman occupiers.

His is the last aphorism to be recorded by name in Pirkei Avot, which we will read after this final Prayer Service before Shavuot begins.

As we prepare to celebrate זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ, the Season of the Giving of our Torah, which also celebrates our connection with the Land of Israel, our Sages, by a sure instinct, guided us into this Festival with the inspiration of the Chapter of Acquiring the Torah, with its implicit passionate embrace of the Land of Israel.

Endnotes

[1] This entire chapter appears twice: once in the Talmud, in the Minor Tractate Kallah Rabbati chapter 5, and in the Midrash Seder Eliyahu Zuta chapter 17.



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