THE HEROES & HEROINE OF SHAVU’OT
The festival of Shavu’ot has an obvious focus on Moses, since it was he who brought the Israelites to Sinai and ascended the mountain to receive the Divine instructions.
There is also a case for calling it the festival of David, who is the symbol of Jewish kingship. He was the founder of the Jewish royal dynasty for which the Ten Commandments are the national constitution.
But that is not the end of the discussion. There is also a possibility that Shavu’ot can be regarded as the festival of Abraham, the pioneer patriarch whose dedication to the Torah principle of "chesed" (lovingkindness) was the central moral principle of Judaism (Micah 7:20).
The psalmist says "olam chesed yibbaneh" – "The world is based on lovingkindness" (Psalm 89:3). Abraham trained his children to build a society founded on "chesed" (Gen. 18:19).
All these three heroes have an association with Shavu’ot, but in addition the festival focuses on Ruth, the great-grandmother of David. "Chesed" is the keynote of the Megillah of Ruth which we read on this yom-tov. Shavu’ot therefore celebrates three heroes and a heroine (Midrash Ex. R. 28:1).
THE HAFTAROT OF SHAVU’OT
On the first day of Shavu’ot the haftarah is from the Book of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1, and 3:2).
The link with the Torah reading is that both readings celebrate the Divine Revelation. The Torah reading centres on God revealing His will and the haftarah celebrates a grand inspiring vision.
The prophet Ezekiel lived in distressing times but he maintained his spirit of optimism because despite the difficulties of the period he had visions of the glory of God who would rebuild the Temple and once again breathe life, hope and joy into the dry bones.
On the second dayin the Exile, the haftarah is from Habakkuk (2:20-3:19). Habakkuk too lived in a period of calamity. Tempted to abandon belief in God, he says, "How long, O Lord, shall I cry and You do not hear?" The Chaldean enemy is fierce and frightening.
Refusing to place his trust in idols, the prophet regains his faith in God and says, "We shall not die! You have ordained judgment for them, and though we have to wait, You will punish them and show us Your glory".
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS + 3
Shavu’ot celebrates the Ten Commandments (Chapter 20 of Exodus).
However, straight after the Ten come three more.
In Ex. 20:20-23 we find instructions not to have gods of gold and silver; not to build an altar of hewn stone, which would require the use of metal implements; and not to have steps leading up to the altar, which would show the nakedness of those who mounted the steps.
Samson Raphael Hirsch notices that these laws echo the Ten Commandments, with their ban on idolatry, murder and immorality.
They also point out three basic features of civilisation – believing in the right things, respecting other people’s lives, and exercising control over your own desires.
Some might see these extra laws as an alternative version of the Ten Commandments, though in that case they would have to be called a Triumvirate, not a Decalogue. They might also be a short version, ten rules reduced to three for easy memorising.
In the light of later history, JH Hertz says that the repetition of these points was "far from unnecessary".
THE GODLESS COMMANDMENTS
What a strange paradox. The people who least care about religion are the ones who claim to live by the Ten Commandments. Tell them that the first few mitzvot are about God and they try to wriggle out of that one.
Commandment No. 1 says there is a God and He brought us out of Egypt. If you don’t believe in God you presumably claim that all the credit for the Exodus goes to Moses. More important, if you don’t believe in God you presumably think the world just got there and you simply don’t know how (Charles Darwin’s theories are no answer).
It’s very nice and impressive to affirm the ethical commandments about not killing, stealing, committing adultery, twisting the truth, etc., but if God isn’t the source and sanction of these ethical laws how do we know the laws are valid?
Yes, you can argue that every human society has worked out its own standards of good and evil, but earthly standards differ and there are some societies that believe it’s good to kill and good to lie, so everything becomes subjective and confusing.
We’re better off with God!
CHRISTIANITY & SHAVU’OT
Many features of Shavu’ot found their way into Christian practice.
The name Pentecost is an example. Whitsun saw churches decorated with flowers and foliage and in parts of Central Europe private houses were also decorated in this way.
Dairy dishes became popular amongst gentiles at this season. It is said that the Jewish choice of milchig dishes derives from Psalm 68:16, which refers to a mountain of "gavnunim", which some translate as "cheeselike".
Cheesemaking is a traditional activity amongst European gentiles at this time of year. It is said by some that this is influenced by an ancient Roman custom.