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What is Shavuot? | Date of Shavuot | Matan Torah
Bikkurim | Observance | Eruv Tavshilln | Customs | In Synagogue

What is Shavuot?

On the sixth and seventh days of the month of Sivan we observe the festival of Shavuot. Although, as one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Shavuot has the same importance as Pesah and Sukkot, it is, unfortunately, somewhat neglected, perhaps because it lasts only two days and has no distinctive observances like eating matzah or using a sukkah.

The Torah mentions the festival in several places, including Leviticus 23:15-21:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of wave-offering the day after the Sabbath you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete; you must count until the day after the seventh week fifty days; then shall you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord . . . On the same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion to you; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a law for all time in your settlements, throughout the ages.

Deuteronomy 16:9-12:

You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God, offering your freewill contribution as the Lord your God has blessed you. You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws.

The references here are clearly to an agricultural festival, the offering of the first fruits. Today, however, the principal designation of Shavuot is z'man matan toratenu, Athe time of the giving of our Torah. The tradition that the Torah was given at Sinai on the sixth day of the month of Sivan (the third month counting from Nisan, which was the beginning of the year according to the ancient Jewish religious calendar) may be traced back to Exodus 19, which describes the arrival of the Israelites at Sinai Aon the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt and the events which then led up to the giving of the Torah.

In the Talmud, Shabbat 86b-87a, it is explained that, on Rosh Hodesh, God let the people rest from the journey, on the second of the month He said to Moses, "You shall be a nation of priests and a holy people," and on the third He gave the command for three days of preparation for the revelation, which then took place on the sixth of Sivan.

The Date of Shavuot

In the passage from Leviticus we cited above, Shavuot is set as the fiftieth day counting mimohorat hashabbat from the day after the sabbath. One might think that the counting of these seven weeks is to begin on the first day of the week, so that the festival of Shavuot will fall always on Sunday. In fact, the Samaritans and Karaites, sects of Jewish origin which accept only the written Torah as authoritative, follow this system, as did the ancient Sadducees, a faction within Judaism during the period of the Second Temple.

Rabbinic tradition, however, interprets the word Shabbat to mean festival, so that the seven weeks of sefirah (counting from Pesah to Shavuot) begin on the second day of Pesah, the day after the first festival day. (Talmud Menahot 65b) Consideration of this matter reminds us that Judaism is based, not on the Bible, but on the written Torah (torah shebikhtav) and the oral tradition (torah sheb'al peh) equally.

The Significance of Bikkurim (First Fruits)

Among the various agricultural laws of the Torah which apply to the Land of Israel (mitzvot hat'luyot baaretz) is the specification that the first fruits of the seven species particularly associated with the Land (wheat, barley, olives, grapes, pomegranates, figs, and dates) are to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem from Shavuot, and placed as an offering on the altar (to be eaten by the kohanim) after the solemn recitation of the passage, which is at the center also of the Haggadah shel Pesah, Deuteronomy 26: 3, 5-10):

You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.

You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Lord, have given me.

In addition to reinforcing the idea that God is the ultimate sovereign and owner of all the world, and that we must use the goods of the world in conformity to His design, the mitzvah of bikkurim reminds us that the history of the Jewish people and its connection with the Land of Israel must be kept in a religious context.

The Significance of Matan Torah (Revelation)

One of the most basic concepts of Judaism, and at the same time one of the most problematic, is that of revelation. On the one hand, there can be no authentic Judaism without a concept of Divine communication to humans, and to the Jewish people in particular, and, on the other hand, the modern skeptical attitude toward the supernatural and the tendency to see the individual conscience as the ultimate source of values militate against accepting special revelation such as the Torah.

We may ask about both the content and nature of Divine revelation. Traditionally, of course, the revelation at Sinai comprised the five Books of Moses (Torah shebikhtav, the written Torah) and the interpretive and amplificatory traditions (Torah sheb'al peh, the oral Torah) which became the core of the Talmud. These teachings were regarded as unconditionally binding on the Jewish people, originating as they did with the Ruler of the Universe who is also the God of Israel.

Any number of objections might be and have been raised against this conception. I would argue that those objections are for the most part ill-taken and that the traditional view, with some modifications, remains valid. First, many people have argued that modern scholarship, which holds that both the Pentateuch and the bases of the oral tradition evolved over a long period of time, undermines the traditional doctrine of revelation. Indeed, this argument is accepted by some traditionalists who reject modern scholarship in order to uphold their notion of Torah.

I would argue that the validity of the Torah's teachings does not depend on special effects like the thunder and smoke associated with God’s appearance to the people at Sinai, and that, whether it extended over forty days or six hundred years, the era in which the Torah took shape was one of unequalled contact between the Divine sphere and the realm of human experience. We can appreciate the concept of Creation without taking the first chapter of Genesis literally; we should be able to do the same with the concept of Revelation.

It has also been argued that the Torah and Talmud contain many primitive notions that are not relevant for us. I would urge, first of all, that we not sell the Torah short. For example, it is commonly said that modern technology makes the traditional Sabbath obsolete. I would argue that, on the contrary, one of the major functions of Shabbat is to keep technology, ancient or modern, in its legitimate but limited place. Technological development makes the Sabbath more relevant than ever. I would suggest that many of the archaic laws of the Torah are relevant in the truest sense of the term, that they speak to real problems of our lives. However, not all problems in the traditional sources turn out to be illusory. We should recognize, therefore, that the tradition of interpretation is in principle open-ended. The Talmud is the most authoritative exposition of the Torah because of its universal and continued acceptance, but it is not the last word.

Yet another objection that has been leveled at the traditional conception of revelation is that no body of received doctrine can be regarded as having ultimate authority, that everything must be regulated by the Spirit of the Age. This objection, however, does not do justice to the quality of objectivity which revelation should have. I suspect that appeals to the Spirit of the Age as an authority often conceal less creditable agendas. Also, one may be hard pressed to determine what the Sprit of the Age really is. Our time has been associated with concern for individual and human rights, but it has also seen totalitarian ideologies hold sway.

Finally, some people would put the still, small voice of conscience ahead of the loud, resounding, voice of Sinai as a primary source of revelation. Certainly, conscience, which represents our most personal moral judgment, deserves serious attention, and one can do far worse by way of ethical advice than to tell people to listen to their consciences. Still, Adolf Eichmann said, in reference to his part in the murder of six million Jews, that his conscience was clear, and I have no reason to doubt him. Conscience is notoriously subjective, and the apparent dictates of conscience must not be regarded uncritically.

The truth in these last two objections to the conception of revelation which I presented initially is that, as a matter of historical fact, the Jewish tradition of interpretation of the Torah has been influenced by factors of individual judgment and current conditions. What we should say, then, is that the flexible and sensitive, but reverent, interpretation of the Jewish religious tradition remains our best avenue for learning God's teachings. The festival of Shavuot is an appropriate time to celebrate the availability of those teachings to us.

The Observance of a Festival

The first two days of Shavuot are full Festival days, to be observed negatively by abstaining from work, and positively by holiday rejoicing.

The prohibition of work (melakha) on the Festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah, as well as Rosh Hashanah) is based on the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, the details of which are given in the Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat. In the Mishnah, chapter 7, thirty-nine basic categories of prohibited work (avot melakha) are given. Traditionally, these types of activity are seen as those needed in the construction and operation of the Tabernacle. We might note that they are the kinds of activities involved in providing food, clothing, and shelter. Dependent on these avot melakha are various tol'dot melakha, functions which involve the same activity as avot melakha, but in a different context.

The third type of activity prohibited on the Sabbath is one which rabbinical tradition has proscribed as resembling, leading to, or being associated with melakha. The application of these principles to today's situation may be the subject of debate, but it should be understood that the 39 avot melakha form an intrinsic part of the concept of Shabbat.

Some examples of common activity in which we should not engage on Shabbat are: gardening, grinding food, cooking, cutting hair, cloth, paper, or other materials, doing laundry, sewing, writing or erasing, building (i.e. changing the physical configuration of things to make some use of them), kindling or extinguishing a fire, adjusting any complex mechanism, and carrying articles outside.

All of the above applies to the Sabbath. On a Festival, the situation is somewhat different. Whereas with regard to the Sabbath, we are told " You shall not do any work."(Exodus 20:10). With regard to the Festivals, the rule is "no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you."(Exodus 12:16).

Thus certain activities, prohibited on the Sabbath, are permitted on a Festival. It is permitted to carry things out of doors on a Festival (This permission is derived from the necessity of carrying food from the house to the sukkah on Sukkot). One may also cook and prepare food, and make other use of fire on a Festival. In order to safeguard the sanctity of the Festival, certain restrictions are placed on the preparation of food and the use of fire:

1. Fire may not be started fresh, but must be transferred from another fire, which was burning before the beginning of the Festival. Thus, one may light a gas stove if it has a pilot. Some authorities who do not permit the use of electrical devices on Shabbat do permit such use on Yom Tov, on the theory that the electric current is always available.

2. Fire may not be extinguished on a Festival (unless, of course, there is danger to life).

3. Food may be prepared on a Festival day only for that day itself. In case the Sabbath immediately follows a Festival, we do eruv tavshilin. (see below)

In Deuteronomy 16:14, we read "you shall rejoice in your Festivals," and simha, joy, is an intrinsic part of Festival observance. We wear our best clothes on Yom Tov, eat large meals, say the appropriate kiddush over wine, and sing the joyful Hallel psalms at the synagogue.

Eruv Tavshilin

Although it is permitted to cook on a Festival day (see Exodus l2:l6), this permission applies only to cooking food to be consumed on that day itself. (see Talmud Betzah l5b and l7a). If a Yom Tov falls on Thursday and Friday, or Friday and Saturday, the problem arises of how to prepare food for Shabbat which immediately follows. The solution to this problem is to be found in the enactment of eruv tavshilin (mixture of dishes). On the day before the Festival one sets aside some bread (in the case of Pesah, some matzah) and a cooked dish saying:

Barukh atta Adonay, Elohenu melekh ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, vitzivanu al mitzvat eruv.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with His commandments, and commanded us to make an eruv.
By means of this eruv may we be permitted to bake, cook, keep dishes warm, kindle lights, and prepare, during the Festival, all our needs for the Sabbath.

The idea is that, having begun the preparations for the Festival and for Shabbat together, before the Festival begins, all our ensuing preparations may be considered also as one act. The eruv, or food set aside, is saved until Shabbat and eaten then.

Shavuot Customs

Although lacking in distinctive mitzvot, Shavuot has associated with it a number of customary observances. One of these is to decorate the home and the synagogue with greenery and flowers. This practice is explained as recalling the green slopes of Mt. Sinai, but the seasons of the year might well be a factor (In fact, Jebel Musa, often believed to be Mt. Sinai, is quite barren).

It is also traditional to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, especially cheesecake and blintzes. One explanation of this practice is that, after having received the Torah, the Jewish people were very hungry and did not want to take the time to prepare meat (to examine the slaughtering knives and the animals, to soak and salt the meat, etc.) so they ate dairy foods. Another explanation is that the Torah, in the traditional interpretation of Biblical verses, is compared to milk.

A third, Hasidic, explanation, is that meat is the symbol of gashmiyut, material nature, which we de-emphasize when we accept the Torah, the essence of ruhaniyut, spiritual nature. In fact, it is also part of the proper observance of Yom Tov to eat meat, and so one usually eats dairy food for one of the holiday meals and meat for the other. Some people eat a dairy appetizer and then proceed, after a short pause and rinsing of the mouth, to the meat meal.

A practice which owes its origin to R. Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed, is the tikkun lel Shavuot. From the time of the Ari (Adonenu Rabbi Yitzchak, our master R. Isaac), the practice rapidly spread of staying awake all night, reading selections from the various Jewish sources B Torah, Prophets, Talmud, and Zohar. While Lurianic kabbalah no longer holds sway among Jews as it once did, this practice has been revived, as many congregations and groups of friends have begun devoting the entire night of Shavuot to various aspects of Jewish learning.

Shavuot in the Synagogue

The general pattern of Shavuot services is like that of the other Festivals. The Festival amidah is comprised of seven b'rakhot; in the intermediate b'rakha Amekaddesh yisrael v'hazmanim we make the appropriate insertion "et yom hag hashavuot hazeh, z'man matan toratenu," this Festival of Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, and, in the musaf amidah, we mention the sacrifices which used to be offered in the Temple of this day.

The Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot (Exodus 19-20) has as its main section in the so-called “Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20). Although Judaism has rejected since ancient times the attempt to reduce the Jewish religion to this skeleton, it is clear that this passage constitutes an appropriate sample of the revelation at Sinai. In printed humashim, two sets of tropes are given for the Ten Commandments in the ta-am tahton and the more imposing ta-am elyon; in the synagogue we read this passage according to the ta-am elyon.

Just as the Torah reading for the day describes an impressive theophany (Divine appearance), so the haftara, Ezekiel 1 and 3:12, describes that prophet's mystical vision of the Divine chariot. This maaseh hamerkavah has long been one of the central pillars of Jewish esoteric lore.

The Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot is Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (on the Sabbath, 14:22-16:17). This passage is read on the last days of Pesah and Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret) as well. It mentions all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals, including the commandment to celebrate the holidays in Jerusalem. The haftara for the day is Habakkuk 2:20-3:19, which describes, in vivid metaphor, the majesty of God.

A special feature of the second day of Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. This short story is set in the time of the judges, (better, chieftains), that is, the time between the conquest of the Land and the establishment of the Kingdom, but the Book is presumably of much later origin. Some scholars believe that it was composed to defend converts to Judaism (such as the devoted Moabite woman, Ruth) at a time of a xenophobic reaction (perhaps the days of Ezra in the sixth century B.C.E.).

The connection of the book to Shavuot is not entirely clear; it may be that much of the story takes place at the time of the barley harvest, late spring, or it may be that the Festival of the Giving of the Torah is an especially appropriate time to read about someone who accepted the Torah out of personal conviction.



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