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The secular kibbutzim have it right. Since the earliest days, these kibbutzim have arranged to celebrate Shavuot with special ceremonies based on Torah laws. With song and dance they mark the end of the barley and the beginning of the wheat harvest (massechet ha'omer), and their children grow and present the first-fruits (hagigat habikurim) to the elders of the kibbutz and to their synagogue, if they have one.
That is what the Torah demands. Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks, seven weeks after Pessah, after the kohen had waved the omer (the first sheath of the barley crop) in the Temple. Seven weeks later the farmers celebrated the end of that crop and the beginning of the wheat harvest. These two cereals were a matter of life and death, so their harvesting would indeed be a matter for thanksgiving.
The people were also to bring the first fruits of the whole year, in an elaborate procession headed by a gold-bedecked bull, marching to the Temple to the sound of a flute, and feast there with their families. The essence of Shavuot was the celebration of the grain harvests and rejoicing in the successful gathering of the seven excellent fruits of the land. Both events were connected with the Temple built in the place chosen by God. However, as in so many other cases where local sanctuaries were still tolerated, it can be assumed that similar ceremonies would have taken place all over the land for those who could not make it to Jerusalem.
BUT TODAY, for some reason Shavuot is no longer the end of the barley harvest. It is no longer anything agricultural, it is all about mattan Torah, the giving of the Law, both written and oral, at Mount Sinai.
How did that come about? At times of occupation and revolt, the original ceremonies could not take place, and after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the ceremonies seem to have ceased altogether. Was Shavuot then to be discontinued? No, certainly not, and the rabbis at the academy of Yavne, who strove to give new meaning to the Torah after the loss of the Temple, worked hard to find an alternative reason to celebrate. In time, they made the calculation that the Torah had been given to the children of Israel on the sixth of Sivan, the date fixed for Shavuot.
Although one of the sages, Rabbi Jose, calculated it to be the seventh of Sivan, the majority said it was the sixth, and so it remained that the date of Shavuot, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt, was the date of the giving of the Torah. Thus it was that the people could continue to celebrate Shavuot in the knowledge that they were commemorating one of the most important events in Jewish history.
No longer able to bring first fruits to the Temple, the people now had reason to rejoice on Shavuot as the day of the giving of the Law. The rabbis of Yavne, inheritors of the pharisaic tradition, interpreted it to make it possible for the people to live according to its commandments, and established Shavuot as the anniversary of mattan Torah.
SO THAT'S how it happens that on Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Law. There was little else left to do on that festival except to study the Law and feast, as was indeed advocated in the Talmud (Pessahim 68b) by Rabbi Eleazar in the third century, who said we learn during the night and feast during the day. The Torah says "rejoice," so many of us eat a sweet cheesecake to remind us of the honey and milk that King Solomon tells us is on the tongue of his beloved - by tradition the Torah (Song of Songs 4:11). There is also a custom of decorating synagogues with flowers in memory of those that were said to have grown that day at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Cheesecake and flowers, is that enough to attract children, those on whom we rely to carry on our tradition? On Pessah they have the excitement of the Seder and the matzot, on Succot they have the adventure of eating and sometimes sleeping in a hut, under the greenery and the stars. But on Shavuot, there is nothing to excite them beforehand except the prospect of staying up to learn, but that's more for their teenage siblings and parents, and anyway it's not a tangible thing. And cheesecake alone is not enough incentive for young minds.
In other words, Shavuot has become an intellectual event, a middle-class phenomenon for bourgeois parents. They are neither farmers nor fundamentalists, but just regular people who follow tradition, and have nothing better to do than learn all night and eat all day. Is this not a badly watered-down alternative to the exciting procession of the first fruits, a poor alternative to occupy those men in suits who have lost contact with the land, and prefer to sit and debate rather than get up and act?
The rabbis have always preferred to sit and debate, and that may have been all they could do in Babylon, Frankfurt and Poland. But does that have to be the case in modern Israel?
The early kibbutzniks said it was not to be so, and instituted events that again made the festival significant to their children. They grew and assembled the seven species, took the first fruits, decorated them in baskets, painted posters and made models of the Temple, and finally they ate the produce of their own labor. It was a physical expression, full of hard work followed by celebration and reward for one's achievement.
These kibbutz activities have never, sad to say, been transferred to the city synagogues. Nor have they even spread to the kibbutzim of the Orthodox movements. Here indeed was an opportunity to involve children, but nothing has been done for them.
One can imagine a time when our synagogues will organize parades for the children, carrying the first fruits of their own growing, with all due pomp and circumstance, to a bumper kiddush, to the sound of song and dance, with invitations to all the neighbors and especially to the needy.
This might be the best way to transmit the tradition to our children while celebrating Shavuot according to the Torah given on that date.
The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.