On Pharisees and Shavuot

Of the three pilgrim festivals (actually four, counting Shmini Atzeret), Shavuot has always been the most problematic and seemingly the least attractive.

May 17, 2006 10:41
4 minute read.


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Of the three pilgrim festivals (actually four, counting Shmini Atzeret), Shavuot has always been the most problematic and seemingly the least attractive. It lacks the sensory impact of Succot with its lulav, etrog and succa, and the drama of Pessah with the Seder and the Haggada. The Kabbala-influenced Tikkun has been a plus, but also has its drawbacks. Not everyone is interested in staying up all night. The early halutzim tried to revive its agricultural flavor with bikkurim (first fruit) ceremonies, but that has diminished as agriculture has become less and less important to Israel. The problems of Shavuot are not new; they have a long history. In the Torah, Shavuot is the only one of the festivals that is lacking a historical explanation. The connection that the Pharisees made between Shavuot and the events at Sinai gave Shavuot new importance during the Second Temple period. The question that truly begs answering, however, is not so much why Shavuot is without historical connection, but why the Torah did not designate any holy day to commemorate the events at Sinai. I suppose one can argue whether Sinai is as important as the Exodus. The Exodus is the seminal event of our history; without it there would be nothing else. We owe our very being to the Exodus. On the other hand, it could be argued that Sinai is even more important. The Exodus leads up to Sinai, the events there are the very purpose of the Exodus, predicted in God's first revelation to Moses: "And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). Furthermore, the timing of Shavuot - seven weeks after Pessah - seems to naturally fit the chronology of the events. The theophany at Sinai began, according to the Torah, "On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt" (Exodus 19:1). It is almost as if the Torah goes out of its way to avoid any commemoration of that event. Were it not for the determination of the Pharisees to connect Shavuot with zman matan Torateinu - the time of the giving of our Torah - there would be nothing on the Jewish calendar to remind us of Sinai. It seems to me that the answer to this conundrum lies in the nature of the Sinai event itself. Compare it for a moment to the Exodus. The Exodus is an event within history. It is something that can be described and grasped. In a sense, it can also be replicated. Remember Amos's statement, "Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt and the Philistines from Caftor and the Syrians from Kir?" Sinai, on the other hand, is a mysterious experience that even the Torah does not seem able to adequately describe. It is a subjective event, rather than objective. It belongs to the realm of the mystic, rather than to the realm of the historic. To grasp it seems impossible. What exactly happened there? What was heard? The descriptions in the text in the book of Exodus are impossible to decipher. They are impressions, almost deliberately inconsistent because they are descriptions of the indescribable - a collective mystical experience. As a unique event, they are not duplicable in any way. And so the Torah leaves us to ponder this strange encounter, but not to re-enact it. To do so would be to cheapen it. For the Pharisees, on the other hand, living long after the event at a time when the Torah - the eventual product that had developed from the Sinai revelation - was at the very center of Jewish life and belief, it seemed impossible that this important event should not be celebrated and commemorated each year. They drew the logical conclusion that Shavuot, a holiday with no connection to an event, and Sinai, an event with no connection to a holiday, must belong together. There are three ways in which we may experience God: in history, in nature and in the personal - mystic - encounter. Pessah emphasizes God in history, Succot stresses God in nature and Shavuot - the mystical encounter. It is hardly accidental that these three modes are also reflected in the three opening paragraphs of the Amida. The first paragraph - Avot (Ancestors) - is devoted to the encounter with God in history. The second - Gvurot (mighty powers) - talks about God's role in nature, sustaining the world. The third - Kedusha (holiness) - is a reflection of the personal, direct, mystical encounter. But the end result of the mystic encounter is a practical one - the making of a covenant between God and Israel: "If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). It is this relationship that lies at the very heart of Judaism and it is one that must be constantly reaffirmed if Judaism is to be meaningful. Remembering Sinai on Shavuot, therefore, is a crucial element of Jewish belief. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.

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