Jerusalem Post Editorial: Shavuot’s dual meaning

Jews will celebrate Shavuot, or “The Feast of Weeks” as it is sometimes translated, beginning at sundown on Saturday night.

May 21, 2015 22:18
4 minute read.
Ode Yosef Chai siddur

Ode Yosef Chai siddur. (photo credit: IRANIAN MEDIA)


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Jews will celebrate Shavuot, or “The Feast of Weeks” as it is sometimes translated, beginning at sundown on Saturday night.

The holiday is something of an enigma. Together with Passover and Succot, Shavuot is one of the “big three” holidays.

But whereas the Bible gives to Passover and Succot both an agricultural and a historical dimension, Shavuot is described solely in connection with the Land of Israel as a “Feast of the Harvest” and the “Day of First Fruits.” No historical significance is provided, at least not in Judaism’s written tradition.

The oral tradition identifies Shavuot as “the time of the giving of the Torah,” the day of the revelation at Sinai when the Jewish people, having experienced a collective epiphany, made a covenant with God to remain faithful to Him and His laws.

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If is, of course, easy to extrapolate from the biblical verses that Shavuot is connected to the revelations on Mount Sinai. Exodus 19 states: “In the third month after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt...”

God reveals Himself to Moses and in Exodus 20 the Ten Commandments are given. Shavuot falls in Sivan, the third Jewish month.

However, this is an implicit, not an explicit, biblical reference to Shavuot as “the time of the giving of the Torah.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has speculated that the Sadducees, who rejected the oral tradition, probably did not connect Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. Rather, Shavuot recalls and celebrates the arrival of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, as depicted in Joshua (5:10-12): “On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan.”

According to the Sadducees, Shavuot is mentioned solely in an agricultural, not a historical, context in the Bible because in this case agriculture was history. The seven-week count from the first time the Jewish people ate food grown in Israel to the end of the grain harvest represents the end of the journey from Egypt. For the Sadducees, Shavuot was in a sense the Jewish people’s Day of Independence.

But as Sacks points out, imbuing a holiday with a solely national meaning, as the Sadducees apparently did, is a notoriously fragile undertaking. If a holiday only has meaning when celebrated in a specific place, it loses its meaning in the event of exile.

Without an oral tradition that invests in Shavuot meaning that transcends commemoration of mundane political independence, the holiday would have lost meaning during the long years of exile.

Heinrich Heine famously referred to the Torah as Jews’ “portable homeland.” No matter where the Jews were force to relocate, they could maintain their identity. It is no coincidence that the Torah was given in Sinai, which is located outside the Land of Israel.

This lesson is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. A purely secular Israeli identity – like any nationality – is not very viable over time in the Diaspora. Israelis who live abroad and want to pass on a uniquely Israeli identity to their offspring find it difficult to do so unless they give their children a Jewish education based on the more “portable” aspects.

The early Zionists believed that with the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, Jews would be able to discard the trappings of exile – including the oral tradition and the rich rabbinic literature that developed around it – and return to a pre-exile reality. Only the Bible, which told the story of the Jews in their homeland, seemed relevant.

In the intervening years, Israelis – both religious and secular – have learned to appreciate the whole body of Jewish tradition, including novel interpretations to this tradition and unorthodox expressions of Judaism. The spread of all-night study sessions on Shavuot eve is testament to this evolutionary process. On Shavuot in Israel we celebrate both the national and cultural/religious aspects of Jewish identity and acknowledge the importance of both to the thriving of a Jewish state.

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