Shavuot: The architecture of a Jewish holiday

Months and years are dependent on the stars in their courses; a week is fashioned out of our own labors. In the Biblical context this has an added significance.

Woodcut of Ruth and Boaz. (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
Woodcut of Ruth and Boaz.
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
 It is a peculiarity of Shavuot that it is called not after the day itself but by the process that leads up to it. The Biblical nomenclature “Feast of Weeks” refers to a span of time just gone – the seven weeks from Passover to the day before Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15, Deuteronomy 16:12). Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev observes that in no other place do we make a blessing over something we have already finished; blessings usually precede the deed. For the mystical Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Shavuot is a sign of God’s yearning, not to take His departure from Israel, but to linger in their company as it were for one more day. 
After having blessed each day of the Sefirat Ha’Omer, He wants to present us with yet a further reason to be together. Since the sages liken Shavuot to a wedding (between God and Israel), it could be said that this period of waiting and counting is the period of pre-nuptial anticipation.
It might further be argued that just as Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the year (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1), and Passover of the month (Exodus 12:2), so Shavuot celebrates the week. While the former two are “natural,” flowing from the tempo of the solar and lunar cycles, the latter is an artificial construct, though one that is surprisingly nigh universal. Attempts during the French Revolution, for example, to make a “week” of ten days failed abjectly. 
The week did not, of course, start at Sinai. The Bible itself opens with a typological ‘week’ encompassing the creation of the universe (Genesis 1 & 2), suggesting that it was built into the very structure of the cosmos in all its entirety. Moreover, the sages see in “The Sixth Day” of the creation narrative a veiled reference to the sixth day of the month of Sivan when the Torah was to be given. Unlike other days of the creation only the sixth is given a direct object (Ha-Shishi in Hebrew) suggesting to the fluid mind of the rabbis that it was already earmarked for something special: 
“Said Resh Lakish: that the Holy One Blessed Be He made the creation of the world conditional -- if Israel accepted the Torah it will be sustained, if not then I will return you to chaos and nothingness.’” (Talmud Shabbat 88a).
The sages thus see the festival of Shavuot as a distant echo of the creation of the world, and a reminder that the day upon which the Torah was given was woven into the very fabric of the primal cosmos. It is in this sense not an exclusive Torah, but one upon which the entire world depends. 
Yet, since no hint of the giving of the Torah on this day appears in the Biblical text, what is so special about a week that it had to have its own celebration? 
Very possibly, the week is the most human of the time zones that we cross in our daily lives. Months and years are dependent on the stars in their courses; a week is fashioned out of our own labors. In the Biblical context this has an added significance. 
The Book of Genesis is full of stories about creation and destruction. A well known midrash talks of the creation and destruction of dozens of worlds before the present one. Even in the Genesis narrative there are examples of destruction or near destruction – the exile of the First Couple Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Flood, the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the string of famines that plague the patriarchs. 
In Exodus, the Children of Israel could not be further from the paradigmatic Adam and Eve; they are broken in body and spirit. They appear incapable of even desiring release; they no longer believe in the possibility of redemption. According to Rashi only a fifth of them finally make it through the Egyptian night to freedom. (Exodus 13:18). Even when they are taken out of Egypt they are in no state to receive God’s holy Torah. They are still in state of inner collapse. 
What finally brings them to that elevated state is the process of counting these seven weeks. In doing so, they not only recall the days of creation; they reconstruct them. The Book of Exodus is the book of re-creation, starting from ground up. It shows the lowest people on earth – slaves – and demonstrates how even they can reach higher and higher levels of purity and divine insight, but not without preparation.
The seven weeks leading up to the festival is thus like the construction of a building which we are able to enter on completion. Shavuot is the goal of all the efforts made in the seven weeks beforehand. Only when we finish a building do we understand that its whole purpose is the space within it. ■