The Festival of Shavuot or "Weeks," is one of the Shalosh Regalim (Exodus 23:14); one of the three main pilgrimage festivals. It comes at the end of the seven-times-seven (a "week of weeks") cycle of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Pesach.
We invite you to join us for a Tikkun Leil Shavuot (see schedule and details), an all night study and celebration of Torah.
The Festival of Shavuot is something of an oddity. Not only is it not assigned to a specific date, but there is no real explanation given in Torah as to the meaning of the day, nor how it is to be observed ritually. In Biblical times, the period of counting seven weeks (see sidebar 'Counting the Omer') marked the transition from the very first grain crop (barley) of early spring (at Pesach) to the beginning of the summer grain (wheat) harvest (at Shavuot). Thus names for Shavuot given in the Torah are Chag Ha-Katzir - the Festival of the Harvest - and Chag Ha-Bikkurim - the Festival of the First Fruits (Cf. Exodus 23:14-19; Leviticus 23:9-22). The day is identified as a holy occasion, to be observed as a Sabbath, and specific sacrificial offerings are to be brought to the Temple. But beyond that, there is no special ritual prescribed (like Matzah on Pesach or Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot).
These agricultural roots (so to speak) of Shavuot probably sufficed for the agrarian society of ancient Israel while they lived in the promised land. But they didn't really allow for a meaningful holiday for Jews once they were outside the Land of Israel, where farming was on a different cycle and there was no Temple to which one could bring the seasonal offerings. In exile, Jews were left with a commanded festival with no apparent meaning. But tradition abhors a vacuum. So what inherent meaning could be found for Shavuot?
The meaning of Shavuot became apparent after considering the relationship of Shavuot with Pesach and Sukkot. All are Biblically commanded festivals. All have an agricultural connection, assigned to a specific harvest season. But Pesach and Sukkot both have historical associations as well. Pesach commemorates the Exodus and the liberation from Egyptian bondage. Sukkot, and the dwelling in the Sukkah, recall the Israelite's experience while wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. So, the sages assumed, Shavuot must fit into this paradigm as well. But how? Well, 50 days after leaving Egypt, and before they set out to wander in the desert, the Israelites found themselves camped out at the base of Mt. Sinai, awaiting the revelation of God's teachings. And so, in this historical sequence, Shavuot naturally became associated with an extraordinary and significant event: the revelation of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While Shavuot had no 'historical' event associated with it in the Torah, and the event of Revelation had no holiday to mark it, it was, as Tevye would say, 'a perfect match.' Conveniently, since Revelation and Shavuot both do not have an actual date in the Torah (Shavuot is only 50 days from after Passover, with some creative counting, the Rabbis were able to determine that Revelation coincides with Shavuot. See Arthur Waskow's Seasons of our Joy for a full detailed explanation.) The Rabbis had a vested interest in this transformation as well. They saw themselves as the legitimate heirs to the Temple and priestly leadership. Instead of sacrifices, Torah learning must be at the centre. How could there not be a holiday to acknowledge the giving of the Torah?
The sages came to refer to Shavuot as Z'man Matan Toratenu- The Time of the Giving of our Torah. As the anniversary of revelation, Shavuot evolved into a celebration of Torah. In the synagogue, the account of the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are read as part of the service. Among Ashkenazic Jews, a custom also developed associating the Megilat Ruth- the Book of Ruth with Shavuot. There are a number of links that make this an appropriate text. Particularly, the setting of the story is at the harvest time, and Ruth's conversion to Judaism and is seen as analogous to the Israelite's acceptance of the covenant at Sinai. In addition, King David, who tradition teaches was born and died on Shavuot, is identified in the book as being descended from Ruth.
Another popular custom, which originated with the Jewish mystics in Safed in the sixteenth century, is the practise of staying up all through the night of Shavuot studying Torah. This practice, called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot is based on a Midrash that explains that the Israelites slept late on the morning of the revelation at Sinai, and thus almost missed the giving of Torah. By staying up all night, we atone for this lapse of our ancestors, and demonstrate our appreciation of revelation and our eagerness to recommit ourselves again and again to Torah.
Rituals and Customs
There is a custom on Shavuot to eat dairy foods, such as cheese blintzes (or nowadays, cheesecake). This custom is of uncertain origin; perhaps it is an ancient echo of the agricultural seasons when in the early summer the calves and kids would be old enough to wean, so there would be plenty of milk for the farmers. Another explanation suggests that Torah is like milk and honey (see Song of Songs 4:11).
There is a beautiful Sephardic custom of erecting a Chuppa (bridal canopy) over the lecturn on which Torah is read on Shavuot and honouring recently married couples. The custom extends from the notion that Shavuot is like a wedding between God (the groom) and Israel (the bride), with Torah serving as the Ketubah- (marriage contract). Special Shavuot ketubot are also written and read.
Other customs include decorating the synagogue for Shavuot with flowers and green plants, again echoing the ancient holiday of the "first fruits," and "Confirmation," a relatively new ritual (only a hundred years or so) through which teenagers are given the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to Jewish life and living.
It has often been asked why Shavuot is known as "the season of the giving of our Torah," when perhaps it's more important for us as Jews to recall that not only did God give Torah to Israel, but that we freely accepted and committed ourselves to it. Shavuot, then, becomes not only Z'man Matan Toratenu - the time of the giving of our Torah, but also Z'man Kabbalat Toratenu - the time of the accepting of our Torah. The giving of Torah is an historical event, that happened just once. But the acceptance of Torah by individual Jews is a continual process that happens every day, anytime a Jew makes a decision based on Jewish values, wholeheartedly recites a Jewish prayer, or makes a conscious effort to better the world. Each and every experience of our lives provides us with a new context to learn and understand Torah and put it into action in our lives. This is progressive revelation. We were given Torah just once, thus allowing for this yearly anniversary of Shavuot. But we "accept" Torah continually, allowing us to live a renewed Jewish life every day.
Dvar Torah: 'The Nature of Shavuot'
The celebration of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot begins the Torah's harvest festival of Hag Hakatzir also known as Hag Habikurim, the festival of first fruits. Shavuot, like all three pilgrimage festivals, began as an agricultural holiday. Passover celebrated the barley harvest of spring, Shavuot--the wheat and first fruits of early summer, and Sukkot--the final harvest of autumn. But Shavuot is something of an oddity because it lacks the historical component of Sukkot and Passover. According to the Torah, the harvest booths also commemorate the wandering of our ancestors in the wilderness, and the ceremonial food of matzah reminds us of our slavery and our redemption from Egypt.
There is no explanation given in the Torah as to the meaning or historical significance of Shavuot, nor how it is to be observed ritually. That is why there is nothing we really have to 'do' on Shavuot. There is nothing we 'have to' eat, like the ritual food of matzah. Yes, eating dairy foods is customary, but it is a tradition more like latkes or hamantashen. It is not a prescribed ritual like shaking the lulav. The Torah simply commands us to count fifty days from Passover (the exact start day is unclear) and offer a special sacrifice of two loaves of bread.
Shavuot is not assigned a specific date in the Torah. The sages reasoned that surely Shavuot must fit into the same paradigm as the other two biblical festivals of Sukkot and Pesach, and also must have a historical component. The Rabbis further saw themselves as the legitimate heirs to the Temple and priestly leadership. Instead of sacrifices, Torah learning must be at the centre. How could there not be a holiday to acknowledge the giving of the Torah?
Now remarkably, the giving of the Torah (or more precisely- the giving of the Ten Commandments) has no holiday associated with it! (The Rabbis conveniently blur the distinction between the Giving of the Ten Commandments with the Giving of the Two Stone Tablets with the Giving of the Torah- although all three are separate events.) Depending on when you start counting, Shavuot can fall on different days (luckily the actual start date according to the Torah is somewhat ambiguous). To make this work, Shavuot was determined to fall on the sixth day of the third month, (Sivan) by counting fifty days from the second day of Passover. And using some creative reckoning, the Rabbis were able to calculate that the theophany of Sinai coincided with the sixth day of the third month, transforming Shavuot from a holiday wholly rooted in the world of nature into the commemoration of a 'historical' event and the most abstract and cerebral of our holidays: 'Zman matan Torateinu, the holiday of Giving the Torah.' Since three months after leaving Egypt, and before they set out to wander in the desert, the Israelites found themselves camped out at the base of Mt. Sinai, awaiting the revelation of God's teachings, the Rabbis were able to determine that Revelation coincides with Shavuot. While Shavuot had no 'historical' event associated with it in the Torah, and the event of Revelation had no holiday to mark it, and both do not have actual dates in the Torah, it was, as Tevye would say, 'a perfect match.'
Shavuot becomes the 'historical' holiday of Revelation and its transformation from holiday of nature to holiday of Torah was complete, and not a moment too soon. The agricultural roots (so to speak) of Shavuot probably sufficed for the agrarian society of ancient Israel while they lived in the Promised Land; they didn't really allow for a meaningful holiday for Jews once they were outside the Land of Israel, where farming was on a different cycle and there was no Temple to which one could bring the seasonal offerings. In exile, the agricultural holiday of Shavuot would have withered on the vine. (Parenthetically, in Israel, some kibbutzim tried to revive the natural, harvest theme of the holiday.) Like much of Judaism and modern, urban life, Shavuot became severed from its natural roots. Together with losing our connection to the land of Israel, we have become disconnected from the natural world.
Judaism has a deep respect for nature, and sees nature as God's handiwork. And Jewish tradition commands us to respect and guard the environment and natural resources. But Judaism doesn't worship nature. According to the Torah, God is the creator of the natural world (and this is but one reason we should take good care of it). At the same time, the Torah reflects a discomfort with nature that may have originally been to distance itself from older pagan religious traditions. It is not nature itself that is somehow unwelcome in Judaism, but the sacralization of nature that is often found in pantheism (that all of nature and the universe itself are worthy of religious reverence). While we might feel God in nature, God is not nature. The Torah makes a clear distinction between God and nature that is often blurred by many of us who see the Divine in the wonder of nature. Nature is for many of us an opening to sense the awe and majesty of creation. Usually the more we learn about the natural world around us, the more we are deeply moved by its beauty, complexity, variety and order. Nothwithstanding Judaism's ambivalence, we still feel that nature connects us to the Divine, like at the Grand Canyon, or when contemplating the night sky. But do we learn religious lessons from nature?
If I can paraphrase Rabbi Heschel's description of Shabbat, when we turn from the world of Creation to the Creation of the world, should we return to Shavuot's origins as an agricultural holiday, and turn from the Nature of Revelation to the Revelation of Nature? The Revelation of Nature is often called Natural Theology, and refers to what we can learn about God from the natural world, without recourse to revealed texts. Surely creation reveals God as much as the Bible. Isn't nature a kind of book that God has written? The most famous and often quoted example of Natural Theology describes God as a kind of cosmic watchmaker. The early nineteenth century theologian Rev. William Paley wrote that someone crossing a heath and finding a brass watch with all its finely machined cogs and gears would conclude that the complexity of its design points to the existence of a watchmaker (Natural Theology,1802). Paley saw the intricate design of life as proof of the Creator and proponents of Creationism, now re-christened 'Intelligent Design' still try to use this argument. Two thousand years earlier the rabbis used a similar analogy: if we see a palace, we assume the existence of an architect.
Today, however, instead of instilling religious wonder, the appreciation of nature's intricacies has become the domain of science. And even though at some point in the career of every scientist there comes a moment of wonder on the encounter with yet another seeming miracle of life, such awe is not a welcome part of science. Natural theology has largely been discredited. Fifty years after Paley, Charles Darwin guessed otherwise and explained that evolution worked by descent with modification through random variation and natural selection. Richard Dawkins' rebuttal, titled 'The Blind Watchmaker' argues that there is in fact no need for a designer. Work in the fields of emergent complexity, chaos theory and evolutionary biology are determining more and more how life has created 'something from nothing.' Of course, proving that there is no need to believe in God doesn't prove that there is no God. But it certainly makes you think. If the world is not a product of 'directed' design as neo-Darwinists argue, and God is not the designer, is there no plan? Are we accidents of history? Does the universe have no meaning? As Elisha ben Avuya, the Talmud's most famous apostate decided, 'There is no Judge, and there is no justice.' I understand that I don't have to believe that God created the world, but I have to believe in God if there is to be morality. Better to rely on Torah than our study of the natural world, warned a 19th century orthodox rabbi:
Even though in truth it were better for us to strive to know God through the wonders of nature, in any event, were the weakness of our understanding not enough, whoever depended solely on this route, is in danger of stumbling, and falling into the trap of denying the belief in a Creation at all, and other true beliefs; ... [for] "the words of the Living God are more trustworthy than the testimony of earth and heaven."
Although the study of Torah can deepen our appreciation of the natural world, meditating on the natural world may not always bring us to a deeper understanding of Torah or of the Creator. On Shabbat we remember two themes: zikaron lema'aseh breishit, Creation and zecher liy'tzi'at mitzrayim, the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai. Like Shabbat, Shavuot needs these two poles. Religion without nature often places humanity apart from nature (or at the centre of creation). Nature without religion has no moral compass. This is why the Nature of Shavuot is not enough. We also need the revelation of Torah. This is the message of Shavuot. That there are answers to the questions: What is the right way to live? Does my life have meaning? How can I have a relationship with the Divine?
Nature and religion need each other. Our challenge is to bridge nature and religion not with Natural Theology, but with what Ian Barbour has called a theology of nature. We must ask how a scientific view of nature is related to the divine as understood from the religious experience of a historical community. Like Barbour, we must try to navigate a middle ground that finds a spiritual message within a scientific approach. Our new worldview must be evolutionary, historical, and emergent. How does this effect our theology? God is no longer directing history. Quantum indeterminacy and undirected mutations means that God is the source not only of order but also of novelty. Creation is no longer a one time event by divine order, but a process. Creation is still unfolding and the universe is unfinished. This must mean that we too have a part in its completion. This idea is symbolized on Shavuot, by bringing lechem bikkurim, new wheat made into bread. The midrash states that God created wheat instead of bread, to show that people are partners with God in creation. Our task is to repair the world--indeed we call tonight's study a tikkun. What began exclusively as a holiday of nature has been turned into the very essence of the Jewish religion: the giving of the Torah and the repair of the world.