“Appreciating Shavuot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Of all the major holidays and festivals of the Jewish people, the one that is least known and least appreciated is the festival of Shavuot.

Despite the broad assimilation of the Jews of North America, Passover is still widely observed, even if “observing” means attending a Passover seder in a non-kosher restaurant or eating a tiny piece of matzah during the festival week. Similarly, over the past few decades, sukkot have become increasingly popular, even among fundamentally non-observant Jews who appear to enjoy the exotic notion of eating a home-made meal in a rickety sukkah hut.

Many years ago, a woman who was completing her masters at Harvard Business School was approached on campus by a group of observant Jews. She was asked to sign a petition asking the school administration to reschedule the B-school commencement exercises from the original date, which was on Shavuot, to a more acceptable date. In an article written a number of years later the woman recalled that at the time she had no idea what Shavuot was. She therefore told the solicitors in no uncertain terms that she had no interest in signing the petition. She concluded the article by noting that two years later she spent the entire night of Shavuot studying Torah. Now she knows very well what Shavuot is, and deeply enjoys celebrating it!

Shavuot seems to be a forlorn Jewish holiday, and except for the most committed and observant Jews, appears to be off the radar screen of most Jews.

And yet, Shavuot is a truly magnificent holiday, and, in some respects, the most central holiday of the entire Jewish calendar. After all, what would Jewish life be without the Torah?

The centrality of Shavuot is underscored by the fact that it is given numerous names in Jewish tradition: Chag ha’Kahtzeer–the Festival of Reaping; Chag haShavuot–the Festival of Weeks; Chag haBikurim–the Festival of the First Fruits; and, although the name does not occur in the Torah, it is also known as Atzeret.

The appellation, Chag ha’Kahtzeer, the Festival of Reaping, is found in the Torah in Exodus 23:16: “In the festival of reaping, [bring] the first fruits of your labor that you sow in the field.” This verse refers to the reaping of the wheat that coincides with the festival of Shavuot. In fact, the reaping season officially concludes with the harvest of the wheat, since wheat is the latest grain of the year. The festival of Shavuot officially validates the gift offerings of the new wheat harvest that are brought to the House of G-d, the Temple in Jerusalem.

The name Chag haShavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is also mentioned in the Torah in Exodus 34:22: “You shall make the Festival of Weeks [Shavuot] with the first offering of the wheat harvest.” Mention of “Chag Hashavuot” is repeated in Deuteronomy 16:10, where it states: “and you shall make a festival of Shavuot unto the Lord, your G-d.” The name Shavuot alludes to the seven weeks (“Shavuot”) of the counting of the Omer, that begin on the second day of Passover and continue until the day before Shavuot. The Omer rituals, therefore, actually begin on Pessach with the harvesting of the barley, an early crop, and conclude with the harvesting of the wheat, the last crop.

The name Chag haBikurim, the Festival of the First Fruits, is also cited in the Torah, Numbers 28:26: “And on the day of the first fruit when you make a new meal offering to G-d.” On the festival of Bikurim two loaves of bread (sh’tay ha’lechem) are offered in the Temple, made of the wheat of the new season. With this new offering, gifts to the Temple made from the grain of the new season become acceptable. This also marks the time for the offering of the bikurim–the first fruits of the seven species for which the land of Israel is renowned. The Mishnah in tractate Bikurim describes graphically how farmers would go down to the fields and mark the first fruits with a blade of grass. Later, the residents of Jerusalem would greet the Jews who arrived in the city, laden with these new fruits as a gift to G-d, to thank the Al-mighty for a successful growing season.

Although the term “Atzeret” does not appear in the Bible, the rabbis use it to describe the day of Shavuot as if it were a concluding eighth day to the seven day celebration of Pessach. The intervening 49 days of the Omer are considered a long “Chol Hamoed,” (non-sacred festival days), rather than an interruption– similar to the festival of Shemini Atzeret that follows Sukkot. That is why Shavuot is sometimes referred to as the “Atzeret of Pessach.” In the Midrash (Sifrei, parashat Re’eh), Rabbi Shimon says that Shavuot should actually be a seven day festival similar to Pessach and Sukkot. But since Shavuot is an essential time for working the field, G-d had compassion on the people and limited it to one day.

The Or HaChaim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’Chaim ben Attar, 1696-1743) says that the festival of Shavuot actually has two names. Not only does the name Shavuot connote weeks, it also connotes oaths, like the Hebrew word “shevuot.” On this festival, two oaths were made: G-d promised that He would not exchange the Jewish people for any other nation, while the Jewish people promised that they would not exchange G-d for any other deity.

We see, in effect, that there is rich and abundant symbolism to the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is indeed a holiday that should be particularly meaningful to Jews, whether observant or secular.

The Torah teaches that when the Jewish people reached Sinai prior to receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:2), “Vayichan sham Yisrael neged ha’har,” the people of Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. The proper Hebrew plural word for encamped is “Va’yachanoo,” and “they” encamped. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) states that the word is specifically stated in the singular in order to underscore that the people encamped, “K’eesh echad b’layv echad,” like one person with one heart. There was an unparalleled unity at that moment when all of Israel experienced mutual love and brotherhood, peace and fellowship.

Given the great richness inherent in the holiday of Shavuot, it is particularly tragic that so few Jews know anything about Shavuot, and even fewer observe it. Those of us who do care, should reach out to those who are missing out and sing the praises of Shavuot, so that the people of Israel in their observance of this wonderful and meaningful festival, can once again be a truly united people with “one heart and with one soul.”

May you be blessed.

Shavuot is observed this year on Thursday, June 1, 2006 through Saturday night, June 3rd.

Chag Shavuot Samayach.” Have a happy and festive Shavuot.