A Rabbinical Introduction To Shavuot

In the evening of the second day of our Spring Seminar 2021 our three religious advisors gave a joint lecture on the importance of hope and confidence in uncertain times of crises. They based their inputs on the upcoming Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays as (re)sources for drawing said confidence despite and especially in the middle of collective crises. Dr. Ayşe Başol spoke about Ramadān, Rabbi Maximilian Feldhake explained the meaning and rituals of Pessach and Dr. Kerstin Söderblom told us about Lent and Easter.

As the Jewish festival of Shavuot is coming closer, we are happy to share Rabbi Max Feldhake’s insights about the possible meaning of the absence of fixed liturgical and ritual forms for Shavuot as one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism and an explanation of how the traditions developed for this holiday.

If you have any questions or remarks, as always, do not hesitate to get in touch.

Schavuot – The Festival of Weeks and the Giving of the Thora

In the Jewish liturgical year there are three pilgrimage festivals: Pessach (Passover), Sukkot (the Festival of Booths) and Schavuot (the Festival of Weeks).

The Pilgrimage Festivals – in Hebrew שלוש רגלים / shalosh regalim – are so named because during the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews made pilgrimage during the festivals in order to offer sacrifices in the Temple. The Temple no longer stands but the festivals remain.

Historically the three pilgrimage festivals, like much of the Jewish calendar, were linked to the agricultural realities of the Land of Israel. Passover marks the spring and the beginning of the barely harvest and Sukkot marks the end of the fruit harvest and with it the end of the agricultural year. Biblically Shavuot marked the wheat harvest. While the Temple still stood an offering of two loaves of wheat bread was made on Shavuot.

But with the destruction of the Temple, the meanings of the three festivals changed. Rabbinic Judaism recognized the need to reinvent and reinterpret Temple-based religious practice in order to preserve Judaism. Thus, Passover became a celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt, Sukkot became a commemoration of the wonderings in the desert and Shavuot marked revelation and the giving of the Tora at Mount Sinai.

If Passover marks the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, then Shavuot marks the birth of the Jewish nation.

Shavuot is called the Festival of Weeks because it occurs seven weeks – a week of weeks – after Passover. Other names for Shavuot are חג הקציר  / Hag haKatzir  – the Festival of Reaping andיום הבכורים / Yom haBikkurim  – Day of the First Fruits.

From my liturgy professor, Rabbi Professor Dalia Marx, I learned that where there exists a liturgical gap, that is where there is no specific liturgy, then the Jewish tradition tends to fill it. Passover has the Seder and Sukkot has the shaking of the lulav. In comparison to the other two pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot is liturgically and ritually less well defined. The one clearly defined liturgical ritual was the recitation of Deuteronomy 26:1-10, “My father was a wandering Aramean” when presenting the offering of the first fruits in the Temple.

Thus, a number of highly eclectic and varied liturgical and ritual forms have been developed for Shavuot.

One central liturgical element of Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth – מגילת רות – megilat rut, which is paralleled by the reading of the Megillot (scrolls) of Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes on Passover and Sukkot respectively. Ruth is read on Shavuot for a number of reasons: King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot; Shavuot is harvest time, as indicated in Exodus 23:16, and the events of the Book of Ruth occur at the harvest time; The gematria (numerical value) of Ruth is 606, the number of commandments given at Sinai in addition to the Seven Laws of Noah already given, for a total of 613; because Shavuot is traditionally cited as the day of the giving of the Torah, the entry of the entire Jewish people into the covenant of the Torah is a major theme of the day. Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, and consequent entry into that covenant, is described in the book.

Another major liturgical element of Shavuot is the piyyut (liturgical poem) titled אקדמות / Akdamut. Written by Rabbi Meir of Worms, whose son was killed during the First Crusade in 1096.  Rabbi Meir was forced to defend the Torah and his Jewish faith in a debate with local priests and successfully conveyed his certainty of God’s power, His love for the Jewish people, and the excellence of Torah. Afterwards he wrote the Aqdamut, a 90-line poem in Aramaic that stresses these themes. In Ashkenazi communities the piyyut is recited during the Torah reading. In keeping with ancient practice of providing an Aramaic translation after each verse from the Tora, Akdamut would traditionally be recited immediately after the reading of the first verse, this custom has generally fallen out of practice and instead it is read after the first full reading.

Amongst the unique Shavuot rituals is the תיקון ליל שבועות / tikkun leil shavuot – an all-night evening of Tora learning. This is inspired by an episode from the Midrash, specifically Shir haShirim Rabbah, in which the Israelites go to bed early the evening before the revelation at Sinai, reckoning that the next day would be tiresome. Instead they oversleep and Moses must wake them, since God is already waiting atop Mount Sinai.

Two finally traditional customs include consuming dairy foods on Sukkot and decorating one’s home and the synagogue with greenery. There a number of explanations as to why dairy is consumed: in the Song of Songs, the Tora is compared to milk, “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), the gematria of the Hebrew word חלב / halav – milk – is 40, corresponding to the 40 days and 40 nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai before bringing down the Torah, and in the Psalms, Mount Sinai is called הר גבננים / Har Gavnunim – Mountain of Majestic Peaks, which is a similar to the word for cheese, גבינה  / gevinah.

Homes and the synagogue are decorated with greenery – ירק / yereq – because according to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit.

If one takes the first letter of each of these liturgical and ritual traditions then it produces a mnemonic: אחרית / acharit – last.

Shavuot, in contrast to Passover, is a holiday whose central theological narrative element, the revelation of the Tora at Mount Sinai, functions fundamentally differently to the Exodus from bondage in Egypt. While both the biblical Exodus and Revelation are not historical events, the revelation of the Tora is re-enacted on a continuing basis by means of the reading and learning of Tora. Furthermore, Reform Jewish theology teaches of continued revelation, the process of the Jewish people’s dialogue and relationship with the divine is an ongoing process which might have had its beginning at “Sinai”, nevertheless endures and is rediscovered in each generation and by each community. The lack of fixed liturgical and ritual forms for Shavuot is perhaps a reflection of this continued process of revelation. In each generation Jews engage with the Tora in a myriad of different ways; each one is valid and each one adds to the richness and complexity of the Jewish tradition and Jewish people.


Copyright: LBF | Fotos: Stephan Pramm

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