Our participant Katharina Hadassah Wendl has written the following text on the Jewish holiday Shavuot. She explains how the meaning of the holiday has changed over time and through historical factors, how the Midrash comments on the holiday, and how she herself celebrates it.
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by Katharina Hadassah Wendl
Shavuot looks different today from what it was many centuries ago when the Jewish Temple still stood in Jerusalem. The day of Matan Torah – the day when Jews celebrate, commemorate and give thanks for the handing over of the Torah to the Jewish people from God via Moshe – has gained some characteristic aspects over time and lost others.
Jews celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (and also on the 7th in the diaspora). It always falls in May or June in the secular calendar. Shavuot is one of the three regalim – one of the three festivals for which Jews during the time of the Temple would go to Jerusalem. The Jewish people would gather in Jerusalem also on Pesach, which commemorates the Jews leaving Egypt with the help of God, and on Sukkot, which serves as a reminder about the time when the Jews were travelling through the desert to reach the promised land. Pesach takes place in spring, Sukkot in autumn and Shavuot is right in between – seven weeks after Pesach. In the Torah, the Jews are commanded to count all days from the second night of Pesach to the eve of Shavuot. During this time, a special barley offering was brought inside the Temple. Both the counting and the sacrifice were called Omer (Lev 23,9-21; Deut 16,9-12). While the offerings and the official pilgrimages have ceased, we continue counting up from one to 49 and mark Shavuot as the 50th day.
Nowadays, many Jews would not – upon being asked about the meaning behind Shavuot – immediately answer that Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the Omer and the barley offerings. Shavuot is the day when the Torah was given to the Jews and the rest of the world! This connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah was only later developed and ritualized: That we are reading the ten commandments in synagogue, stay up all night to learn words of Torah in preparation of receiving it, again and again, every year on the 6th (and 7th) of Sivan, is a custom, but a strong and cherished one. During the time of the Temple, Shavuot – also called Chag HaKatzir (festival of the harvest; Ex 23:16) or Chag HaBikkurim (festival of the first fruits; Num 28:26) – was primarily a holiday connected to agriculture. On this day, Jews would bring the first fruits of the season to the Temple as a form of thanksgiving. Around this time, they would also be able to harvest wheat for the first time. Later, rabbis combined these agricultural celebrations with the commemoration of the giving of the Torah.
Biblically speaking, it was after the Jews’ rescue from Egypt and the splitting of the red sea that the Torah was given to the Jewish people in the midst of a desert. According to the traditional Jewish calendar, we even know how many years ago this fundamental, crucial event took place. It was 3333 years ago and it was an event that not just shaped Judaism and the Jewish people, but also the world.
Ex 19-20 records the biblical narrative of the giving of the Torah: The Jewish people arriving at Mount Sinai, God telling Moshe that he wants to both give the Jewish people the Torah and make it his chosen, holy nation, the people hearing the Asseret HaDibrot – commonly known as the ten commandments. Later, Moshe would ascend Mount Sinai to receive the whole Torah. There are many midrashim – narrative elaborations – about these events in later rabbinic literature. One of these midrashim – which is in Midrash Tanchuma (Nitzavim 8) – asks who exactly was present on the foot of the mountain to hear the divine commandments. A biblical verse referencing this scene emphasizes that everyone, every single person present and those absent (!), heard the commandments and accepted them (Devarim 29:13-14). The midrash elaborates on this remark. It explains that it was not just the Jews who had just escaped the bondage of Egypt, who made it through the red sea and who stood at Mount Sinai now – the souls of all Jewish people who would be alive in the future were also there and experienced Matan Torah.
That is by far not the only midrash about souls at Mount Sinai breathing in the commandments of the Torah. There are even rabbinic texts which elaborate on this momentous event in nearly opposite terms. It is, however, one of the better known and more popular interpretations and one that I particularly appreciate. So this midrash will be something I will have in mind when I will, God willing, have finished counting to 49, when I will be learning (almost) all night and when I will listen to the ten commandments again this Shavuot being read from the Torah.
˝The programme makes possible something that is all too rare in our society these days: speaking and having discussions across borders, not about each other, but with each other. That can be a hard slog at times, but at the same time the format makes space for follow-up questions and deeper conversations that are only possible through trust on all sides.
Felix, DialoguePerspectives alumnus