Shavuot: A Case of Mistaken Identity

22 May

Today is the 49th day in the counting of the omer. What does that really mean for us?

Today, as we complete the annual mitzvah of sefirat ha-omer, our 49 day, 7 week long process of daily counting that began with the second day of Pesach, I want to suggest that this observance, as well as our observance of Shavuot beginning this evening, is seriously misunderstood – the focus is out of place.

Firstly, for the Jew who has been counting religiously, day after day, the focus of the count is generally no more than making sure we don’t forget to count every day.  If we forget a day in the count, we can no longer say the bracha associated with the count.  Buckets of ink fill pages and pages of halachic discussion as to who is obligated to count, how the count is properly fulfilled, what is the earliest or latest time one can count and still fulfill the mitzvah to count daily. All of these issues are important, for one who wants to fulfill the mitzvah as prescribed.  But, just as important, and usually overlooked, is the question as to why we are counting in the first place! What is the purpose of counting days from Pesach to Shavuot?

Which brings me to my second concern – why do be celebrate the chag of Shavuot? What is its function as one of the three pilgrimige holidays, the holidays where Jews were instructed by the Torah to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate together with the rest of the nation?

Ask a rabbi, he will tell you that Shavuot is the holiday upon which we celebrate the Giving of the Torah.

I beg to differ.

Iit is clear from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 19, that at some point during the first week of the month of Sivan, the Torah was given by God on Har Sinai; however, in connection with the celebration of Shavuot, the Torah NEVER makes the connection to revelation!  Never.

The following passage represents the main passage in the Torah describing the celebration of what we call Shavuot:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering (the omer offering)-the day after the Sabbath-you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week-fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. You shall bring from your dwelling -places two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening, as first fruits to the LORD. ….And you shall proclaim on that same day, it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a law for all time in all your dwelling-places, throughout the ages.  (Leviticus 23:16-21)

 As you can see, no reference to celebrating Matan Torah on this day.  Now don’t misunderstand my beef – I have no problem with the rabbinic development of celebrating revelation on this day – what bothers me it that it has for all intents and purposes, this later layer of celebration completely supplanted the original celebration as described in the Torah, as well as any vital teachings that may have been originally associated with Shavuot’s original celebration.

I want to just begin to set the record straight and recapture at least one of the powerful lessons to be learned from this chag.  This chag has NO SPECIFIC DATE in the Torah; rather, it is the culmination of the counting of seven weeks, and celebrated on the day thereafter.  This may remind you of another, what I would consider parallel counting that takes place as we count seven sets of seven years – 49 years in all, leading up to the 50th year, called the jubilee year, or the yovel. Aside from the parallel counting, I discovered that in both cases a specific word appears in the Torah which appears ONLY in these two cases throughout the enitre Torah – the word וקראתם – uk’ratem – and you shall proclaim.  It is ONLY in these two cases that the Torah demands of us that we proclaim the event.  The other holidays happen on their assigned dates. We are to proclaim the arrival of Shavuot, we are to proclaim the arrival of the yovel. (Leviticus 25:10) 

What’s the connection?

It seems to me, that what both of these occasions have in common, is that they both announce publicly a change in status.  Aside form being an additional sabbatical year during which the land must rest (shemitah), Yovel also announces that all servants must go free, and all land must go back to its original owners.  A much anticipated moment comes about for people who were forced to part with their land or their home, or who have been living a life of servitude as a result of debt or poverty, and have been waiting for years to get a second chance. 

Perhaps the public proclamation must be made in order to ensure the release of the servants and the return of land.  No one must be allowed to claim that they didn’t know, and therefore refrained from granting their servants their much anticipated freedom, or from returning mortgaged land to its rightful owner.

If this is so, then what might be the public proclamation required on Shavuot, and what does it signify?

Imagine the wheat ripening in the fields, your supplies of flour are low, you need flour to make bread.  You must wait!  You must be patient – for the wheat may only be eaten after the leavened bread offering is brought in the Beit HaMikdash, after the public ceremony and announcement is made on that day, letting everyone know that Shavuot is upon us, and that the new grains may be eaten.

For me, then, I see the counting of the days from Pesach to Shavuot as an act of discipline – acknowledgement that it is God’s will that that we await the arrival of Shavuot before we use the wheat, that it is God’s will that we demonstrate restraint and discipline.  The counting gives voice to our daily anticipation, and the public announcement of the day’s arrival mark’s the official change in status for which we have been waiting. 

As we are about to be blessed with God’s bounty throughout the summer and fall harvests, we are instructed to show discipline, to show restraint, to enter into this new bountiful season in UNISON.  There will always be those with more, those with less, but Shavuot and it’s public decree, like Yovel and its public proclamation, will equalize our national experience of enjoying the new fruits of our labors – as one, united people, if for only a few days or weeks.

The counting of days, the public decree, restraint and equality – these are the elements of Shavuot that spoke volumes to the Jews of days gone by. This special identity of Shavuot is all but lost -short of rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash, what can we do to recapture it?


2 Responses to “Shavuot: A Case of Mistaken Identity”

  1. Tamar Thursday, May 24, 2007 at 10:40 am #

    Your words brings me to think that it’s not only patience and discipline that we need but also modesty. Perhaps Shavuto, as well as shmita and yovel come to remind us that we, humans, are not the owners of earth but it’s like a pikadon that we should treat with respect and kindness; that we should stop being greedy and see outselves and the center and goal of this universe but more as keepers and servants?
    Thanks Morey

  2. Morey Thursday, May 24, 2007 at 11:15 am #


    Thanks…that’s another important message that we could emphasize on Shavuot!

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