This week we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. For most Jews it is one of the least popular of our festivals.
It’s mentioned in the Bible, of course, but there are no customs other than specific Tabernacle/Temple rituals. Unlike Pesach and Succot there is no reference to the Exodus or to wandering in the desert. It has none of the complex rituals associated with Pesach or Succot. It lacks the sobriety of the High Holy Days and the fun of the others. The festival in the Bible is purely agricultural.
In Exodus 23.16 it is called Chag HaKatzir, the festival of reaping. In Leviticus it isn’t given a name at all. It is simply the occasion at the end of the forty-nine days of the Omer when an offering of Bikkurim, first produce, is brought. (This must mean the beginning of the main wheat harvest because the earlier barley harvest is marked by the first barley sheaf brought the day after Pesach begins.) Similarly, in Numbers 28 the festival is called Yom HaBikkurim, the day of the first produce.
Finally, in Deuteronomy it is called Chag Shavuot, our familiar name, the festival of weeks, with a defining phrase ‘from when the sickle begins to cut the standing corn’. Interestingly, many Christians like to call it Pentecost, derived from the Greek for ‘fifty’, as the festival falls on the fiftieth day after the beginning of Passover, another nod in the direction of the Omer.
This seems to be a perfect example of Judaism’s adaptability. For its first 600 hundred years or so of existence as a national religion Judaism was a Temple and agricultural based religion. Then it adapted as times changed. The Babylonian Exile two thousand five hundred years ago, severed the connection between the Jews and the Land of Israel. Agricultural laws in the Torah are overwhelmingly related to the Land of Israel, but even after the return, the major Jewish community, numerically, went on living in Babylon. A substitute was needed both for the farmers who no longer had their land and for the destruction of the Temple. Initially community prayer was formalized to replace sacrifices and Torah study of the agricultural laws replaced actual involvement, as the main expression of Jewish religious service. So when the Romans ‘finally’ cut the links between Judaism and its land ( at least till recently) there was a structure ready to compensate, of prayer and study together.
Shavuot was modified, or to be more accurate the emphasis was shifted, for it to become the anniversary of the Sinai revelation of Torah. But there is nothing in the Torah explicitly about Shavuot’s association with Mount Sinai and the anniversary of the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, if one bothers to count the days from the Exodus to the Sinai revelation it actually fits in perfectly. But then the question is why this connection is not made explicit in the Torah.
To suggest that the connection between Torah and Shavuot was a complete innovation does not do justice to the spirit of the Torah itself where, Sinai is so crucial, indeed essential. However, the fact is that the Exodus, Pesach, was only the first stage in a process that would lead to a constitution. And that constitution, Torah, is as applicable on any day of the year as it is on Shavuot.
So alongside the memory of the harvests and the nostalgia for the land, there emerged new emphasis such as Simchat Torah on Succot when we complete the annual Torah reading and with regard to Shavuot , the idea of Revelation on Sinai.The customs of the festival as practised today, eating dairy foods and staying up all night to study Torah, are comparatively recent. The former is Medieval and the latter was introduced by the Kabbalists.
So one sees very clearly how a crucial component of our religion has developed and changed over the years. Sure these changes were all within a defined framework and interrelated, not just random, fashionable nods in the direction of convenience, but changes they were. Judaism is not the static fossil it is often presented as.
For me the nub of the Rabbinic agenda was that they insisted that we read the book of Ruth on the festival of Shavuot. There are lots of different explanations for why. Here are some!
The Book of Ruth itself is set against a harvest background. It starts with a failed harvest and ends with a bumper crop. It is full of harvest traditions; celebrations, taking care of the poor and the stranger. Shavuot is of course the harvest festival. Harvest represents materialism. Materialism is important in terms of sustaining a caring society. But human qualities are shown to be more important because they help one survive through the bad times as well as the good. Naomi retains her goodness and dignity throughout. But it is only through Ruth, the person she influences positively, that she regains her status.
Ruth, the girl from Moab, is the symbol of someone who accepts Judaism and Torah voluntarily, for the purest of motives--her belief in the values of the Jewish people. Boaz, the relative of Naomi who redeems Ruth, chooses not to take advantage of her, but to go through the due process of law. He mirrors Ruth. She is the personification of female devotion and goodness. Boaz is the personification of male devotion and goodness and commitment to the law. He represents good leadership as opposed to Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, who failed by running away from a crisis.
So we have the themes of nature, Torah, conversion, charity, kindness and acceptance of a stranger for her personal and spiritual qualities. But returning to the start, we also have two other essential themes. Celebration is both a community expression of shared values but also a call to each individual to find his or her own way to God or Torah or Morality.
It seems to me that nowadays we tend to forget the real message of Ruth and her private spiritual journey. Our religion, currently, seems to be one of authority, control and conformity. I bet if Ruth appeared before a Beth Din nowadays she’d wouldn’t find it so easy!
So eat your cheesecake, study Torah, remember Mount Sinai by all means, but don’t forget the loving humanity that Ruth represents, and her ability to make moral choices and find new directions. This is what really counts. The heroine of Sinai is a Moabitess called Ruth, and she was not a Jewish Princess.
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