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The Evolution of Shavuot

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Shavuot more than any other festival illustrates the ongoing way in which a Biblical festival and indeed many Biblical laws have evolved in unusual, unpredictable ways. It reinforces the reality (much disputed) that Jewish Law and custom are constantly renewing, evolving and changing.

The three Pilgrim Festivals mentioned in the Torah are PesachShavuot and Sukot. When in ancient times, Israelites were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They were festivals that brought the nation together. But they were also harvest festivals that predated the TorahPesach and Sukot also have associations with the Exodus and freedom from slavery, whereas Shavuot did not. They all had several different names. Although Shavuot beat them all for multiplicity.

The Torah refers to Chag HaShavuot,  the Festival of Weeks. After the seven weeks, 49 days we count after the barley harvest until the wheat harvest. It is also referred to it as Atzeret which means the gathering that completes a festival like Shmini Atzeret that concludes the festival of Sukot, the last day of Pesach itself. Thus, Shavuot might simply be the ultimate conclusion of the harvest festival of Pesach. It is also called Chag HaKatzir, the harvest feast, and Yom Bikkurim the Day of the First Fruits of the wheat harvest.   Since the Torah emphasizes on Shavuot that one has to leave parts of the harvest for the poor, implies that it is also the festival of charity.

Unlike Pesach and SukotShavuot is not mentioned in Tanakh outside the five books of the Torah. But Shavuot figures in our prayers we call it “the time our Torah was given,” a phrase of which the Mishna does not mention and the earliest record we have is the Seder Rav Amram, a 9th century Gaon of Sura. 

The Rabbis of the Talmud , call it Atzeret. Not  Zman Matan Toratenuthe time when the Torah was given, as we do now in our liturgy. And they make no mention of reading the Ten Commandments that have come to be associated with  Shavuot. How, then, did the first-fruits festival come to be so intimately linked with the revelation of Torah?

As exile reduced the prominence of the harvests of the land of Israel in the life of the Jewish people, the association between Shavuot and  Matan Torah began to grow. The Torah readings and Haftarot associated with revelation and the reading of the Book of Ruth, who according to the rabbis was the prototype of some who accepted the Torah voluntarily, became fixed. Medieval poets compiled  poetic versions of the 613 commandments, to be recited on Shavuot, further consolidating the message that Shavuot and Torah were connected. 

 In the sixteenth century two major innovations appeared. The all-night study called Tikun Leil Shavuot, The Order of Shavuot Night, goes back to the medieval Book of the Zohar the Bible of Jewish mysticism, which refers to an all-night service, in honor of the Torah. It became instituted in sixteenth century Safed. Over time different customs of what to say and study proliferated and differed from community to community. 

R. Moshe Isserles  (1530-1572) was the first to mention a custom of eating dairy dishes and then meat dishes on Shavuot; this is nowadays uncommon, but many Jews follow the custom of serving dairy dishes, including cheesecakes of distinctive local varieties. The reasons given are so unbelievable and unlikely, from what Moses was fed as a child, the problem of what dishes to use immediately after the laws of kosher were given on Sinai, the gematria of milk, the Biblical command against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and other fanciful fun. If only people didn’t take it so seriously.  Including the joke that it is called the Festival of Weeks because it takes weeks to unload the overweight from eating too much cheesecake. If one wants to be rational it is because during the hot harvest season, workers were more likely to eat lighter milky meals. And finally decorating the synagogues with flowers and plants is an obvious nod towards summer and harvest time

There are many different aspects of religious life and religious customs. To ty to makes sense of it all is a fool’s errand. All religion is the accretion of laws, ideas, customs, stories, songs and folklore that reflect the different peoples, tribes and empires. Of course, there are also dogmas and essential beliefs, moral and ethical teachings and dreams of peace and harmony. So long as you accept my version, which is the only right one!! Thank goodness this is missing in Judaism for we believe there are many paths to Heaven. Any human can get there by being a good person. It should obvious. But go tell it to fanatics.

Shavuot is a time to be happy. We are commanded to rejoice. It underlines the message of King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Life is a challenge. But there is much to enjoy. Above all we should strive to be positive, respect others, live a good life and try to be happy!!!

Chag Sameach

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