Shavuot: A Holiday in Search of a Home

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By Rabbi Robert Layman 

Parshat Emor

Every holiday in the Jewish calendar has a fixed date determined by the Torah or by events not recorded in the Torah (such as Purim on the 14th of Adar and Chanukah on the 25th of Kislev).

Such is not the case with Shavuot, the date of which was dependent on counting seven weeks from a particular day during Passover. The exact reference to that day is open to a variety of interpretations. We are commanded in Leviticus 23:15 in this week’s reading: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — mi mochorat ha-shabbat — you shall count off seven weeks.”

The untranslated Hebrew phrase is the crux of the problem. We are instructed to observe the festival on the day following the completion of seven weeks of counting (sefirat ha’omer, the Counting of the Omer), namely the 50th day. We are currently in the midst of that counting period known simply as sefirah. Because Shavuot falls on the 50th day, it is sometimes referred to as Pentecost, a word of Greek derivation.

The absence of a fixed date for Shavuot is further highlighted by a mitzvah recorded in Deuteronomy 16:9, where the Israelites are instructed to “count off seven weeks: Start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain.” Obviously, this important agricultural activity could vary from year to year depending on weather conditions.

The phrase mi-mochorat ha-shabbat is generally rendered, “the day after the Sabbath.” But which Sabbath does the text refer to? Rabbinic tradition translated Shabbat in its broadest sense as “day of rest” and applied it to the first day of Passover. Thus, the counting begins on the 16th of Nisan, leading to the 50th day on the sixth of Sivan.

This is the date on which Shavuot has been observed by most of world Jewry, with the addition of the seventh of Sivan in the Diaspora by all but Reform Jewry. It is interesting to note, however, that some authorities and Diaspora communities understood Shabbat in its literal sense and began the counting on the day after the Sabbath during Passover, namely Sunday, so that Shavuot always fell on a Sunday.

This interpretation was advanced by the Sadducees, who were strict literalists and narrow in their interpretation of halachah. It was also followed by the medieval Karaites, who rejected Rabbinic Judaism, as well as by the Samaritans, generally considered outside the pale of mainstream Judaism.

Among the Ethiopian Jews, Shabbat was given yet another interpretation, having been applied to the final day of Passover, so that in Ethiopia, Shavuot was observed on the 12th of Sivan. Finally, evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates the community of Qumran understood Shabbat to mean the Sabbath after the conclusion of Passover, so that Shavuot always fell on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan on their fixed solar calendar, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica.

In summary, Shavuot enjoys the peculiar distinction of being the only festival whose date is not specified by the Torah, and of being observed by different communities at different times in the month of Sivan.

While Shavuot is almost universally celebrated on the sixth of Sivan today, it remains a holiday in search of a home. Unlike the other festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, which are replete with rituals and symbols, Shavuot, which basically commemorates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, is lacking in color and symbols.

There are, of course, additions to the liturgy of this holiday, notably the recitation of a special piyut (hymn) composed by Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, a 12th-century German rabbi. One of the themes of that piyut, called Akdamut, is, “Were all the skies parchment/ and all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink/ and all who dwell on earth scribes/ God’s grandeur could not be told.” Because of the length of this poem, it is chanted in abridged form in many congregations, if at all.

A distinctive feature of the ritual of Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. The association between this lyrical Biblical book and the festival of Shavuot has been summarized concisely as follows:

  1. The story is set at harvest time.
  2. Ruth’s “conversion to Judaism” is analogous to our voluntary acceptance of the Torah and God’s Covenant at Sinai.
  3. King David, according to tradition, was born and died on Shavuot. The Book of Ruth ends with the genealogy of Ruth ending with her great-grandson, David.
  4. Reading Ruth means that we have read from each major section of the Tanakh, starting with the Torah selection for that day, continuing with the haftarah from the Nevi’im (Prophets) and concluding with Ruth from the Ketuvim (Writings).

Over the years, various attempts have been made to enliven our celebration of Shavuot so that it will rank in importance with Pesach and Sukkot in the popular mind and practice.

Early in the 19th century, the newly established Reform movement introduced the ceremony of confirmation to mark a transition point in our young people’s Jewish education and the time “to affirm the vows at Sinai” as an old confirmation hymn expresses it. Confirmation remains a standard celebration in Reform congregations to this day and has been adopted by many Conservative congregations as well, especially in the Philadelphia area.

Other efforts to enhance Shavuot include decorating our homes and synagogues with flowers and plants to reflect the season and the enjoyment of dairy cuisine. Among the various alternate names for the festival is chag habikkurim (Holiday of the First Fruits), recalling the special offerings made by farmers in ancient Israel. The farmers would form colorful processions to Jerusalem, accompanied by music. This ritual was revived in modern times when Jews resumed farming in pre-statehood Eretz Yisrael.

In addition, in recent years many congregations have successfully revived interest in the holiday by instituting an all-night program of study (with dairy refreshments) called Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

If modern Jews would make the effort to observe Shavuot to the extent that they observe the other festivals, Shavuot, which is now celebrated on a fixed date, will cease to be a holiday in search of a home. May it find an honored place in our homes.

Shavuot will be celebrated this year on May 31 and June 1. A few weeks in advance, let me wish everyone a chag sameach

Rabbi Robert Layman previously served as regional director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and is a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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