From the Rabbi’s Desk June, July, 2019
Rabbi Carla Freedman
As I write this, it is mid-May, and though the calendar says that summer is officially still six weeks away, the temperatures have reached into the 90s, and the humidity is in the same range. It is hard to believe that it is still spring.
The Jewish calendar tells me that Shavuot, the last of the “appointed times” of the festivals, is still a few weeks away, and that’s good, because after that, through the summer months, there are no other festivals till we come to Rosh HaShanah…and I’m not ready for that at all.
In Biblical times, Shavuot was the third of the Pilgrimage Festivals (along with Sukkot and Pesakh), for which adult Jewish males were required to present themselves at the Temple in Jerusalem, with the requisite offerings (see Numbers 28 and 29 for details). But since the destruction of the Temple, Shavuot has languished, at least in comparison with Sukkot and Pesakh. There are no great Shavuot songs, for example. And the traditional eating of dairy foods is not based on any Biblical instruction.
Like Pesakh and Sukkot, Shavuot was based upon a Canaanite harvest festival, which the Israelites adopted. Pesakh was the barley harvest, Shavuot was the wheat harvest, and Sukkot was the produce harvest (including grapes). As the Jewish character of these occasions evolved, and as our distance from the Canaanite agricultural calendar increased, both in space and time, the harvest aspect of the festivals was submerged, if not totally supplanted.
The rabbis of old rescued Shavuot from obscurity by associating with it the giving of the Torah at Sinai. They calculated, based on information in the Torah about the Israelites’ itinerary after exiting Egypt, that this leg of the journey took seven weeks (Shavuot is Hebrew for “weeks”).
The Torah itself never mentions this occasion as the date of the revelation at Sinai. But absent the agricultural connection, Shavuot needed some basis for its status as one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, and since there is a connection between the other two and the exodus story, it seems clear that Shavuot needed to be anchored to that as well. Pesakh is all about the exodus, and Sukkot reminds us that the Israelites, on their journey, lived in temporary housing like the “booths” or huts we construct for Sukkot. The giving of the Torah, according to Jewish thinking, is the purpose behind the exodus and the huts, and is therefore the pinnacle of the triangle made of the three festivals.
But that concept has not translated into the popular imagination of our people, and outside of the Orthodox communities, Shavuot is not much observed. No songs to sing, no foods to anticipate….
We at Beth Israel have created our own Shavuot customs, and I hope you will join us on Sunday, June 9, at 10:00 am to enjoy them. The festival morning service will include a Yizkor (Memorial) service. Members of the Bnot Torah class of 2015 will read the Ten Commandments, which are the assigned text for the day. And then, we’ll adjourn for an ice cream sundae Kiddush! What’s not to like about that?
Then comes the quiet time of summer, when we’ll celebrate Shabbat each week, and make our way through the cycle of the year. Have a great summer!! See you in shul!!