This Tuesday evening, May 14, and ending after sundown on
Thursday, May 16, 2013, Jews celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, or the Feast of
Weeks. Shavuot, commemorated seven weeks after Passover, is one of the three
biblical pilgrimage festivals when Jews were obliged to travel to the
Jerusalem with offerings of the first fruits of the new harvest. These fruits
were given in thanksgiving to G-d, and as a means of income to support the priests
and the Temple.
As with most important ancient festivals, Shavuot has a
primitive agricultural origin. These “first fruits” were to be drawn
specifically from seven agricultural products that figure prominently in the
Bible and Mediterranean lands. They are wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs,
olives, and pomegranates. If we visit Israel today, in fact, we will see the
image of the pomegranate everywhere. The barley and wheat harvest occurred
during this seven-week period, and so, among other things, offerings of two
loaves of bread were presented in the Temple.
Hellenistic Jews called this festival Pentecost, Greek for
“fifty days”. This holiday figures prominently in the New Testament as well,
and is celebrated (with Christian theological overtones) in many Christian
churches fifty days after Easter.
Traditional Jews connect the holiday of Shavuot with the
revelation of the Torah by G_d to Moses on Mount Sinai. This connection is not
found in the Bible, but rather was taught by the rabbis probably in the early
Middle Ages in order to mitigate associations with pagan practices.
A Jewish legend relates that when Moses received the Torah
on Mount Sinai, the entire barren mountaintop burst forth with a profusion of
flowers and greenery. The reawakening of the natural world in the later spring
and early summer has led to the development of the beautiful tradition of
decorating the homes and the sanctuaries of synagogues and churches, especially
Eastern Orthodox churches, with green branches of trees, roses, and all other
types of blooming flowers and plants on Shavuot / Pentecost.
Since Shavuot occurs during the fertile spring period,
animal mothers produce abundant quantities of fresh milk. So the custom of
enjoying dairy dishes in honor of the “land of milk and honey” is a tasty
feature of this holiday. In the Ashkenazi (northern European) community, cheese
blintzes are often served because their shape is reminiscent of the tablets of
the Ten Commandments.
Traditional Jews dedicate themselves to the study of sacred
texts for the entire evening before the morning service on Shavuot. In
synagogues, the biblical book of Ruth is read at the prayer services on that
The Book of Ruth is associated with both the harvest season
and the enactment of the poor and needy. There is a Midrash, (a type of
parable), that illustrates clearly the point of the Book of Ruth. Korah, the
rich man asked Moses: “Moses, our teacher, it is written in the Torah, ‘do not
take from the poor, since they are poor.’ Who can take from the poor, since
they have nothing? Moses answered him: What you should give to the poor belongs
to them, what you do not give them is what you take from them.”
Secular Jews do not believe that Jewish law has divine
origin, but rather evolved throughout our long history. Our national narrative,
our own, very human creation, is of prime importance to our understanding of
our Jewish consciousness. The Torah and its stories represent Judaism’s
development from a tribal religion into a civilization ruled by ethics, laws,
and a rich body of writings.
In our Torah, as well as in so much of our Jewish literature
produced throughout the ages, we find reiterated over and over the humanistic
concepts of “menschlichkeit”
(behaving like a decent human being), of “tikkun
olam” (the struggle to create a just world), of “tzedakah” (the religious obligation to do what is right and
equitable), of the defiance of the status quo, of social justice, and of
respect for the dignity of every individual.
Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Society of Humanistic
Judaism says: “We are enveloped in the thick vine of tradition. We are the
heirs of past events that mold our fears and hopes; we are the children of
ancient suffering and joy that leave their trauma in our sense of life. The
inertia of old excitement pushes the stream of culture ever onward and opens
new channels of meaning for the venerable thoughts of great men and women. We
are joined together in a might fellowship wit our past. The legacy of our
ancestors is our legacy too.”
Shavuot is a wonderful opportunity for all Jews (and
everyone else!) to enjoy the great wealth of our Jewish literary culture.
Whether we are gathered together for an evening with friends studying
devotional literature or whether we sit in the park with the latest book by
Michael Chabon and a nice slice of New York cheesecake.
Chag Shavuot Sameach!
Rabbi Frank Tamburello
is the rabbi to the Westchester Community for Humanistc Judaism congregation
gather to attend services at the Community Unitarian Church, 468 Rosedale
Avenue, White Plains, NY. To learn more, direct email to: firstname.lastname@example.org