The 2018 Shavuot guide for the perplexed

The holiday highlights reality as documented by the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, 40 years in the desert, and a litany of wars and destruction.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem, Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem, Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

1. Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), which enshrines liberty and morality, as demonstrated by an entire night study on the eve of Shavuot (the “Enhancement of Shavuot,” Tikkun Leil Shavuot in Hebrew):

*The liberty of the Land of Israel, which was initially pursued by Abraham the Patriarch 3,500 year ago;
*The liberty to embrace the Torah of Israel, which was transmitted through Moses;
*The liberty of the People of Israel, who were united by King David.

The acronym of the Hebrew spelling of Abraham (אברהם), David (דוד) and Moses (משה) is Adam (אדם), which is the Hebrew word for “human being.” It is also the root of the Hebrew word for “soil”—אדמה, a symbol of humility.

Shavuot (the Hebrew word for “weeks”) is celebrated seven weeks following the second day of Passover, and constitutes a historical, national, agricultural and spiritual extension of Passover. While Passover highlights the liberty from slavery, Shavuot highlights the liberty to embrace the Torah, in preparation for the liberation of the Land of Israel.  The harvesting season starts with Passover and concludes with Shavuot, which is also named the “Holiday of the Harvest.: Shavuot is one of the three Jewish liberty-oriented pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

The holiday, which is celebrated for one day in Israel and two in the Diaspora, highlights reality as documented by the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, 40 years in the desert, and a litany of wars and destruction: liberty—just like the Torah—is acquired through willingness to sustain tribulations (blood, sweat and tears). The steeper the hurdle, the more critical the mission, the deeper the gratification. Thus, adversity and challenges are opportunities in disguise.
2. Liberty. In the United States, the early Pilgrims and the founding fathers were inspired by the biblical concept of liberty, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt (Britain), through the Parting of the Sea (the Atlantic Ocean) and the return to the Promised Land (the early colonies). The biblical concept of liberty impacted the U.S. Constitution with its separation of powers, and checks and balances; the Bill of Rights; and the Abolitionist movement.
 3. The Jubilee. This the cornerstone of the biblical/Mosaic concept of liberty, which is celebrated every 50 years, inspired the founding fathers of America. Hence, the inscription on the Liberty Bell (Leviticus 25:10—the essence of the Jubilee), which was installed in 1752, the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Jews study that portion of the Five Books of Moses two weeks before Shavuot. Moreover, according to ancient Jewish sages, the globe was created through 50 gates of wisdom, and the 50th gate was the gate of jubilee/liberty/deliverance. Interestingly, America is composed of 50 states. Thus, Shavuot, which is celebrated 50 days following Passover, sheds light on the Judeo-Christian values, which contributed to the foundation of the US legal and moral ethos, underlying the unique covenant between the American people and the Jewish state.

In addition, the British philosopher, John Locke, who was involved in the early days of the Carolinas, wanted the 613 laws of Moses to become the legal foundation of the Carolinas. Moreover, President Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1863 quote—”government of the people, by the people, for the people”—paraphrased a statement made by the 14th-century British philosopher and translator of the Bible, John Wycliffe: “The Bible is a book of the people, by the people, for the people.”

4. Humility. Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah and its 613 statutes, an annual reminder of essential values. The Torah was received in the desert, on Mount Sinai, which is not a very tall mountain, highlighting humility, a most critical value of human behavior and leadership. Moses, the exceptional law-giver and leader, was accorded only one compliment: “the humblest of all human beings.”
5. Human Behavior. Personal liberty mandates respect toward the liberty of fellow human beings. It is customary to study, from Passover through Shavuot, the six brief chapters of The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot in Hebrew), one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah), which is a compilation of common sense principles, ethical and moral teachings, which underline inter-personal relationships.For example:
*”Who is respected? He who respects other persons!”
*”Who is a wise person? He who learns from all other persons!”
*”Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his own share!”
*”Who is a hero? He who controls his urge!”
*”Talk sparsely and walk plenty;”
*”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
*”Don’t be consumed with the flask, but with its content.”
*”Conditional love is tenuous; unconditional love is eternal.”
*”Treat every person politely.”
*”Jealousy, lust and the obsession with fame warp one’s mind.”
6. Jubilee/Constitution. Shavuot has seven names: The holiday of the Jubilee/50th (חמישים); the holiday of the harvest (קציר); the holiday of the giving of the Torah (מתן תורה); Shavuot (שבועות); the holiday of the offerings (ביכורים); the rally (עצרת); and the assembly (הקהל). The Hebrew acronym of the seven names is חקת שבעה, which means “The Constitution of the Seven.”
7. Seven. Shavuot reflects the centrality of the number seven in Judaism. The Hebrew root of Shavuot (שבועות) is seven (שבע – sheva), which is also the root of “vow” (שבועה – shvoua), “satiation” (שובע – sova) and “week” (שבוע – shvoua). Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks following Passover. The Sabbath is the 7th day of the Creation in a 7 day week. The first Hebrew verse of Genesis consists of seven words. According to Genesis, there are seven beneficiaries of the Sabbath. God created seven universes: the seventh hosts the pure souls, hence “Seventh Heaven.” There were seven monumental Jewish leaders: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aharon, Joseph and David (representing seven human qualities); seven Jewish prophetesses (Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Abigail, Hulda and Esther); seven major Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, Chanukah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot); and seven species of the Land of Israel (barley, wheat, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive and date/honey). The Jubilee follows seven-year cycles, etc.
8. Agriculture. Originally, Shavuot was an agricultural holiday, celebrating the first harvest/yield by bringing offerings (Bikkurim – ביכורים) to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, following the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile in 70 C.E., the focus shifted to Torah awareness, in order to sustain the connection to the Land of Israel and avoid spiritual and physical oblivion.
Ambassador Yoram Ettinger is a consultant on U.S.-Israel relations and the Middle East. He served as Minister for Congressional Affairs at Israel’s Embassy in Washington, D.C., Israel’s Consul General to the Southwestern USA and director of Israel’s Government Press Office.
The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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