Sermon: Shavuot 5779

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 10 June 2019

On the back cover of last Friday’s Jewish Chronicle, there was a photo with the caption ‘Samaritan Shavuot.’ A man in the middle wears a tallit and is elevating a Torah. The men have their heads covered, though the head coverings are more familiar from the mosque than the synagogue. They look sort of Jew-ish rather than Jewish – but were they and just who are the Samaritans?

Today is the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan. The Torah gives us dates for all the festivals – but not for Shavuot. The only way we know it’s on 6th Sivan is because we’ve counted 49 days from Pesach – whose date we do know.

But it’s not clear just when on Pesach should we begin counting? The instruction to count comes in Chapter 23 of Leviticus: one of the very few places in the Torah giving any information about the cycle of the Jewish calendar in ancient Israel. There it says, “you shall count seven weeks ‘mimochorat hashabbat,’ from the day after the sabbath of Pesach” (Leviticus 23:16.) On that 50th day, you were to bring an offering of new grain to the Temple. “This innocent looking phrase,” writes Robert Alter, “is fraught with ambiguity that generated historical schism.” (‘Five Books of Moses,’ Norton, New York, p644) 2000 years ago there was disagreement in the Jewish world about what ‘the day after the sabbath of Pesach’ actually meant?

Along with some other groups in the Jewish world, those Samaritans on the back page of the Jewish Chronicle, argued – to coin a phrase – “‘sabbath’ means ‘sabbath.’” So they started their 49-day count on the day after the ‘sabbath of Pesach’ – always on a Sunday

Jewish tradition, however, understood the ‘sabbath,’ in this one case, rather quixotically, to mean ‘yom tov’ – in other words, the first day of Pesach. Hence our practice of starting to count the Omer on the second day of Pesach. This may seem just a typical bit of rabbinic pedantry but understanding ‘shabbat’ as ‘yom tov,’ and therefore 1st day Pesach was anything but rabbinic vagary. It meant that you always started counting on the day after Pesach began. And once you’ve established always starting the count on the same, second, day of Pesach, you’ve also fixed the date of Shavuot, 50 days later, as 6th Sivan.

By contrast, the Samaritans and other groups in ancient Palestine understood the sabbath of Pesach to be the actual Shabbat, whenever that might fall within Pesach. ‘So they started counting on Sunday. And that’s how the early Church fixed the date of Pentecost which always occurs on the seventh Sunday – 49 days – after Easter. In Christian theology, Pentecost is when the holy spirit came to rest on the original disciples. It’s what the Church did with the idea of revelation on Mount Sinai.

But there is another problem. Pesach and Sukkot are linked with particular historical events: Pesach, obviously, with the Exodus; Sukkot with the time we wandered in the desert before entering Eretz Yisrael. As far as the Torah is concerned, though, Shavuot is the odd-one out. It commemorates no historical event. It’s solely an agricultural festival marking the end of the grain harvest. And once the Temple no longer existed, and Jews could no longer bring the Shavuot offering, it risked losing its raison d’être, falling out of the festival calendar altogether.

So it was a stroke of rabbinic genius to connect Shavuot with the events on Mount Sinai. How did they do it? A few moments ago we read that the Israelites reached Mount Sinai in the 3rd month after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1.) 50 days after Pesach straddles three months (Nisan, Iyyar and Sivan) and thus enabled our tradition to say that Shavuot was that moment in the third month after the Exodus when the Torah was given. In the process Shavuot gained two new names.

The first was ‘atseret,’ which means ‘conclusion.’ We might know that name from shemini atseret, the so-called ‘8th day of conclusion’ at the end of Sukkot. ‘Atseret’ meaning ‘ending’ is from the same Hebrew root as the word you see on ‘Stop’ signs in Israel – ‘atsor.’ Shavuot is the concluding part of Pesach.

So if Pesach is ‘zeman cheruteinu,’ ‘the season of our freedom,’ Shavuot’s second new name was ‘zeman matan torateinu’ ‘the season of the giving of the Torah.’

Pesach is no longer simply a stand-alone festival but the first necessary stage of a two-part journey. ‘Necessary’ because you can’t offer a system of law, a Torah, to an enslaved people and expect them to freely accept it. You can only make that offer to a people who are free to choose. So you had to get the people out of Egypt first and bring them to Sinai. Hence Shavuot as ‘zeman matan torateinu,’ the ‘atseret,’ the concluding part of Pesach, ‘zeman cheruteinu.’

As a kid, I don’t think I ever understood this. Shavuot simply seemed to be a festival which just happened to be 7 weeks after Pesach but otherwise unconnected with it.

But without that leap of imagination on the part of the rabbis, Shavuot could really have slipped so far down the festival league table as to have fallen out of practice altogether.

Exodus and Sinai, freedom and revelation.

One Chasidic commentary asks: would it not have been more logical to have called Shavuot ‘zeman kabalat torateinu,’ the ‘season of the receiving of Torah’? It answers its question by saying that Torah is always on offer, is always being given – but it’s not always being received. As individuals and as a people we have to make an active choice about accepting it, we have to opt in. Freedom and obligation, autonomy and authority have always been bedfellows in Jewish thinking – though not always easy ones.

Had Shavuot remained exclusively agricultural. it would have withered on the vine.

Way back in the 1980s I was involved in producing two audio-cassettes (if you remember those things): one called “Enjoy Purim at home,” the other “Enjoy Chanukah at Home.” As part of the promotion, we arranged for Michael Freedland to interview me on his “You don’t have to be Jewish” programme. In the course of the interview, I said that Purim and Chanukah were considered ‘minor’ festivals in Jewish law: they weren’t a ‘yomtov’: you read the megillah, light your chanukiyah, but otherwise both were normal workdays. In the post-interview call-in, an irate listener (I think ‘Sadie from Kingsbury’) berated me for calling them ‘minor.’ She gave me a tirade about how important they were for children, for Jewish identity and so on. She was right – though in a way I’m sure she didn’t realise: for the reality is that, in our time, Jews are probably more-involved with Purim and Chanukah, those two halachically ‘minor’ festivals than they are with Shavuot.

Which is really quite paradoxical. For here is this festival commemorating the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Now however we might understand that, surely that should put it near the top of the league table of festivals, together with Pesach and the Days of Awe? Yet it sits, almost at the bottom of the table in terms of how many Jews are involved with it. One writer, Michael Carasik, called it ‘the orphan among the festivals.’ I can see what he means.

The reality is that Shavuot doesn’t have a great story line. No enslaved people experiencing miraculous events and an amazing departure from Egypt; no picturesque sukkot, decorated with fruit and vegetables; no dramatic deliverances like Purim or Chanukah; no special rituals like the Seder, blowing the shofar, lighting a chanukiyah, shaking a lulav. And what is its culinary specialité de la maison?: cheesecake! Not exactly designed to win the hearts and minds of Jews, particularly young ones! Shavuot is, truly, a festival for us grown-ups.

Pesach to Shavuot – freedom and obligation – political liberation and spiritual dedication. If the Exodus is the covenant between God and the Jews; Shavuot is the reciprocal covenant between the Jewish People and God.

Freedom without any sense of responsibility or obligation is no longer freedom but licence – “do what you want.” But duty and obligation without any individual freedom is, at best, oppressive, at worst a form of slavery. That, of course, has often been one of the arguments against that interpretation of Judaism which teaches basically, “just do and obey, don’t question.”

Throughout history, mainstream Judaism has always struggled with that tension between the demands of Torah – however understood – on the one hand and the realities of everyday life on the other. It’s a difficult tension to live with.