This holiday, the last of the spring festivals, is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. It is so rich and so layered!!! And there are so many overlaps between Judaism and Christianity at this special and sacred time. Shavuot is the Feast of Weeks. Passover marks the end of the wheat harvest – just in time for making fresh matzoh. On the second day of Passover, the Jewish people begin the daily counting of the Omer, a measurement of barley. This counting period associated with blessings of gratitude (and hope for a great crop) lasts 49 days (7 weeks of 7 days). The word in Hebrew for seven is “Shevah.” On the 50th day (the Greek/Hellenistic Jews called this Pentecost for obvious reasons), Shavuot, the culmination of weeks of counting was celebrated: Leviticus 23; Numbers 28:26. In Biblical times, until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, it was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts. Each town would appoint representatives to travel to Jerusalem to make their offering of barley and first fruits of the spring harvest. Hence, another name for this holiday is Yom HaBikkurim, the Day of First Fruits.There was a great ceremonial element to going up to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Jerusalem was an international hub for people from all over the known world to make pilgrimage and trade. It was an important spiritual as well as political and commercial center. The city was very posh and urbane, and quite fancy in its rituals. The smells (of spices, perfumes and incense); the sounds (of instruments, choirs, and cantors – as well as the many different languages spoken); the sights (the gleaming walls surrounding the city, its high tower of David, the seven gates – and the immense Temple sitting on the highest point of the mountain) were very different from any other place in the world. My friend, Rabbi Yossi, says it reminds him a bit of the scene from the movie, The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and friends enter the Emerald City. In Biblical days, there was a huge fanfare and precise liturgy. There were different ranks of priests from the High Priest to lower priests, each with different responsibilities and divisions ensuring proper protocol into the Holy place and proper crowd management as well. The main prayerbook was the book of Psalms. Specific Psalms were sung appropriate for the liturgical year. As one ascended the many steps leading up to the Temple with the offerings in hand, one would hear the Psalms chanted. Sela would signal drum rolls. Kinor would be a cue for the harpists, Shofar or Teruah would be followed by blasts of Shofars or ram’s horns while a chorus would be singing the Pslams on one side of the steps, and an anti-chorus would respond with the refrain. Very high drama. After the destruction of the Temple, and end to worship there, we can see the Catholic Church continuing this same type of liturgical procession with the bells, the incense, the chanting of Psalms with responsorials….
The Talmud, the books of explanation of the Torah, or the Oral Tradition, contains an amazing first hand story in full detail of this day:
“How were the Bikkurim set aside? A man goes down into his field; he sees a fig or a cluster of grapes that has ripened; he ties a red thread around it and says, ‘Let these be Bikkurim.’ How were the Bikkurim taken up to Jerusalem? All the inhabitants of a district assembled in the chief city of that district. Early in the morning an officer said, ‘Let us arise and go up to Zion, into the House of the Lord our G-d.’ Those who lived near brought fresh fruits, but those from a distance brought dried specimens. An ox with horns bedecked with gold and an olive crown on its head led the way. The flute was played before them, and when they arrived close to Jerusalem they sent messengers in advance. The governors of the Temple went out to meet them and the artisans of Jerusalem greeted them: ‘Brethren, we are delighted to welcome you!’
The other layer of this holiday is historical. Also called Zeman Matan Torahtenu, the time of the receiving the gift of our Torah, Shavuot marks the date when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This was the sealing of the covenant G-d made with the Jewish people, thus marking a partnership between G-d and the Children of Israel. This is probably the most important aspect of this day. It marked a time of G-d’s marriage to Israel – and, appropriately, a time when the wedding season is formally ushered in. For those celebrating the feast of Pentecost, here is where the layers come together: When Moses assembled the Hebrew people together at their encampment at the base of Mt. Sinai, he instructed them to undergo three days of fasting and purification. He told them to remain there (not to follow him) in that state of prayer. A cloud overshadowed Sinai for six days, and at the end of that period ‘the appearance of the glory of the Lord out of the midst of the cloud was like a flaming fire on the top of the mount.’ There was a mighty, rushing wind, and thunder and lightning. The Hebrews became dismayed, thinking their leader had perished, but in fact he was at the beginning of receiving the Law, which G-d later commanded the people to take to heart. Christians believe that on this day, after the ascension of the resurrected Jesus, G-d sent the Holy Spirit down (after nine days of focused prayer by the gathered disciples in Jerusalem) with a rushing mighty wind and flames of fire, a type of second Sinai experience. It is also celebrated as the birthday of the Church and of the spreading of the knowledge of G-d (based and steeped in Judaism) to all the pagan nations. This is the first time in many years that the Jewish calendar celebration of Shavout and the Gregorian calendar marking Pentecost falls on the same day.
Because the Hebrews, now as a new Nation, the Children of Israel, married to G-d under the Torah, entered the promised land of Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey, it is a tradition to eat dairy foods and sweet foods during the festival. Also, we are to feed on Torah as a newborn babe feeds on his mother’s milk. A delightful image of our dependence and nurturing. As a bonus, I’m adding an extra link of 3 great dairy recipes to try at this time of year. Taken together, they form a hearty meal. Two of the recipes are ones I picked up while here in Israel – one coming from the Yemenite Jewish tradition, the other a more modern, but very Middle Eastern dessert that has become my favorite food… see the link…
On Shavuot, it is traditional to not only stay up all night reading, studying, and discussing Scripture, but to read the book of Ruth. The story of Ruth actually starts waaaaay back, after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with one of Jacob’s sons, Judah. The inheritance of all the promises, including the reigns of the Kings of Israel and the promised Messiah was to come through Judah. Judah had 3 sons, all of whom died. There was an imminent threat of the line being broken. A devout, wise, and courageous woman, Tamar, the wife of one of the deceased sons, knew exactly what this meant. She took matters into her own hands and seduced Judah, but not before making a deal with him. She took from him his staff and seal, symbols of the rightful line of leaders. After she declared her pregnancy, Judah accused her of being a harlot (death!!!), but she produced the staff and seal, which sealed her life and the right of the child as head of the House of Judah. This insured the continuation of the links of the chain. From her son, Perez, would eventually come his descendent, Boaz. In Hebrew, the word “mar” means bitterness. The “T” or Tav is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Placed at the beginning of the word “mar,” Tamar actually translates to “end of the bitterness” as well as being the word for the palm tree, which produces the sweet dates found here.
To continue the story, Ruth, a Moabite woman actually marries a descendent of Perez. Her husband dies, and she chooses to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel. Ruth makes the decision to not only accompany Naomi, but to take on her G-d, the G-d of Israel. It is the first recorded example of a non-Jew actually making a conversion to the Jewish religion, and going from idol worship to monotheism – which is actually another tie to the holiday of Pentecost. Ruth and Boaz meet during the barley harvest (hence the reading) and marry. Eventually, they go on to have Obed, who had Jesse, who is the father of David, the King. Christians believe that Jesus is a descendent of King David of the tribe of Judah, yet another link between the faiths. Jewish people also believe that the Messiah will be from the House of David.
Passover marked the beginning of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, Shavuot furthers the ideals of freedom. We are all free to accept or reject the words that G-d gave to humanity. The giving of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible took place on one particular day, but the receiving of the Torah is up to us and takes place each and every day. We are all on spiritual journeys. It’s a walk, a process, whether you are following the Natural Law, the Judeo-Christian precepts, or just putting one foot in front of the other each day. Hopefully, I’ve given you not only a summary of these two important days, but an opportunity for enrichment as well.
The next posts will be much lighter. Now for the food!!!!!!