Today is a Jewish holiday, the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks – The State Journal-Register

Posted By on June 6, 2022

Rabbi Barry Marks| Special to The State Journal-Register

Today is a Jewish holiday, the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The holiday is mentioned in the Torah as one of the appointed seasons,an occasion for making pilgrimage to the central sanctuary to worship and to bring offerings. Shavuot is also referred to in the Torah as chag ha-katzir, the festival of the harvest and chag ha-bikkurim, the festival of first fruits. As the names indicate, the original meaning of the holiday was focused on agriculture and on expressing thanks to God for the gifts of the harvest. Farmers in ancient Israel expressed their gratitude by presenting offerings of the first fruits of the harvest from those species of grain and produce that were indigenous to the land of Israel wheat, barley, olives, pomegranates, grapes, figs and dates.

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The name Shavuot derives from the manner in which the date for observing the holiday was to be determined. Seven weeks were to be counted off from the time of the Passover holiday a total of 49 days, and Shavuot was to be observed on the 50th day. Those seven weeks encompassed the entire season of harvesting grain, beginning with barley and concluding with wheat. Different groups of Jews in ancient times had varying interpretations regarding when during or after Passover the counting was to begin. Normative Jewish practice today is to begin counting on the second day of Passover. The rabbis of the Talmud, observing that Shavuot was linked to Passover by the counting of the intervening weeks and that it marked the end of a lengthy harvest season, added yet another name for the holiday Atzeret, meaning conclusion.

In rabbinic times, the focus of the Shavuot holiday shifted from agriculture to history and theology. The revelation of Gods presence at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments occurred but a short time after the Exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot was identified by rabbinic tradition as the date of that momentous occasion zman matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.

The focus on revelation and on the gift of Torah created another linkage between Passover and Shavuot. The Exodus in biblical tradition marked the birth of the Israelite people, who emerged out of the crucible of slavery and oppression. The events at Sinai strengthened the peoples sense of identity and bound them in a covenant to the God Who had brought them out of bondage. They had been liberated from serving a human master, Pharaoh, in order to be free to worship and serve God. Sinai stands alongside the Exodus as a formative event in Israels sacred history.

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The rabbis highlighted the connection between Passover and Shavuot by punning on the Hebrew word for freedom, cherut. Passover achieved freedom for the Israelites from Pharaoh and the rigors of harsh oppression, but, said the rabbis, true freedom is realized only through that which is charut, what was engraved on the tablets given at Sinai.

My more traditionally-inclined fellow Jews will doubtless disagree, but I do struggle with this teaching of the rabbis. To be sure, outward freedom does not always guarantee inward freedom; we all struggle with impulses, obsessions, habits and fixations, and we cannot be truly free until we shake their hold on us. On the other hand, saying that freedom can be attained only through submission strikes me as paradoxical, if not an oxymoron.

Rather, what the rabbis teaching conveys to me is that freedom is never absolute and must always be circumscribed by and conditioned on considerations of the common good. Freedom, as I heard many times from my teachers, is not equivalent to license. Social scientists have been noting for some time that we live today without an agreed upon vision of the common good, and the consequences of radical individualism are evident in all that ails our society. The individuals uniqueness and his or her relationship to God and quest for spiritual meaning are valued in Judaism, but the main thrust of the Torah and the prophets was always on fashioning a community in which the ideals of justice and compassion could be realized and promoting the well-being of the community.

Such are the lessons that Shavuot teaches to value the freedom that Passover represents but to see freedom as an opportunity to serve and to recognize that freedom, as cherished and sought after as it is, does have boundaries.

Rabbi Barry Marks is rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Springfield.

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Today is a Jewish holiday, the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks - The State Journal-Register

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