Shavuot — The Little Sister 

By Jean Gerber

Poor Shavuot—the holiday that no one knows about. What’s the story? In Temple times it was a BIG deal. As with the other two pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, it was incumbent on every man to travel to Jerusalem to make an offering at the Temple.

And what a celebration it turned out to be! Fifty days after Pesach, with the grain harvests in, it was time to party. Indeed, given the erratic nature of rainfall in the land of Canaan, the people were always balanced on a razor’s edge between famine and food sufficient for the coming year. It was just such a multi-year famine that drove Jacob and his family down to Egypt.

Here is a brief description of the festival, based on Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s summary in his seminal book, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. From the Talmud: 

The ripening first fruits—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, dates, honey—were carried to Jerusalem. Farmers and others marched up to Jerusalem, bringing baskets of bread and produce. An ox with gilded horns and crowned with an olive wreath led the way while flutists played and marchers chanted psalms. They were greeted at the city gates and the whole crowd would go up to the Temple Mount. Levites sang more psalms while priests received the baskets. There were sacrifices as befit the holiday.

While the idea of animal sacrifice is long gone and the Temple is a distant memory, we should not forget that Shavuot was, in ancient times, the biggest and most tuneful celebration we had. 

Together, priests and people recited the following formula: “A wandering Aramean was my father and he went down to Egypt… and the Egyptians oppressed us… and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand… and has given us a land flowing with milk and honey…” If that sounds familiar, you are right. That is the same passage we recite at the Passover Seder! (Deut. 26:5-8).

Why is that? On Pesach we celebrate our liberation, while on Shavuot we celebrate the contract with the God of Israel to be a “holy nation”. We do this by living according to the Torah which connects us both to the land and the God who brought us out of Egypt.

It has been a long time since Jews in the Diaspora farmed and celebrated a harvest, or indeed any other kind of land-based cultivation. Forbidden during centuries in Europe from owning and often even renting farmland, Jews became craftsmen where they could and then, sadly, moneylenders when they were forced to.

What can make Shavuot relevant to us now? After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis thoughtfully assigned to it the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to Rabbi Greenberg, celebrating receiving the Torah on Shavuot is how we mark the “signing of the contract” or brit with God that we mentioned earlier.

You could say that at Pesach, Israel became a people with a shared history of enslavement and liberation, while at Shavuot, with that contract, Israel became a nation. 

In Israel, harvests were celebrated on kibbutzim. Here, we mark the holiday with services, all-night study—Tikkun Leyl Shavuot—and a reading of Megillat Ruth.

Next time—Megillat Ruth…