The festival of Shavuot (“Feast of Weeks” or Pentecost), beginning tonight is the culmination of the 7 weeks (hence the name) of counting the Omer – Sefirat Ha’Omer. We are instructed by G-d (ויקרא כ”ג:ט”ו – Lev. 23:15) to count, from the 2nd day of Pesach, 7 weeks, at the end of these 7 weeks, a measurement (Omer) of first fruits (bikurim) were brought as a sacrifice to the Temple in a joyous parade.
The one-day festival also commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai, and in normal, “non-corona” times, we mark this by learning Torah throughout the night (or at least for part of the night), including a special text that is customarily read – the Tikun Leil Shavuot. Synagogues have all-night study sessions, as do schools, youth groups and social groups (including my own women’s group). It is a wonderful feeling to be outdoors in the middle of the night and still see groups of people going to and from their study sessions.
Tomorrow night Shavuot runs straight into Shabbat so we will all be enjoying a welcome two-day festival.
This year the prayers and study sessions will all be in a smaller format but we are grateful to Hashem and to our authorities for having brought us through the pandemic safely (so far tfu tfu tfu) and everything is opening up again slowly.
On Shavuot we eat dairy foods, for various reasons, including the following possible explanations:
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jews. Included in the Torah are the laws of kashrut (kosher dietary laws), which tell Jews what can and cannot be eaten and in which combination. For instance, dairy and meat cannot be mixed in the same meal and animals must be killed in a certain way in order to be considered kosher. Before the Torah was given the concept of kashrut did not exist. Hence, one explanation for the eating of dairy on Shavuot is that when the Jews received the Torah they did not have the tools they would need to prepare kosher meat. As a result their first meal after receiving the Torah was a dairy meal. (Mishnah Berurah 494:12; Talmud – Bechorot 6b.)
Another possible explanation has to do with Shir HaShirim (the Song of Songs). Verse 4:11 says “milk and honey are under your tongue” and some have said that the Torah is like the milk in this verse. Like milk, the Torah sustains us. Hence, a dairy meal on Shavuot celebrates the nourishing quality of the Torah.
The Revelation at Sinai (when the Torah was given to the Jews) occurs directly after their Exodus from slavery in Egypt. This journey is described as one “from the misery of Egypt to a country flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 3:8-17). Thus, eating dairy on Shavuot commemorates the sweetness of freedom and the new life that lay before the Jewish people.
I have to admit the cheesecake is one of my favourite parts of the festival! 🙂
We also decorate our synagogues and homes with flowers and greenery to commemorate the way that Mt. Sinai burst into flower in honour of the Torah.
In the morning we read Megillat Ruth (the Book of Ruth) in the synagogue for a couple of reasons: the story takes place at harvest time; and more importantly, Ruth, an ancestor of King David, was a Moabite convert who voluntarily became a member of the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has some beautiful and thought provoking words about the Ten Commandments, which we read in the synagogue on Shavuot:
In summary, he asks why the importance of the Ten Commandments when Jews have 613 mitzvot which they must keep. He divides the Ten Commandments into sets of three: Three commandments, or more accurately, utterances, concerning G-d Himself: His existence, and our obligatoin to worship Him and no other god.
The second set of three concern the laws regarding the “createdness” of life: Shabbat, honouring our parents and forbidding murder.
The final set of three concern the laws:
against adultery, theft and bearing false witness – establish the basic institutions on which society depends
And then there is one stand-alone prohibition against coveting or envy. Rabbi Sacks writes:
Finally comes the stand-alone prohibition against envying your neighbour’s house, wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else belonging to him or her. This seems odd if we think of the “ten words” as commands, but not if we think of them as the basic principles of a free society.
The greatest challenge of any society is how to contain the universal phenomenon of envy: the desire to have what belongs to someone else. Rene Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, argued that the primary driver of human violence is mimetic desire, that is, the desire to have what someone else has, which is ultimately the desire to be what someone else is. Envy can lead to breaking many of the other commands: it can move people to adultery, theft, false testimony and even murder. It led Cain to murder Abel, made Abraham and Isaac fear for their life because they were married to beautiful women, and led Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. It was envy of their neighbours that led the Israelites often to imitate their religious practices and worship their gods.
So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only though do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy.
We are here because God wanted us to be. We have what God wanted us to have. Why then should we seek what others have? If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why should we seek anything else merely because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, strife, covetousness and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.
Thirty-three centuries after they were first given, the Ten Commandments remain the simplest, shortest guide to the creation of a good society.
Words to live and thrive by!
Wishing my family, friends and all of Am Yisrael Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach!