A condensed version of this article appeared in Haaretz
Shavuot is something of an enigma among Jewish holidays. The two best-known Jewish holidays, Pesach and Sukkot, are observed today according to instructions laid down in Biblical times. The historical context of each holiday is given along with the instructions for its observance.
Not so Shavuot! The modern connection of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah is nowhere to be found in the Torah. The holiday is defined almost exclusively in relation to previous holidays—it is the end of the agricultural cycle which begins during Pesach. Shavuot was called the festival of the wheat harvest, Chag HaKatzir (Exodus 23:16) or a day for bringing first-fruits to the Temple, Yom HaBikkurim (Numbers 28:26), but not Z’man Matan Toratenu, the time of giving of the Law.
Moreover, the Torah doesn’t even specify a date for the holiday. Instead, we are given instructions for a sort of “countdown”: we are to count seven weeks “from the day after the Shabbat, from the day on which you brought the Omer of offering,” and then celebrate the bringing of the first fruits. This absence of explicit instructions or explanations left plenty of room for interpretation, and the nature of the holiday became the subject of intense debate among rival factions during the Second Temple era.
The Torah: carved in stone or tree of life?
In fact, this controversy was part of a much larger debate which threatened to split the Jewish nation along sectarian lines. The split hinged on a major difference of opinion over the nature of Jewish society and its foundation texts: Is the Torah a fixed text, unchangeable for all time, or is it a living document meant to be reinterpreted in the light of changing circumstances?
The Sadducees, who were associated with the Temple and its rites, took the more literal view: the Torah is a fixed document, given once and for all. The Pharisees—the first Rabbis—argued that the Torah is the tip of the iceberg, a shorthand reference to deeper strata of customs, legends, and traditions too voluminous to be written down. Since the tradition is built up, layer by layer, in every generation, the Torah is never really finished.
Translated into modern terms, this debate was not about purely religious issues; it was about who had the authority to legislate. The Sadducees maintained that authority should be centralized around the Temple-based elite; the rabbis argued in favor of a decentralized model, based on universal education and local legal traditions.
The day after the Shabbat
And so we come back to the Shavuot controversy, which hinges on a disagreement about when the holiday is to be celebrated. The text tells us to count seven full weeks from “the day after the Sabbath”. But which Sabbath? The Sadducees took a literal view: Sabbath meant the actual Sabbath. We start counting on a Sunday and end on a Sunday seven weeks later. According to the fixed calendar used by the Sadducees, this would put Shavuot on a full moon, in line with the natural cycle as befitting a harvest festival.
The rabbis argued that the text can’t be read on its own; there is a long unwritten tradition handed down for centuries, and that tradition identifies this “Sabbath” with the festival of Pesach itself. One starts counting on the day after the full moon of Passover, and Shavuot falls on the sixth of Sivan. And since the sixth of Sivan is one of the dates on which the giving of the Torah was thought to have taken place, suddenly Shavuot had a new association!
Recently, modern biblical scholarship has thrown a new light on this ancient controversy. In an article for The Torah, Bible scholar Jacob Wright traces the origin of the Shabbat through the literature of the ancient Near East. The Shabbat, it seems, once referred to the full moon, a time of festival.
Could this ancient association have survived in the traditions handed down over the ages? If so, then the Pharisees had good reason to interpret the text as they did—they were interpreting the text as it might have been understood at the time of writing, before the word “Shabbat” had come to have the association it later acquired. They were right: the Torah is a living, changing document!
The lessons of the harvest
In linking the harvest festival with the Giving of the Torah, the sages reframed Shavuot in the context of Jewish history. At the same time, they preserved the holiday’s relevance when the Temple lay in ruins and the first fruits could no longer be brought there. It was a master-stroke of nation-building, as it turned a holiday celebrating the success of individual farmers into a celebration of a national event, which united twelve disparate tribes into a people.
Under this new interpretation, the “countdown” from Pesach to Shavuot can be seen as a metaphor for the unfolding of history. Just as seeds must be sown in prepared ground, nourished and watered and weeded, so the fate of nations and individuals is contingent upon law and justice.
The reframing of Shavuot is an example of how the nation’s leaders sought to mold a society that could survive in exile. In our day, our leaders are faced with the same problem in reverse: how to build a Jewish society that can hold together as a free people in our own land.
Judging by recent events, it would appear that our current religious leadership isn’t doing so well on that score. The news that even the “moderate” Tzohar leadership tried to bar rabbis from the Conservative and Reform movements from a Shavuot event does not bode well for national unity; the centralization of power in the hands of a self-selecting elite has led to some of the same ills of corruption and abuse as it did in the days of the Sadducees.
On the other hand, things on the grassroots level are far more optimistic: organizations like Bet Hillel are initiating activities between secular and religious Israelis, and efforts are being made to return responsibility for kashrut, marriage, and conversion to the local levels. And of course, this is exactly the decentralized model of leadership for which the first rabbis argued, and which is uniquely suited to an increasingly decentralized world.