2008-06-04 / Religion Column


The long lost significance of Shavuot (Shavuos)

However you pronounce it, Shavuot has been around for a long, long time, and it seems that many Jews tend to overlook its timeless significance. In order to glean some of this festival's original meaning, imagine popping something into the oven and never being able to look at it until the timer goes off. Is that how you'd want to make your mychel, your "oneof a-kind dish?" Of course not! You'd want to check on it at least once (and in most cases several times) in order to see that it's coming out as you'd hoped and to do this or that to it, to "potchke" around with it.

Well, anyway, on one level, that's sort of how Shavuot functioned in the ancient Jewish calendar of festivals. Seven weeks and a day after the ceremonial Omer sacrifice was made on the second day of Pesach- originally a planting festival- Shavuot would auspiciously mark the harvesting of one of the season's first crops, typically barley, or perhaps some other kind of grain indigenous to Israel. This initial harvest would give an early indication as to how all the crops were faring and, accordingly, if the Almighty was favoring the people that year with a bounteous harvest. That's the agricultural reason behind why the Omer period in its entirety was traditionally marked with solemnity, because no one wanted to inadvertently anger G-d before the crops were known to be growing properly.

Being as how most of us are so far removed from the annual agricultural cycle and how we often take for granted how dependent we all still are on G-d's graciousness when it comes to basic needs such as health and sustenance, it's easy to grasp how the profound significance of Shavuot might be lost on increasingly urbanized Jewish societies.

But what then of the spiritual side of Shavuot? What about its historical linkage to the receiving of the Commandments at Mt. Sinai? After all, no stream of Judaism can downplay the centrality of Torah to Jewish life in every new generation, defining Shavuot as indeed one of the most significant holy days of the year!

Symbolically, then, after reliving the release from slavery at Pesach each year, we get to see just how well we are doing as a people just a few weeks later at Shavuot. Furthermore, for those of our congregations who conduct confirmation ceremonies on or near this festival, it's as though we get a glimpse of the next generation- the next crop, as it were- of young Jews pursuing a life of Torah and can judge for ourselves as to whether or not G-d is blessing us with both sustenance and substance.

Even as Israel's 60th anniversary of modern nationhood has given us a glimpse into its ever-strengthening future, so too may this and all future celebrations of Shavuot and confirmation ceremonies keep giving our people glimpses into a divinely blessed eternal existence. .

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