Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shavuot: First Fruits in Early Summer

Last night I dreamed that I wandered in the mountains in the fog. I was looking for something. Something important. And then I heard a shofar blowing and oriented myself to the sound. Suddenly, I was sitting at a stone chamber in a round tower with a chasidic rebbe, Hillel, and Akiba. Spread before us was a Torah scroll completely unrolled, encircling the chamber. The scroll was open to my Bat Mitzvah Torah portion, which began:

...וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה פְּסָל־לְךָ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִֽאשֹׁנִ
"And Adonai spoke to Moshe, saying: Carve for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones..." (Exodus 34:1).
When I woke up, I realized that tonight is the beginning of the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, known to the Koine Greek speaking Jews of old as Pentecost (the 50 days). It occurs 50 days after the Passover Seder, thus the the Greek name. Dreams are interesting! My Torah portion contains Exodus chapter 34, which also has the commandments for celebrating the pilgrimage festivals:
"You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the festival of the Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males shall appear before Adonai who is sovereign...the choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of Adonai your G-d. You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Exodus 34: 22-23, 26).

Shavuot is the second of the shaloshim regalim--three Pilgrimage Festivals--described in Torah. The three are Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Passover, Weeks, and Booths). Each of these festivals has agricultural roots overlaid with religious meaning. In the land of Israel, in the day of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish farmers were commanded to make pilgrimage to the Temple three times during the year, bringing specific sacrifices, hence the name "pilgrimage festivals."

Shavuot occurs at the first quarter (waxing moon) of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the first month of summer. It celebrates the ancient harvest of the first fruits of summer and is called Chag HaBikkurim, the holiday of Fruits. The timing of the harvest festival is interesting. Both Pesach and Sukkot occur at the full moon, the first full moon of spring and the first full moon of fall, respectively. But Shavuot occurs about a week before the full moon, during the waxing moon, which is the image of growth and ripening, and this it what is happening in the solar cycle as well: summer is waxing as we move from the cross-quarter day to the fullness of Midsummer later in June.

Shavuot is also called Zeman Matan Toratenu--the season of the giving of our Torah--because during Shavuot we remember when we stood at Sinai and accepted the revelation of Torah. The metaphor of first fruits works here, too, because the revelation of Torah at Sinai is the first fruit of our redemption from slavery by G-d's "strong hand and mighty arm" celebrated at Pesach.
The Giving of Torah: Based on Midrash
by N.

Once, when G-d wanted to give the Torah to humanity, G-d went first to the Egyptians and said: "Do you want my Torah?" And the Egyptians said, "Well, what's in it?" And G-d said, "It says 'You shall have no other gods before me.' " And the Egyptians said; "Well, we have a lot of other gods, so we don't want your Torah." Then G-d went to the Caananites and said, "Do you want my Torah?" And the Caananites, too, asked, "Well, what's in it?" And G-d said, "Well, it does say that
you shall make no graven images." And the Caananites, who liked their images of Ashera, said, "No, thanks." So G-d went to all of the nations of the earth, trying
to give them Torah, but all of the nations had reasons for not accepting it. Finally, G-d went to Israel, wandering alone in the desert, and said: "Do you want my Torah?" And Israel said, "We will do it and we will listen to it." And because Israel agreed to do it before even asking what was in it, G-d gave us Torah on Mount Sinai, with smoke and fire and the wild calling of the Shofar.
The End

Back to you, Mom!
Shavuot lasts for two days, this year the celebration goes from this evening (May 22) at sunset through Thursday evening at sunset. It is said to be the least observed of all the major Jewish festivals in North America, probably because no ritual was invented to replace the bringing of the first fruits. However, there are some rituals and customs that are being revived for the celebration of Shavuot.

Tikkun L'eil Shavuot--Restoration of Shavuot Eve: Among the mystics, it became the custom to study Torah all night on the first night of Shavuot, in order to prepare ourselves anew for receiving Torah. Because we receive Torah every week at Shabbat services, Shavuot is about the giving of Torah anew. We will light the festival candles tonight and sing the festival kiddush, but we will probably not stay up all night. Rather, we will study Torah with the festival meal. However, there will two organized study sessions at synagogues in Albuquerque for those who want to stay up and study past midnight.

Eretz zahav chalav u'd'vash--A land flowing with milk and honey: During Shavuot, it has become the custom to have sweets and dairy meals, such as cheesecake and blintzes. One reason is that we were promised that we would be given "a land flowing with milk and honey." Torah is something we were given freely and accepted freely. Milk and honey are foods given to us by others--mammals and bees. We do no work to earn them. So they symbolize the nourishment and sweetness of taking on the yoke of Torah. Another explanation is that the Jewish people were given the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) as part of the Torah on Shavuot. Specifically, in Chapter 34 of Exodus, we are told: "You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Exodus 34: 26b). So when they got the law, they ate only dairy until they had a chance to make their utensils and dishes kosher.
Today, N. and I will be making blintzes for dinner.

Bikkurim--A Jewish version of "hanging of the greens": Also, we bring greenery and flowers into the home and synagogue. Legend has it that when they came to Mount Sinai to receive Torah, Israel found the mountain lush with greenery and flowers. This harks back to the original import of Shavuot as Chag HaBikkurim--the festival of first fruits.
We will decorate our table with greens and purple chives from our garden. We will also serve a green salad with strawberries as part of our meal tonight.

Aseret Diburim--The Ten Words: On Shavuot, the ten commandments are read at the morning services on the first day. This gives us the chance to stand again at Sinai and celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth in the giving of the Torah. There is a Midrash that Israel did not so easily accept the Torah as told in the story above. Instead, G-d had to hold Mount Sinai over our heads and say: "Accept my Torah or I will drop the mountain on you, you stiffnecked people!" So we accepted, but we turned the mountain over our heads into a Chuppah--a wedding canopy--and envisioned G-d as our holy Chatan--bridegroom--and the Torah as our Ketubah--marriage covenant. Thus the Torah becomes a bridge between heaven and earth.
Chag Sameach! Have A Joyous Holiday!

1 comment:

Lill said...

I'll think of you, Elisheva, as I bring in some Lily of the Valley tomorrow morning. Not first fruits, but here in Maine in May, first greenery that has the perfume of a summer's day.