On Shavuot we receive the Torah, but not that scroll behind curtain number one. What we receive is the freedom to interpret it, to develop its ideas, and the obligation to do so responsively. It is at heart the most subversive and radical of Jewish holidays – as revolutionary as Judaism itself.
Shavuot in Biblical times was exclusively an agricultural holiday. The Mishna describes first fruits being brought to the Temple. The inhabitants of the cities of each district marched to Jerusalem. An ox, its horns bedecked with gold and its head crowned with an olive wreath, led the way. A flutist played as they marched and sang pilgrimage psalms. As the farmers entered Jerusalem, dignitaries greeted them.
The first fruits would be transferred to the priest, who would wave them, and together they would recite the ancient declaration of Jewish origins, “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” There was feasting, celebrating, sharing, a good time was had by all.
As the second Temple era ended and rabbinic Judaism developed, the purpose for Shavuot shifted dramatically. At that time, there were two major political and religious branches of Judaism, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were in control of the Temple cult, they were the priests, the aristocracy, the rulers in Jerusalem. Their interest was in keeping everything to the letter of the law, following the old ways as had been done for hundreds of years.
The Pharisees were the outsiders, the provincial Jews, and they affirmed that side by side with the written Torah from Sinai, there was also a body of Revelation of principles and methods of interpretation, the Oral Law, which they considered equally the will of God. The Pharisees were very big on learning and the Torah as a way of life for all people, not just priests.
The power struggle between the two sects was long and bitter. One, the Sadducees, said that the Torah is final and things can never change. After all, they were in power and didn’t want things to change. The other, the Pharisees, were for change, in fact, revolutionary change.
And Shavuot became the vehicle for expressing the Pharisees new ideology. How?
Well, they counted the days that the Torah says it took for Israel to cross from the land of Egypt to Mount Sinai and they matched it to the already-existent festival of Shavuot. It took some creative mathematics and interpretation, but they did it.
Now in the Torah, Shavuot was never connected to the Sinai Revelation, to nothing historical in fact. So this was a revolutionary change, folks.
How many of us would dare to create a holiday?
And what in fact did they celebrate on Shavuot? The very thing they were doing, the empowerment of human beings to share with God in a covenant of law and interpretation. Shavuot doesn’t celebrate the giving of the written Torah at Sinai, but our right to interpret it in new ways, to develop it and apply it. For the Pharisees, the whole world became God’s Temple, the Passover sacrifice was moved into each home and called a Seder; the laws of purity moved to each table and called Kashrut, and each of the holidays given new meaning. But none more than Shavuot.
Thanks to the Pharisees, the historical dimension of Shavuot became apparent, and none too soon, because the Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Once that happened, there were a lot of unemployed priests and unhappy Sadducees. The festive offering of the first fruits was discontinued, and the Pharisees picked up the ball and became the originators of a vastly new interpretation of Judaism.
And the Pharisaic leaders took on a new title: rabbi.
Now how did they prepare for Shavuot? Matching the intensity of Israel encamped at Sinai in the book of Exodus, the three days before the festival became “Shloshet Y’mei Hagbala,” Three days of intense preparation. Everyone cleaned, bought new clothes, got haircuts, cooked, and most of all, studied. Study is the only ritual connected with this holiday. There is no Seder or Sukkah dwelling, no shofar or lulav, nothing physical. There aren’t even many good songs for Shavuot. There is nothing special to buy, except maybe blintzes. The study and interpretation of Torah is all that there is. It is the central focus. It is the only focus.
Funny thing. Imagine if a group of Pharisees were to do the same thing today. Imagine what the reaction would be, if, say, someone were to, say, invent a holiday, and just slap on an old familiar name to make it look like it was there all along. Actually, that has already happened. On Kibbutzim in Israel, they’ve reinvented Shavuot again, returning to the Biblical concept of celebrating this as an agricultural celebration. In the 19th century, the Reform movement added the idea of confirmation to their celebration, and the mystics of Safed added the an all-night study session, or Tikkun Leil Shavuot, 400 years ago.
But no one has been as radical as the Pharisees.
How, then, do we prepare for Shavuot? I suggest that we prepare by retracing the roots of this holiday, and then by reexamining our ways of looking at Judaism. Do we see only the old ways as valid, simply because they are traditional? This, I submit, would be a betrayal of the original rabbinic ideal. Or, do we see the need to be partners with God in a Covenant, in the act of re-instilling the Torah with new life each generation?
My teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary used to harp on the idea that Conservative Judaism is the true heir to this Pharisaic tradition. There is much truth to that. But I would rather not think in terms of labels, labels that might be in fact outmoded. Because I also think Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism are legitimate heirs to the Pharisaic legacy.
The labels don’t matter. What matters is that we understand that, at its very core, the Judaism of the rabbis was creative and dynamic – and remains so to this day.
So I prepare for Shavuot by thanking God for the gift of Torah, a magnificent package that we are forever unwrapping, receiving, and re-imagining, again and again.