When Shavuot falls on June 9 this year it should be celebrated by all Jews; especially Reform Jews. Of all Jewish holidays, Shavuot is the most expressive of the dynamic and pluralistic values of Reform Judaism.
First Shavuot was an agricultural holiday marking the end of a seven week period when the first fruits of the spring grain harvest were brought to the temple in Jerusalem:
“From the day after Shabbat (the day of rest) that is, from the day you bring the (Omer) sheaf for waving offering -you are to count seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week, count fifty days; then present a new grain offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:15-16)
In Mishnaic times Shavuot became the occasion for celebrating Mattan Torah, God’s gift of Torah to Israel, and not long after that mystics began to spread the view that what happened at Sinai was actually a marriage commitment between God and Israel; with Torah being the covenantal Ketubah.
For Reform Jews trying to understand the meaning of an evolving revelation, religious pluralism, a God who chooses and a chosen people; Shavuot, the only Jewish holiday where the Torah does not give us an explicit fixed date, is an ideal way to gain insight.
Why did the talmudic rabbis insist that Shavuot and Mattan Torah always must fall on the sixth of Sivan although they all agreed that the first Shavuot was on a Shabbat: and why did they almost always prefer calling the holiday Atzeret instead of Shavuot?
I know the exact day when I and my wife were married. I do not know the day, the week or even the month, when I fell in love with her. A wedding is a specific event that can be observed. Forming a loving commitment is an ongoing process that must be experienced.
This is why the only Jewish holy day that does not have a proscribed specific date is Shavuot/Atzeret; a day commemorating the beginning of the partnership-marriage covenant commitment between God and Israel. Being chosen is an event; choosing is a process.
One day, propelled by my growing love for my beloved, I proposed marriage. Two weeks later, she finally said ‘Yes’. Four months later, on December 25, 1966 we were married.
During 52 subsequent anniversary celebrations our love has continued to grow. Experiencing each additional anniversary is more significant than our original wedding day. The consequences of the choice seem more important than the original choice itself; provided the choice was the right one. Yet without the choice to make the commitment, love would be unexpressed and unrequited: a terrible lose for both partners.
Shavuot is a transhistorical experience like Shabbat, and not a historical event like Passover. Both Shabbat and Shavuot celebrate a continual ongoing spiritual process of personally experiencing a day of wholeness and holiness within a sacred framework.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the letters of Shavuot contain the letters of Shabbat within themselves; and that the marriage Ketubah begins with Shabbat, as a synonym for shavua, the singular of Shavuot. For mystics every Jewish marriage that is destined to last, is a reenactment of the marriage of God and Israel at Sinai.
Shabbat celebrates Israel’s weekly love for the Shabbat bride as in “Come my beloved, meet the Shabbat bride”, and Shavuot celebrates the anniversary of Israel’s first intimate experience of God, as in “I will betroth you to Me forever”. (Hosea 3:21)
For mystically inclined Jews, a wedding is a reenactment by two individuals of the holy covenant first entered into by God and Israel at Sinai, when God and Israel first chose each other. God chose Israel saying, “You shall be a special treasure for me,,, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-5).
The Jewish people chose God by answering, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Or as the Talmud puts it, “The groom, the Eternal One, is betrothed to the bride, the community of Israel.” (Pesachim 106b) Torah is the Ketubah (marriage contract) between the two covenanted partners. Mitsvot (commandments) are their daily loving interactions. Torah study and worship are the pillow talk between God and Israel. Tikunim: Kabbalistic mystical exercises, meditations and marital sexuality are the intimacies of married life.
Thus, when the Song of Songs refers to the “crown that Solomon’s mother made for him on the day of his wedding”; the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) glosses ‘his wedding day’ to mean ‘the day of Mattan Torah’ And when Rashi (Ta’anit 26b) glosses ‘his mother’ to mean ‘his people’; Rashi means Israel crowned God as God by saying “we will do” , just as the bride makes the groom into a husband by accepting a ring and saying ‘I do’.
Although Shabbat and Shavuot share many timeless spiritual aspects also they also differ because Shabbat is a highly structured weekly home and community framework; while Shavuot is an highly unstructured annual esoteric experience involving vegetarianism, mid night Torah study, and mystical imagery of weddings and lovers.
Also, on Shabbat, disciples of the sages have a religious duty to have sexual intercourse with their wives, (Ketubot 62b; Baba Kamma 88a; Zohar 3:69a) but there is no such requirement for Shavuot because every Jew, in every generation, both married and single, can and should feel like he or she is a spiritual beloved and/or a spiritual lover of God: “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in loving kindness and in compassion. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord”. (Hosea 3:21:22)
Those rabbis who saw Shavuot and Mattan Torah almost exclusively in legal terns were uncomfortable with unquantifiable and undefinable process thinking. They like the Pharisees before them sought precise duties and limits from Mattan Torah. They wanted the date of Shavuot fixed like all the other holy days were.
This desire probably became even stronger after the mid first century rise of a new group of Jews; who as followers of Jesus, turned Shavuot into a highly emotional. pentecostal ‘speaking in tongues’ Sunday celebration.
In subsequent generations the rabbis started referring to Shavuot almost exclusively as Atzeret- the concluding day of the seven week period of counting from Passover to Shavuot. Yet the issue of emotional process or fixed commemoration remained. In the Talmud (Pesachim 68b) we find a discussion about who Atzeret is for, the lover or the beloved? Deuteronomy 16:8 says Atzeret is ‘for the Lord’, but Numbers 29:35 says Atzeret ‘for you’ Jews.
Rabbi Eliezer says it is for ‘you’ Jews to choose to be either the lover who enjoys choosing God, or the beloved who enjoys being chosen by God. Rabbi Joshua says Jews should choose to be both the lover, by spiritually enjoying the study of Torah half of the day; and the beloved, by physically enjoying the pleasure of eating and drinking half of the day.
Rabbi Joshua desires all Jews to combine the Torah’s bodily joy of the spring harvest with the rabbi’s spiritual joy of Torah study. After all, most Jews enjoy both the wedding and the reception; and this is how it should be. Rabbi Eliezer thinks that while some Jews do enjoy study much more than a big celebration, other Jews enjoy the celebration much more; so choose your own joy and may religious pluralism flourish and thrive. Then Rabbi Eleazar comes along and says, “All agree that Shavuot/Atzeret must be ‘for you Jews’ because it is the day when the Torah was given.”
Rashi comments that on Atzeret eating and drinking is required for all Jews. Thus, Atzeret is not just a spiritual intellectual experience of Torah study; it is primarily a relived experience of being cared for, nurtured, and loved by a giving Divine partner.
At the Seder we are told that each generation must see itself as if they personally were ex-slaves only recently redeemed from Egyptian bondage. Fifty days later, on Shavuot, a holy day celebrating the reciprocal, public, covenantal commitment between God and Israel; one should relive the experience of being oneself a chosen beloved, or responding to another’s love, and becoming a lover.
In the book of Exodus, the narrative of the revelation at Sinai records that the Israelites arrived at Sinai on the first day of the third month (Sivan). The Torah narrative then records a partnership/marriage proposal by God, and Israel’s answer, both mediated by Moses. in which Israel becomes a choosing and a chosen people—a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The acceptance of the offer by the Israelites is duly transmitted by Moses to the Lord. Israel’s acceptance is followed by a three-day period of purification and preparation for Mattan Torah-God’s revelation to the entire nation. Thus, the wedding of God and Israel took place on Sivan 5, 6 or 7, depending on how long it took for Israel to accept God’s proposal.
Rabbi Jose says: “Moses added one day on his own understanding. For it was taught, Three things Moses did on his own initiative, and God gave His approval: Moses added one day (extra) on his own understanding, he separated himself from his wife, and he broke the Tablets.” (Shabbat 87a)
Why did Moses think an extra day was needed? Most of our rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could hesitate when offered the opportunity to become partners with God. But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by the Jewish people. God’s proposal was the most awesome offer they had ever recieved.
If many people today have a problem making a long term commitment, what about people who had been slaves only three months earlier. Some said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours. After a full day, most of them might have made a commitment, but the rest were still undecided. Moses added an extra day for them; but even then there was still a minority, mostly men who were afraid to commit.
By the end of the second day the women had convinced almost all the hesitant men. Only a small minority still held out. So would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of a lifetime partnership?
Fortunately, God came to the rescue. According to Rav Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, “The Holy One, blessed is He, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Shabbat 88a)
Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference. The Muslim Prophet Muhammad reaffirms Rabbi Avdimi’s midrash in the Qur’an: “We raised the Mountain over you (Jews) saying: Hold firm to what we have given you, and study its commandments; so that you may attain piety towards God, (as God lovers) and His protection (as God’s beloveds).” (Qur’an 2:63)