Sh’vuot – the holiday of fulfillment

All three of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals consist of an agricultural and a historical component. Pesach marks the beginning of the barley harvest and the exodus from Mitsraim, Shavuot marks the beginning of the wheat (and first fruits) harvest and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, and Sukkot marks the harvesting of Autumn fruits and the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. An additional layer of significance can be found in the metaphors of Torah. A metaphorical understanding of the words of Torah reveals a story about human potential and our stuttering attempts toward actualization and fulfillment.

The Torah begins with the creation of heaven and earth. The Hebrew word for earth, erets (ארץ), developed from the verb RaTsaTs (רצץ) meaning to crush (as a consequence of being run upon). It is related to a sequence of verbs starting with RooTs (רוץ) to run, which evolved into RaTsaH (רצה) to run toward or show favor, culminating with RaTsaTs (רצץ), to run upon and crush. The word for earth (erets – ארץ), with its prefixed letter aleph, is similar in form to the word artsoot (ארצות) which evolved from the intermediary verb, RaTsaH (רצה). As RaTsaH (רצה) means to run toward something and thus show favor, its noun, artsoot (ארצות), means a person’s way of showing favor or disposing of oneself to experience. This is our starting point, for the very next line of Torah indicates that the earth was tohu v’bhohu (תהו ובהו) metaphorically indicating that the person’s way of disposing himself to experience (artsoot – ארצות) was astounded and confused. Fortunately, the basis and the genesis of the resolution to this problem can be found with the first of the Torah’s heroes, Avram. For when haShem commanded him laekh l’kha, go for your own sake…to the land that I will show you, he already had within him the means to arrive to a new disposition (artsoot – ארצות) that haShem would show him. The strength of his character can be found in his name, for in addition to meaning exalted father (אב רם) it also means one with an elevated willingness to give forth of oneself (אבה רם). It is our willingness to give forth of ourselves, our willingness to engage with the experiences brought forth to us by haShem, that is the beginning of our rehabilitation, our salvation.

In the metaphor, most nouns in Torah, like the earth and Avram, serve as archetypes for each of us. So just as Avram serves as a model for our moving forward in our march toward self actualization, his nephew Lot (לוט), whose name means to curse in Hebrew and to hold back in Akkadian, represents one of the many sources of our faltering. Whether in those moments of faltering, those moments of our taking a needed rest, our moments of being Noach (נוח), we choose to put ourselves forth into experience like Shem (לשים), or to become angry like Cham (חמה), or merely to be passively open and vulnerable to experience like Yaphet (פתה > יפת) is up to each one of us. While the narrative of Torah lays a framework for this metaphor, also the holidays, interwoven into our annual cycle, act as stepping stones on this metaphorical journey. Pesach begins each cycle of this journey with our taking another leap to G-d’s bringing forth of experience, a Pesach la-haShem. The counting of the omer, a recounting of the inundation (עמר in Arabic) of experience into which we have plunged ourselves, culminates in a satisfactory conclusion, a s’vae’oot (שבעות) on shavuot (שבעות).

Each and every word of Torah informs the metaphor. As the Rabbis have stated, no word in Torah is superfluous. But to see the metaphor, each word needs to be considered in a literal way, from its etymological beginnings. Homonyms, words of the same root but of different etymology and meaning, also need to be entertained to see the alternative understandings. Consider, for example, the following two sentences regarding shavuot:

וחג הקציר בכורי מעשיך אשר תזרע בשדה

And the pilgrimage of harvesting, of the first fruits of your actions that you shall sow in the field. (Ex 23:16)

וחג שבעת תעשה לך בכורי קציר חטים

And the pilgrimage of Shavu’oth, shall you perform for yourself, of the first fruits of the harvest of wheat.(Ex 34:22)

The word Chag (חג) is understood to mean holiday or more specifically a pilgrimage holiday, but it is derived from a word that means to draw inward and so metaphorically it refers to an act of drawing into experience. That is indeed an apropos way to draw closer to haShem, the creator of that experience. Additionally, in the same way that one can harvest the produce of the field, one can equally harvest the yield of one’s actions. The root for the word b’khor (בכור), which produces words meaning both first born and first fruits, evolved from the word BaKhaH (בכה – to cry) which literally means to well forth. Consider also the Hebrew word for wheat, chitim (חטים), which from the root ChaT^aH (חטה) means that which leans or inclines itself. So without belaboring every word in the above two sentences, metaphorically this chag is about drawing into experience and harvesting what wells forth as a result of our leaning into it.

What follows is the full quoted text that delineates the ritual of bringing an omer of grain and its associated offerings, the counting of the omer, and the offerings of Shavuot. In bold Hebrew letters are the words that I will elaborate upon metaphorically; and in the English translation, I have removed some of the text so as not to overwhelm by delving into every word.

(23:10) דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם כי תבאו אל הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם וקצרתם את קצירה והבאתם את עמר ראשית קצירכם אל הכהן (11) והניף את העמר לפני יהוה לרצנכם ממחרת השבת יניפנו הכהן (12) ועשיתם ביום הניפכם את העמר כבש תמים בן שנתו לעלה ליהוה (13) ומנחתו שני עשרנים סלת בלולה בשמן אשה ליהוה ריח ניחח ונסכה יין רבעית ההין (14) ולחם וקלי וכרמל לא תאכלו עד עצם היום הזה עד הביאכם את קרבן אלהיכם חקת עולם לדרתיכם בכל משבתיכם (15) וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת מיום הביאכם את עמר התנופה שבע שבתות תמימת תהיינה (16) עד ממחרת השבת השביעת תספרו חמשים יום והקרבתם מנחה חדשה ליהוה (17) ממושבתיכם תביאו לחם תנופה שתים שני עשרנים סלת תהיינה חמץ תאפינה בכורים ליהוה (18) והקרבתם על הלחם שבעת כבשים תמימם בני שנה ופר בן בקר אחד ואילם שנים יהיו עלה ליהוה ומנחתם ונסכיהם אשה ריח ניחח ליהוה (19) ועשיתם שעיר עזים אחד לחטאת ושני כבשים בני שנה לזבח שלמים (20) והניף הכהן אתם על לחם הבכרים תנופה לפני יהוה על שני כבשים קדש יהיו ליהוה לכהן

“Speak to the children of Israel that you will say to them, “Given that you shall come into the land that I am giving to you, then you will harvest its harvest. And then you will bring in the Omer, the first of your harvest to the cohaen. And he will wave the Omer before haShem ……… from the day after the shabbat the cohaen shall wave it. And you will make, in the day of your waving the Omer, (offerings)……And bread, and parched grain and green ears of grain you shall not eat unto this very day, until your bringing in the offering of approaching closer of your G-d…..And you will count for yourselves from the day after the shabbat, from the day of your bringing in the Omer, the one waved, seven shabbats, complete shall they be. Until the day after the seventh shabbat, you shall count fifty days and then you will bring close a new minchah offering for haShem. From your places of dwelling you shall bring in a bread that had been waved….chamaets shall they be baked, first fruits for haShem. And then you will bring close upon the bread……an ascension offering for haShem. And…..(other offerings). And the cohaen will wave them upon the bread of the first fruits, that had been waved, before haShem upon the two lambs, holy shall they be for haShem, for the cohaen.”

One thing to notice after reading this passage about the counting of the omer leading into Shavuot is that there is no mention of receiving the Torah at Har Sinai. Other than the oral tradition, the best evidence that exists that matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) happened on Shavuot is the Torah indicating that this event occurred in the third month (Ex19:1). Instead, the passage refers to the bringing of an omer quantity of grain to the cohaen, the making of a minchah offering (and other offerings) on the first day, the counting of the omer for forty nine days, and then the bringing of a new minchah offering (and other offerings) on the fiftieth day.

There are a few things to delve into here. First, the text begins with a coming into the land or as explained previously, metaphorically, a coming into a way of disposing oneself to experience that haShem is giving to you. After the harvesting of this experience, the omer or the inundation of the experience is brought to the cohaen. He is the one who brings closer all of the offerings, the qarbanot (קרבנות), the means of approaching more closely (קרב) to haShem, G-d’s bringing forth of existence. The verb from which the word cohaen is derived roughly means to perform with precise and mindful intention, to perform with Kavanah (כונח). Even though, we Jews are divided into Israelites, Levites and priests, all Jews are enjoined to be holy and of the kingdom of priests. The literal Torah divides our roles and responsibilities, but the metaphor of Torah enjoins each of us to behave with kavanah, in a priest like fashion, performing our actions with precise and mindful intention. So the omer, the inundation of experience, is brought to each person’s inner cohaen. Then the inner cohaen, with kavanah, waves (הניף) the offering. This word to wave (הניף) is closely related to words meaning to sift through. So our inner priest with kavanah takes up the inundation of experience and mentally sifts through it. Until this is done, no bread can be consumed.

This paragraph and the ritual it represents is primarily about bread. At the beginning, an omer of grain is offered. Then it specifies that no bread, parched or green grains were to be consumed until that day. On the fiftieth day, a new grain offering is brought, but this time bread baked in the settlements is to be brought. Additionally, this bread is to be leavened, chamaets. The Hebrew word for bread, lechem (לחם), has an interesting etymology. There is a rarely used verb of the same root which means to eat / feed. But what is most unusual is this word’s sharing a root with the word milchamah (מלחמה) meaning battle or engagement. The words are actually related. The root derives from L.W.Ch. (לוח) which has a principal meaning of being joined together. In battle, individual’s physically engage with one another. Likewise, separate kernels of grain join together to make bread. So both words mean an engagement and metaphorically represents an engaging with experience.

Here then is the general metaphor of the holiday of Shavuot. On Pesach, we take a leap to G-d’s bringing forth of existence, a pesach la-haShem. On the following day, we begin to count (ספר) or recount the omer (עמר), which from the Arabic symbolizes the inundation or flooding experienced as a consequence of making that leap to G-d’s bringing forth of experience. On day fifty (חמשים), a day signifying a grasping (מוש) of that experience, a day of our being armed with that experience (חמושים), a new minchah offering is brought. The word minchah (מנחה) comes from the verb NaChaH (נחה) which, in Hebrew, means to lead and guide. This word is closely related to the Arabic verb MaNaCh (מנח) – to present, gift and bestow. Literally NaChaH (נחה) means to push along or incline toward and minchah (מנחה) means what is pushed along (presented – offered) and made to incline. This new minchah offering represents a new way of presenting oneself, of pushing oneself, of inclining into the experience. It is new because it is no longer burdened with the omer, the being and feeling flooded and inundated by the experience. It is for this reason that the omer is counted for forty nine days and not fifty. The fiftieth day is associated with, but not at all part of the omer. Then, from our place of settling in (to experience), we bring in bread that has been waved. Metaphorically it is an engaging of experience that has been sifted through. This bread, this way of engaging with experience, is to be baked leavened, chamaets. Therefore, it is to be an act of engaging with experience that is heated, ardent and fervent. It is the bread of the first fruits (לחם הבכורים), the engaging of the experiences welling up, that was sifted through. These behaviors are qodesh la-haShem (קדש ליי), holy and worthy of bringing to the front, for G-d’s bringing forth of existence, and for the cohaen, for our behaving with precise and mindful intention, in order to reach a full satisfaction of the experience (s’vae’oot – שבעות), on our journey to fulfillment and self actualization.

Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz

Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock

About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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