Emor: Celebrating Shavuot, our mysterious festival

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Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Ezekiel 44:15-31

Unlike the other festivals of the Torah, Shavuot has no fixed date; at least, not one assigned by the Torah. Like the other pilgrim festivals, Shavuot has a place in the agricultural cycle. But unlike them, Shavuot has no place in the Exodus story — at least, not one that is explicit in the Torah.

Like the other festivals, Shavuot has its own distinctive ritual in the Temple. But unlike them, it requires no special observances from individual Jews. What a mysterious, rather blank holiday!

Each of the other festivals occurs on the such-and-such day of whatever month. Shavuot has no fixed date on the calendar, not in this week's reading nor elsewhere in the Torah. In this week's Torah portion, we find the date of Shavuot determined by its place in the agricultural cycle of activities (Leviticus 23).

The holiday has agricultural significance. Each year, the community initiates the first grain harvest — presumably the barley harvest — by bringing an omer (about a half-gallon) of the grain to the Kohen, or priest, as an offering.

We count the days from the barley offering on the second day of the Festival of Matzot (Pesach) until, seven full weeks later, we can make the first offering from the new wheat harvest (Lev. 23:15-16). On that day we celebrate Shavuot.

Although the Temple has been destroyed and we do not bring sacrifices, Jews persist in counting the 49 days from the second day of the Festival of Matzot until the day before Shavuot, beginning each "day" at nightfall (Lev. 23:32). This year, the counting began at nightfall Thursday, April 4, the night of the second seder. The 30th day of the Omer begins tonight at Shabbat. We celebrate Shavuot in exactly three weeks, the day after the 49th of the Omer.

The Bible does not assign any significance in the Exodus story to Shavuot. This might seem surprising, since the Torah grounds the other pilgrimage festivals firmly in the story of the Exodus. This seems even more surprising when we realize that the rabbis of the Talmud prove that Shavuot must occur within a day or two of the anniversary of revelation on Mount Sinai (Shabbat 87a-b). In our prayer book, we refer to Shavuot as "the season of the giving of our Torah," based on this rabbinical analysis. The Torah never assigns this significance to Shavuot.

Shavuot has a specific Temple ritual, the offering of the two leavened breads from the new harvest (23:16-17). It is an unusual and distinctive offering because, with only one other exception, Jews offered only unleavened grain at the Temple. Shavuot marks the beginning of the season of first-fruit offerings (Mishnah Bikkurim 1:3).

But Shavuot has no specific rituals in the home or in the community, beyond the generic requirements for a festival. Mystics of the late Middle Ages initiated the practice of staying up all night at the beginning of Shavuot, studying the Torah from evening until dawn, revealing an eagerness to continue receiving the Torah.

Why has Shavuot no specific date? The great teacher of the Bible, Nehama Leibowitz, quotes a 16th-century Spanish exegete, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama: "The commemoration of the giving of the Torah cannot be limited to a particular time like other matters connected with the festivals, but it is a precept that applies at all hours and at all times…Every day we are commanded that its contents should remain as fresh and dear to us as on the day they were given."

Why has Shavuot no specific observances? Nehama Leibowitz quotes the 19th-century German exegete David Zvi Hoffman: "No symbolic ritual was instituted for Shavuot to make the sinaitic Revelation, for the reason that it cannot be translated into the tangible language of symbol." Just as the Jews, at Sinai, saw no image, so too, we celebrate the experience at Sinai with no symbol.

In thinking about the blank holiday of Shavuot, let us take the Torah into our hearts and minds this day, and every day.