Meanings for Shavuot-Francine Klagsbrun

ProcessionThe association between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is complex. The biblical name Shavuot, which literally means "weeks", bears no relation to revelation. It refers to a farmers' festival in ancient times that concluded the seven weeks of counting begun on the second night of Passover. Also called Hag ha-Kazir, the "Feast of Harvest", the festival marked the end of the barley and beginning of the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. Many would also bring thanksgiving offerings of the first fruits that had ripened on their trees, giving the festival yet another name, Yom ha-Bikkurim — "Day of the First Fruits".

The Mishnah [Bikkurim] describes a colorful procession in which farmers from small villages would gather in a large town to go together to Jerusalem. "Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the House of our God," the leader Receiving the Torahwould announce as they set out on their pilgrimage. When they neared Jerusalem, flutists would greet them with music, and when they reached the Temple court, the priests would welcome them with hymns and psalms.How, then, did these festivities of fruits and grains turn into a celebration of the Torah? Part of the genius of the talmudic sages was their ability to overlay old agricultural holidays with historical meaning. In the case of Shavuot, the rabbis calculated that the festival fell during the same three-month period in which the Children of Israel had reached the wilderness of Sinai after leaving Egypt. They fixed the date for both events as the sixth of Sivan and made the Sinai experience the essence of the holiday (Jews outside Israel observe the holiday on the seventh as well).

Today, reminders of the agricultural basis for Shavuot appear in the plants and flowers that decorate many synagogues during the holiday. But even those acquired another meaning — to represent the green of the mountain from which the Torah was given. In Reform and Conservative synagogues, the decorations add splendor to confirmation services, which celebrate the completion of the Hebrew school year and the graduation of its high-school students.

The mystics instituted a tikkun leil Shavuot (all-night study session in which congregants read and discuss passages of the Bible, the Mishnah and Talmud, and mystical writings).


Barnes & Noble linkFrom: Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the World (Farrar Straus Giroux 1996).

author Francine Klagsbrun has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on social, religious, feminist and family issues. She is a columnist for The Jewish Week and Moment magazines, and lectures extensively throughout the United States.

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