Shavuot and the paradigm of marital union-David Ariel

In the following article, Dr. Ariel discusses the mystical aspects of the holiday of Shavuot. We explain first a few basic concepts in Jewish mysticism (for more on the fundamental concepts, we refer you to his Passover article).

Ten sefirot — emanations or instruments of activity, compose the non-infinite aspect of God's nature or essence. The Kabbalists often resort to explicitly sexual metaphors to portray the emanation of the sefirot and to the relationships between them. The perfection and unification of the divine world (which influences the fate of God and therefore of man) depends on the harmonious balance between individual sefirot as well as harmonious interrelationships between all the sefirot. When there is an absence of harmony above, it is a reflection of disharmony in the world, and the tension above in turn exacerbates the situation of the world.

The mystic is one who attempts to perform the necessary steps that will preserve the unit of the divine realm. The holy marriage of Tiferet (a "masculine" sefirah) and Shekhinah (a "feminine" one) is the most important task that the mystic assumes in his quest; while human sinfulness prevents their permanent union, human action can likewise reunite them and restore harmony and unity to the world; they viewed the specific rituals of each holiday as theurgic sacraments, capable of achieving that union.

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Shavuot is both a celebration of the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah at Sinai and the festival at the beginning of the spring wheat harvest. Aside from the observances that attend all pilgrimage festivals, there are few rituals associated specifically with this holiday. One of the most common customs is to celebrate the holiday with festive dairy meals. This custom is based on the agricultural origins of the holiday and the affinity between grain and dairy products. It also derives from the designation of Mount Sinai as Har Gavnunim, a ragged mountain with many peaks.[1] Inventive commentators noticed the similarity between the word gavnunim and gevinah, the Hebrew word for cheese. From this association, the custom of eating dairy products on Shavuot gained favor.

A ragged mountain with many peaks

The biblical Book of Ruth, a narrative concerning the non-Israelite Ruth and her efforts to join her fate with the Israelite people, is read on Shavuot for two reasons. First, the story centers on apparently random agricultural events that had decisive and profound consequences for the destiny of the Israelite people: Following a famine that brought the Israelite Naomi to Moab, she returned to Israel with her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, a Moabitess. At the harvest, Naomi's relative Boaz met Ruth, whom he soon married. Boaz and Ruth, explains the genealogical conclusion of the book, were the great-grandparents of King David.

Their meeting was consequential for it set in motion a series of events that culminated in the Davidic kingship and, ultimately, the building of the Temple and the perpetuation of the Jewish religion. Second, the Book of Ruth narrates a tale of betrothal and marriage between Ruth and Boaz. The marriage symbolizes the enduring marriage and covenant established at Sinai between the Jewish people and God. The holiday of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth are linked together by the theme of marriage.

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It is not surprising that Jewish mystics understood this holiday as the grand culmination of the unification of the sefirot of Tiferet and Malkhut. Shavuot is celebrated, according to the Bible, on one day, as opposed to the other pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot and Pesah (each of which last seven days). Jewish mystics explain that this anomaly is due to the fact that on Shavuot there is complete unity whereas on the other festivals there is merely anticipation of unity. The result of the divine unity achieved on Shavuot is God's revelation of the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people.

Revelation on the mountain

According to Jewish theology God revealed to Moses all of the Torah, including details of events that had not occurred. All this he then faithfully transcribed in writing. At the same time, according to legend, God revealed to Moses the interpretations and hidden meanings of the Torah. According to tradition these insights, called the Oral Torah (Torah she-be-al peh) became the basis of the collected wisdom of the ages. They were transmitted faithfully from master to disciple as the authoritative companion to the Written Torah (Torah she-be-khtav). Jewish mystics claim that mystical insight is embedded in the Oral Law and can be extracted only by those initiated into the teachings of the mystical tradition.

Because Shavuot is a paradigm of unity, the Jewish mystics invented special rituals to be practiced on this day. In the guise of ancient custom, the Zohar, for example, introduced the practice of "Creating Perfection on the Night of Shavuot" (tikkun leil Shavuot), studying selections from the Oral Torah. In mystical symbolism, the Written Torah is associated with Tiferet and the Oral Torah is linked with Malkhut. The tikkun ritual is designed to hasten the divine marriage by joining Tiferet and Malkhut. The Written Torah is read during the daytime service of Shavuot. The Oral Torah is studied intensely the night before as a means to prepare the bride, Malkhut, or the Oral Torah, for her wedding in the morning. The ritual of tikkun leil Shavuot is conducted from midnight to dawn, the time when Malkhut predominates. Thus, the marriage ceremony between Tiferet and Malkhut is considered complete when the written Torah is read during the morning service.

Rabbi Shimeon used to sit and learn Torah at night when the bride joined with her spouse. It is taught: The members of the bride's entourage are obligated to stay with her throughout the night before her wedding with her spouse to rejoice with her in those perfections (tikkunim) by which she is made perfect. [They should] learn Torah, Prophets and Writings, homilies on the verses and the secrets of wisdom, for these are her perfections and adornments. She enters with her bridesmaids and stands above those who study, for she is readied by them and rejoices in them all the night. On the morrow, she enters the canopy with them and they are her entourage. When she enters the canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them, crowns them with the bride's adornments. Blessed is their destiny.[2]

In many Sephardic congregations, prior to the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot, a ketubbah le-Shavuot (marriage certificate for Shavuot) is read, as a symbolic betrothal of God and His people Israel.


footnotes [1] Midrash Shemot Rabba 2:4 [Back]
[2] Zohar I:8a [Back]

Barnes & Noble linkFrom: The Mystic Quest by David Ariel (Schocken Books, 1992). David Ariel has published several books on Jewish mysticism. He is President of the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies.

related marriage certificate for Shavuot

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