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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.