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Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem Report.
We’re used to seeing Jewish holidays as having two dimensions: history and nature. Even the Sabbath is described as a remembrance both of Genesis, nature’s creation, and of the Exodus, historic redemption. A close look at Shavuot reveals a third dimension, which carries a very contemporary social message.
The usual history-nature synthesis is clearly seen in the other two pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Sukkot. Pesach commemorates the people’s birth in the Exodus, along with the spring budding, the rebirth of life in nature. Matzah is the bread of affliction and slavery, and of the hasty flight to freedom; yet it’s also the new grain, as yet unfermented in the nascent springtime. Likewise, the booths of Sukkot hark back to the temporary dwellings of wandering Israelites in the desert, but are also the shacks of field workers bringing in the harvest.
Shavuot, the third pilgrimage holiday, didn’t originally fit the pattern. In the Torah, it’s only a harvest festival. Only later did the rabbis fill in the blank by connecting it to the giving of the Torah, thus situating it between the Exodus and the Wandering. This created symmetry, but more importantly, it was a response to the fact that the historical aspects of the holidays would be much more serviceable for Diaspora culture.
But Shavuot breaks the mold for another reason. In Leviticus 23, one of the Torah’s major accounts of the festival calendar, after the description of the holiday’s Temple rituals (verses 15-21), the text repeats the commandments to leave the corners of the fields and the unharvested gleanings of the crops for the poor. Given the ritual focus of the chapter, this ethical addition is even more remarkable. Commentators, however, generally gloss it as a simple mental association with the harvest season of Shavuot, or as a reminder that there are social obligations beyond the ritual ones.
But there’s a deeper reason. Pesach, with its unleavened bread and dietary restrictions, is clearly in some profound way about food. Sukkot, second only to Pesach in strenuous preparations, focuses on shelter: where, in what, and how you live. Both mandate a form of enforced poverty–eating matzah, the bread of affliction, and living in a shack, the most modest of dwellings. These holidays are great social equalizers. Fulfilling their central obligations to make the wealthy more like the poor, and no one, rich or poor, is excluded by the rituals.
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