Innovating to Preserve Tradition

By | Tagged: holidays

Lisa Lepson, the Executive Director of the Joshua Venture group, writes in her piece “Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow:”

The Judaism that is evolving before our eyes isn’t really new or innovative. In fact, the whole concept of evolution is at the core of Judaism. What our social entrepreneurs are doing is making tradition relevant to us once more, fusing them with contemporary values and bestowing upon them new life. They are leading a vibrant “re-generation” of our cultural and spiritual heritage.

The holiday of Shavuot, a pillar in the Pilgrimage Festival series that also includes Passover and Sukkot, illustrates the Jewish dance between innovation and tradition, and embodies the concept of “making tradition relevant to us once more.”




The holiday has multiple names, revealing its multiple identities. Shavuot, which means “weeks,” refers to the fact that the holiday takes place seven weeks after the beginning of Passover (Deuteronomy 16:9 – 12); the Torah tells us to count from the time of the barley, or Omer, harvest, until the time of the wheat harvest, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The holiday is also called Chag HaBikkurim (Numbers 28:26), the Festival of the First Fruits. This time of year marked the ripening of Israel’s first fruits, and the Mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim describes how people from all over Israel marched to Jerusalem with their fruits in beautiful baskets to give to the priest in the Temple. Shavuot is also known as Chag HaKatzir, the Festival of the Harvest (Exodus 23: 16), since Shavuot marks the summer harvest in Israel.

Interestingly, none of these names reflects what we actually celebrate on Shavuot today. Yes, we continue to count the days from Passover to Shavuot, and refer to it as Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer, but most Jews have no idea when the barley or wheat harvest is in the land of Israel, and what, if anything, it has to do with Shavuot. What, instead, do we celebrate? Here’s where Shavuot, cloaked in an entirely new name, emerges with its new identity: Chag Matan Torateinu – the Festival of the Giving of our Torah.

Posted on May 17, 2010

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