A Shavuot Guide for the Perplexed
Here are some observations on Shavuot and the roots of the special US attitude toward Israel:
The holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) — which commemorates the receipt of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai some 3,500 years ago — sheds light on some of the core values of the US pilgrims and Founding Fathers. These values had a profound impact on the US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Separation of Powers, Checks and Balances, the requirement that the chief executive must be a native, that the capital city (Jerusalem and Washington, DC) does not belong to any tribe/state, the abolitionist movement (“Let My People Go”/”Go Down Moses”), etc.
The British philosopher, John Locke, whose writings played a key role in shaping the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, stated that “The Bible is one of the greatest blessings bestowed by God on the children of men.” Locke wanted the 613 Statutes of Moses to become the legal foundation of the Carolinas, in particular, and the new society in America, in general.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1863 quote — “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — paraphrased a statement made by the 14th-century British philosopher and translator of the Bible, John Wycliffe: “The Bible is a book of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Shavuot is celebrated 50 days following Passover, while Pentecost — a derivative of the Greek word for 50 — is celebrated 50 days following Easter. According to Judaism, there are 50 gates to wisdom (the 50th gate was the gate of Jubilee, liberty, and deliverance). The 50th gate of wisdom is the gate of liberty, which is the core value of the early pilgrims, and the essence of the Jubilee, which is celebrated every 50 years.
Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah, which enshrines liberty and morality, as demonstrated by an entire night of study on the eve of Shavuot, and by the track record of Abraham, King David, and Moses. The Hebrew acronym of Abraham (ברהםא), David (ודד), and Moses (שהמ) is Adam (אדם), which is the Hebrew word for “human-being” and the root of the Hebrew word for “soil” – אדמה, a symbol of humility. King David was born and died on Shavuot; he was the great-grandson of Ruth, whose scroll is studied on the second day of Shavuot.
Shavuot (the Hebrew word for “weeks”) is celebrated seven weeks following the second day of Passover, and constitutes a historical, national, agricultural, and spiritual extension of Passover. While Passover highlights the liberty from slavery, Shavuot highlights the liberty to embrace the Ten Commandments and the whole Torah, in preparation for the liberation of the land of Israel. The harvesting season starts with Passover and concludes with Shavuot, which is also named the Holiday of the Harvest. Shavuot is one of the three Jewish liberty-oriented pilgrimages to Jerusalem (Passover, Shavuot, and Tabernacles).
Shavuot highlights reality as documented by slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, 40 years in the desert, and the litany of wars and destructions. The lesson is that liberty is acquired through willingness to sustain tribulations (blood, sweat, and tears). The steeper the hurdle, the deeper the gratification. Thus, adversity and challenges are opportunities in disguise.
The value of humility — a most critical value of human behavior and leadership — is underlined by the receipt of the Torah and its 613 statutes in the desert, on Mount Sinai, which is not a very tall mountain, nor a comfortable environment. Moses, the exceptional law-giver and leader, was accorded only one compliment in the entire Bible: “the humblest of all human beings.”
Shavuot highlights the centrality of personal liberty, which mandates respect toward the liberty of fellow human-beings. It is customary to study — from Passover through Shavuot/Pentecost — the six brief chapters of The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkey Avot in Hebrew), one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah) — a compilation of common sense principles, and ethical and moral teachings, which underline key inter-personal relationships.
Shavuot has seven names, and reflects the centrality of 7 in Judaism. The Hebrew root of Shavuot (שבועות) is Seven (שבע – Sheva), which is also the root of “vow” (שבועה — Shvoua’), “satiation” (שובע — Sova), and “week” (שבוע — Shavoua’). Shavuot is celebrated 7 weeks following Passover. The Sabbath was the 7th day of the Creation in a 7-day week. The first Hebrew verse of Genesis consists of 7 words. According to Genesis, there are 7 beneficiaries of the Sabbath. God created 7 universes — the 7th universe hosts the pure souls, hence “Seventh Heaven.” There were 7 monumental Jewish leaders — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David (representing 7 human qualities). There were 7 Jewish prophetesses (Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther). There are 7 major Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot). There are 7 species of the land of Israel (barley, wheat, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, and date/honey). The Jubilee follows 7 seven-year cycles.
Originally, Shavuot was an agricultural holiday, celebrating the first harvest/yield by bringing offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, following the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile in 70 AD, the focus shifted to Torah awareness, in order to sustain the connection to the land of Israel and to avoid spiritual and physical oblivion.
More on Shavuot and additional Jewish holidays can be found here.