Exploring the Meaning and History of Shavuot
by Yoram Ettinger
The Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins on Thursday at sundown. Here are some facts about the holiday, ahead of this year’s celebration.
1. The Significance of Shavuot
Shavuot is one of the three liberty-oriented Jewish pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles), which constitute game-changing milestones in the formation of Jewish history, documenting the 4,000-year-old Jewish roots in the Land of Israel, and the unique linkage between the Land of Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people.
Shavuot is a historical, national, agricultural, and spiritual extension of Passover. Passover highlights the physical liberty from slavery in Egypt; Shavuot highlights spiritual liberty, embracing the values of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and six chapters of “The Ethics of Our Fathers” (Pirkey Avot). The eve of Shavuot is dedicated to an all-night study of Jewish values.
Shavuot is also called the Holiday of the Harvest (ביכורים), since it concludes the harvesting season, which starts during Passover. Shavuot commemorates the 40 years of the Exodus, which entailed tough challenges on the road to the Land of Israel, forging the state-of-mind of the Jewish people and the Jewish State.
2. The Scroll of Ruth
Shavuot spotlights the Scroll of Ruth, the first of the five Biblical scrolls, which are studied during five Jewish holidays: Ruth (Shavuot), Song of Songs (Passover), Ecclesiastes (Sukkot/Tabernacles), Book of Lamentations (the Ninth day of Av), and Esther (Purim).
Ruth was a Moabite Princess, who voluntarily joined the Jewish people, and became the great grandmother of King David, the son of Jesse, who was the grandson of Ovad, Ruth’s son. Ruth was a role model of loyalty to her Jewish mother in-law, humility, gratitude, responsibility, reliability, faith, optimism, and respect of fellow human beings. According to the Bible, Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, was better than her seven sons.
The legacy of Ruth reflects the central role played by Biblical women, such as Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, the four Matriarchs; Miriam, the older sister of Moses; and many more. The geographic setting of the Scroll of Ruth was the Judean Desert (in Judea and Samaria), the cradle of Jewish history, religion, culture, language, and ethnicity.
3. The Centrality of Humility
Shavuot highlights humility as a very critical value of human behavior and leadership. This is underlined by the receipt of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and the 613 statutes in the uncomfortable desert and on Mount Sinai. Moses, the exceptional lawgiver and civic and military leader, was accorded only one compliment in the entire Bible: “the humblest of all human beings” (Book of Numbers, 12:3)
4. “The Ethics of the Fathers”
It is customary to study the six brief chapters of “The Ethics of the Fathers,” one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah (the oral Torah) — a compilation of common-sense values, ethical, and moral teachings, which underline key inter-personal relationships.
“Who is respected? He who respects other persons.”
“Who is a wise person? He who learns from all other persons.”
“Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his own share.”
“Who is a hero? He who controls his urge.”
“Talk sparsely and walk plenty.”
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
“Don’t be consumed with the flask, but with its content.”
“Conditional love is tenuous; unconditional love is eternal.”
“Treat every person politely.”
“Jealousy, lust, and the obsession with fame warp one’s mind.”
5. Israel’s Independence
Modern day Israel’s Declaration of Independence was proclaimed between Passover (the physical deliverance) and Shavuot (the spiritual deliverance).
6. The impact on the formation of the US
Shavuot commemorates the legacy of Moses — the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, and the Torah — which had a significant impact on the Early Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, and the formation of the US culture, civic life, the Federal system, the US revolution (as highlighted by Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”), and the Constitution.
Shavuot is the holiday of liberty/Exodus, as highlighted by the Biblical concept of Jubilee, the role model of Biblical liberty, which is celebrated every 50 years. The essence of the Jubilee is engraved on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof (Leviticus 25:10).”
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of “Second Thought: a U.S.-Israel initiative.”