'Shavuot' (13 May 1994)
Shavuot is, without doubt, my favourite festival.
It is short, undemanding, with attractive customs and happy associations. I suppose, too, the fact that it coincides with the beginning of Summer adds to its many pleasures.
Judaism not only imparts on the soul. It can be – and should be – tasted on the tongue. And no other festival fare, not Channucah latkes, hamentaschen on Purim, honey or honey-cake on Rosh Hashanah, galuptzi (or holishkes) on Succot, or Matzah balls on Pesach can compare to cheesecake, blintzes and borscht on Shavuot. Different sages have suggested different reasons for their origins, but have overlooked the most obvious one. This is, of course, the fact that milk curdles in summer.
There are moments in my life when I have had the deepest reservations about Judaism, but I have always come round to the view that a faith which actually requires the faithful to eat cheesecake and blintzes must have something to commend it.
It is, of course, one of the three pigrimage festivals, the other two being Pesach and Succot. All three are associated with different phases of the agricultural year, Pesach being the feast of spring, Shavuot the festival of first fruits, and Succcot the harvest festival.
Pesach seems to have been observed in fairly cursory form until it was revived in its full splendour – and, one imagines, at great expense – in the time of Josiah, while Succot lapsed altogether until it was revived by Nehemiah.
There is no evidence that Shavuot suffered any such fate and, according to Josephus, it was particularly popular in Roman times:
‘…on the approach of Pentecost, which is a festival of ours from the days of our forefathers, a great many ten thousands of men get together…Galileans and Idumeans, and many men from Jericho, and many others who had passed over the Jordan, and inhabited these parts.’
What made the occasion particularly memorable was that, in the course of the celebrations, the multitudes who had gathered in Jerusalem joined in an uprising against Sabinus, the Roman tax collector, a unique way of mixing business with prayer. Many Jews died in the uprising, but Sabinus was forced to flee.
Once the Temple was destroyed, all three pilgrimage lost much of their point. Pesach still celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, while Succot commemorated the wandering in the wilderness. Shavuot, however, had no such links, and in ancient times, must have been celebrated purely as an agricultural event.
The book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, described harvest time in Judea in the days ‘when the Judges judged’. It is a rustic idyll, probably written in exile, pithy, moving and full of sighs for distant scenes and a bygone age. But it is also earthy and bucolic, and, once the crops were in, the wine flowed freely and even Ruth’s future husband Boaz, who otherwise seemed to be a rather lugubrious old man, ate drank and was merry.
While our Rabbis commended farming as an occupation, they were rather nervous of agricultural festivals and rustic merry-making, or, indeed, merry-making of any sort. It was the sort of thing that surrounding tribes went in for, and suggested to close a link with the seasons, the soil and nature. Agricultural festivals, in other words, encouraged an awareness of this world rather than the world on high and smacked vaguely of paganism.
The book of Jubilees, written during the second century BCE, claimed that Shavuot commemorated the renewal of the covenant between God and man after the flood, but the Rabbis could not accept that because they never regarded the book as quite kosher, and they gave Shavuot a new emphasis by designating it as zemen matan Toratenu – the season of the giving of our Torah.
It was never referred to as such in Scripture, and never celebrated as such in biblical times, nor is there anything in the text to show that the Torah was actually given on Shavuot but, as it was certainly given in Sivan, they had it approximately right.
Yet even the efforts to give the festival an extra dimension of holiness have not impaired its beauty, and its rustic associations remain intact.
Our synagogues used to be dingy. They are now rather flashy (how gaudy are they tents O Jacob) and my favourite place of worship used to be Carmel College synagogue, not because it was particularly beautiful itself, but because it looked out on to the lawns, trees and flowers. My favourite now is the private chapel of a close friend which looks out onto a splendid garden and, beyond it, to Hampstead Heath.
Prayers and plants don’t mix in Jewish lore, except on two occasions. One, is of course, Succot, when we bring out our arba minim (four species [of plants]) to synagogue, and the other is Shavuot, when the synagogue are bedecked with plants and flowers.
Plants do bring one down to earth, but there is no harm in being reminded, even within the sacred precincts of the synagogue, that the earth if an exceedingly beautiful place and that we are in origin a pastoral race.