A Holiday with No Identity
A Holiday of Many Names
The Torah lists “the festival of Shavu’ot” as one of the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Pesach and Sukkot (Devarim 16:16 and elsewhere). It draws its name from the fact that it is the culmination of seven weeks that we begin counting on Pesach. Yet this is not the festival’s only name. Elsewhere, the Torah calls it “the harvest festival” (“chag he-katzir”; Shemot 23:16), for it occurs at the time of the wheat harvest in Eretz Yisrael. Another name the Torah uses for this holiday is “the day of the first fruits” (“yom ha-bikurim; Bamidbar 28:26 and elsewhere), for starting on this day the first fruits could be brought to the Kohanim and a special offering of two loaves of bread was made in the Temple.
In our prayer, we call this holiday by still another name: “the season of the giving of our Torah” (“zman matan Torateinu”), for on this day we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai according to tradition (this is not mentioned in the Torah itself). The Sages gave the holiday yet another name: “atzeret”. We will address the meaning of this name below, but it is connected with the tradition that considers this holiday to be the birthday of King David.
Each of these names expresses a different dimension of the holiday. But is there some sort of common denominator from which all of these dimensions flow?
The Uniqueness of the Holiday
Each holiday has specific mitzvot that set it apart from the rest (aside from each holiday’s unique sacrificial rite). On Pesach we eat matza, on Sukkot we sit in the sukkah, and so forth. But on Shavu’ot there is no specific mitzva that individuals must perform. As a result, there is no tractate in the Mishna and Talmud devoted to Shavu’ot specifically. Shavu’ot seems to be a perfectly generic holiday. Why?
Moreover, each holiday occurs on a specific date, whereas Shavu’ot occurs upon completion of seven weeks from the day of the Omer offering, which itself was was offered on the second day of Pesach (Vayikra 23:15). Before the calendar was fixed, this meant that Shavu’ot could fall on the fifth, sixth or seventh of Sivan. Why is there no fixed date?
Do these features tell us anything about the essence of Shavuot?
The Giving of the Torah: the Foundation of Everything
It is hard to overstate the centrality of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. At this unprecedented and formative event, God spoke directly to an entire people (see Devarim 4:32-39). It left no doubt about God’s existence and involvement in human affairs (see Kuzari 1:87) or about the divine truth of the Torah – a truth that cannot be replaced or superseded. The eternal truth of the Torah is thus a pillar of our faith and something that we are enjoined to recall every day and pass on to our children.
According to R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), the experience at Mt. Sinai effected a fundamental change in the essence of the Jewish people. From that point forward, they entered a state of commandedness – they became God’s servants. This existential state is far more intimate than any relationship based on voluntary observance. Through this, Israel became God’s agents and partners in the work of repairing the world (Da’at Tevunot 153).
Shavu’ot and the Giving of the Torah
According to Ramchal, Jewish holiday are not mere commemorations of past events; the divine illumination that was present during those initial events are actually present once again each year on the associated holiday. Shavu’ot is no different: the light that was revealed at Mt. Sinai is revealed once again each year on Shavu’ot.
And yet, oddly, the Torah does not connect Shavu’ot with the giving of the Torah, nor does the Torah mention the date on which the Torah was given. It is certainly no coincidence that such a formative event is not given a date. Rather, as Rav Kook explains, the relevant date was preserved only in the Oral Torah to emphasize the importance and interdependence of the Oral and Written Law, whose relationship is akin to those of soul and body (Ma’amarei Ha-Re’ayah 1:176).
Yet this issue has not been resolved. There is even a dispute in the Talmud (Shabbat 86b) about whether the Torah was given on the sixth or seventh of Sivan. We observe Shavu’ot on the sixth, which, the Talmud seems to conclude, is not the day on which the Torah was given. Perhaps this discrepancy emphasizes that, in the final analysis, the giving of the Torah is not an event that is repeated annually on Shavu’ot, but is actually repeated every day. Every day we should relate to the Torah and its commandments as though we had received them that very day (see Rabbeinu Bachya on Devarim 26:16). This re-experience is heightened on Shavu’ot, but we do not wish to link it precisely to a specific day in order to reinforce the message that really the Torah should be renewed every day. Perhaps this is also the reason that we have no special commandments on Shavu’ot – on which we reconnect to all of the commandments.
Shavu’ot as the “Atzeret” of Pesach
By calling Shavu’ot “Atzeret”, they linked it to Shemini Atzeret, which is mentioned in the Torah. In the Mishna, “Atzeret” refers only to Shavu’ot, not Shemini Atzeret. Ramban (Vayikra 23:36) explains that Shavu’ot is indeed an “atzeret” of Pesach – a culmination of the holiday. He compares the seven intervening seven weeks to a “chol ha-mo’ed” between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Just as Shamini Atzeret does not need to be specified by date as it is the conclusion of a direct continuum with Sukkot, so too Shavu’ot need not be specified by date, as it is a direct continuum with Pesach (see Bamidbar 28:16-26).
The connection between Pesach and Shavu’ot stems from the connection between the foundational events of the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. The entire purpose of the Exodus was to give the Torah to the Jewish people, and therefore, immediately after we re-experience the Exodus, we must begin counting toward its ultimate goal – the giving of the Torah. We progress through and perfect seven attributes, from Chesed (love) through Malkhut (kingship), as we count the Omer. The physical Exodus remains incomplete until the spiritual aspect is addressed. Shavu’ot thus completes Pesach.
“Atzeret” and Malkhut
The word “atzeret” does not only mean “culmination” in the sense of “conclusion” though. It also has a connotation of a “gathering” as well. In this sense, Shavu’ot, or Atzeret, accumulates and “gathers in” all of the illumination that has accrued during the seven weeks since Pesach. Shavu’ot has nothing of its own because it reflects the power of everything that preceded it. This corresponds to the attribute of “Malkhut” which in kabbalistic terms has no properties of its own but serves as a conduit for the integration of all other powers (see Perush Ramaz al ha-Zohar, Bamidbar p. 873; see also our essay in Yerach Ha-etanim on Shemini Atzeret).
This connection between Shavu’ot and Malkhut can explain its lack of a fixed date and of a unique mitzva. Only something with a unique identity can be associated with a fixed sate and a specific mitzva. Shavu’ot, however, reflects the cumulative power of all the dates and attributes that preceded it since Pesach. This connection also explains the association between Shavu’ot and King David, who was born and died on Shavu’ot, and whose origins are described in the book of Ruth, which is read on Shavu’ot. On a deeper level, David, too, had no particular identity. His existence is a pure reflection of the attributes and characteristics of others, which become integrated within him with no conflict or contradiction (see Orot Ha-kodesh 3:117).
This, then is the secret of this holiday’s strange lack of uniqueness and identifying features. It has no identity of its own because it incorporates everything within it. It is nothing because it is everything.