Sivan 5, 5773, 14/05/13 05:26
Thoughts on Shavuot
From Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, May 14, 2013
In Judaism, mysteries have a habit of becoming controversies, none more so than in the case of Shavuot, otherwise known as Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. Shavuot generated one of the great arguments in Jewish history. It is not too much to say that on its outcome the future of Jewish people turned.
The mystery of Shavuot is twofold. The first is that uniquely among the Jewish festivals it has no date; the Bible gives it no explicit place in the Jewish calendar. Instead, it is to be arrived at by counting seven weeks after the beginning of the Omer, the offering brought from the barley harvest, the first crop to ripen in the spring. ‘And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the wave offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count seven weeks’ (Leviticus 23:15).
The second is that alone of the pilgrimage festivals it has no overt historical content. The Jewish festivals have a double character. They belong to cyclical time – the seasons of the year. And they belong to linear time – they recall formative moments in Jewish history. So Pesach is the festival of spring and also the time when we re-enact the exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is the festival of the autumn harvest and the time when we re-live the journey through the wilderness in temporary dwellings or tabernacles. But as we read the biblical description of Shavuot, half of the festival seems to be missing. Its seasonal significance is clear. It is called the ‘Feast of the Harvest’ and the ‘Day of First Fruits’. But the historical dimension is absent. So Shavuot raised two questions that were to become the subject of deep controversy: when was it celebrated, and why?
The argument became acute in the days of the second Temple when Jews were divided into several groups, most notably the Sadducees and Pharisees. We know all too little about this period, but we can say this. Of the two groups, the Sadducees were the more affluent and influential. They were closely connected to the Temple hierarchy and to the political elite. They were as near as Jewry came to a governing class. The Pharisees drew their support from the poorer groups of the population, and they had a distinctive ethos. Whilst the Sadducees saw Jewish identity in terms of the State and its institutions, the Pharisees saw it in terms of personal piety and scrupulous observance of the Law. In particular, they had a passion for education. They built academies and schools and devoted their days to the study of Torah.
There were several doctrinal differences between the two groups, but one in particular was crucial. The Pharisees gave equal authority to the twin sources of Judaism, the Written Torah (especially the Mosaic books) and the Oral Torah, the unwritten traditions which accompanied the biblical text, interpreting and supplementing it. The Sadducees accepted only the Written Torah, not oral tradition. This was to become the key issue in the debate over the date of Shavuot.
The Torah had specified that the counting of seven weeks should begin on ‘the day after the Sabbath’. The Sadducees took this literally. The counting should begin on Sunday, so that Shavuot would always fall on Sunday seven weeks later. The Pharisees invoked tradition and argued instead that in this case `sabbath’ meant ‘festival’, specifically the first day of Pesach. The counting should begin on the second day of Pesach, so that the dates of Pesach and Shavuot were linked. The argument between them became acute — inevitably so, since there can be few more divisive situations than one in which two sections of the population are celebrating the same festival on different days.