Commentary for Shavuot

3 Jun

Judaism has many holidays. Some are happy, some are sad, and some are more widely observed than others, but they are all important. To mark the importance of these days, we observe them by doing special things to make them different than any other day of the year. On some of them we eat special foods and on others we don’t eat or drink anything at all. On some we observe the prohibition against doing melachah (creative or destructive work) while on others we celebrate by doing things that are melachah, such as lighting candles. On all of them, though, we make additions and subtractions to our standard prayer services to better fit the special day.

We use special holiday tunes, add in the musaf service, the Hallel (if it is a joyful holiday), and other special prayers and readings as is necessary. Most of the special readings that we add in take the form of the Torah reading, haftarah, and megillah reading. The connection between the holiday in question and these addition prayers and readings is often very straightforward and simple to discern. One of the rare times where this is not the case is most of the readings for Shavuot.

Both days of Shavuot have their own Torah readings and haftarahs. In addition to this, each day also has its own special poem in Aramaic, inserted immediately before the Torah reading begins on the first day, and after the first verse of the haftarah on the second day, and we also read Megillat Ruth after Hallel on the second day. The connection between Shavuot and the Torah readings is easy enough to see: Day one is the giving of the Torah and day two includes various laws of the sacrifices for the three pilgrimage holidays, of which Shavuot is one. The two haftarahs, the two poems, and Megillat Ruth, on the other hand, seem to be entirely unrelated to Shavuot.

The haftarah for the first day is one of the strangest passages in the entire Bible. It describes the prophet Ezekiel first receiving God’s calling, and records his vision of strange one-legged creatures with a calf’s hoof for a foot and a different face (some human, some animal) on each side of their heads and one wing on each side of their bodies, and some sort of strange spinning wheels next to them. Really weird stuff.

The poem for the first day, called Akdamut Milin, is similarly strange. It combines the straightforward, almost standard praising of God with grandiose imagery, to the point where its rhyming couplets are so complex that even the most experience Aramaic speaker will likely trip over the words. It also continues on and on and on to the point where it almost starts to get boring, until it starts talking about a fight between a giant ox and a leviathan, both of which wind up easily slaughtered by God’s awesome might.

In stark contrast to these is the haftarah for the second day, a praising of and declaration of faith in God, and its accompanying Aramaic poem, Yetziv Pitgam, which seems to be a standard prayer formula of praising God, followed by a request for protection and sustenance. Both feel very generic, and could easily fit in as readings for any time of the year, and seem to have no real particular connection to Shavuot at all. Providing a further contrast to these readings is Megillat Ruth, a very human story of love, generosity, and kindness.

When their content is contrasted to each other’s, these readings seem to have little in common, and even less in common with Shavuot, but if we instead focus on the character of the special readings for Shavuot, a pattern starts to emerge.

The haftarah for the first day of Shavuot is a mystical encounter with God so strange that it seems almost impossible to comprehend. Akdamut Milin takes a seemingly simple concept such as praising God and expands upon it to the point where this simple concept becomes hard to follow. The Torah reading for the first day, sandwiched between those two, combines the mystical atmosphere with the Ten Commandments, laws that are simple and easily understood on their surface, but also have much depth to them. The haftarah for the second day seems like straightforward praise of God, but is not as straightforward as it seems, because within this praise it also contains many veiled references to events in Jewish history, for those who are willing to look to find them. Yetziv Pitgam, on the other hand, is exactly the straightforward prayer it seems to be, and the Torah reading for the second day is simple procedurals for observing the holidays with some equally simple explanations thrown in, while the maftir reading instructs us which sacrifices to offer on Shavuot with no explanation at all. Ruth is simply a narrative, and provides a human element, teaching us which traits God desires us to emulate. Every passage in the Torah falls into one of these categories, and on Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate receiving the Torah, we read one of each.

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