Tag Archives: Shavuot

Commentary for Shavuot

2 Jun

On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah, and what better way could there be to show our appreciation for this precious gift than by utilizing it? Thus, we stay up all night studying Torah, and then, during morning services, we do a public reading. Whenever we have a holiday that tells the story of a specific moment in time that is related in the Bible, our Torah reading for that day will either tell that exact story or tell the story of the closest available section while delegating the duties of telling the exact story to the section of the Bible in which it is contained. On Purim we read the background of the Purim story from the Torah, followed by the story itself in the Book of Ester. On the first day of Passover we read about that day’s events- the paschal sacrifice, the slaying of the firstborn, and the exodus from Egypt. On the seventh day of Passover, when the Red Sea was split, we read about the splitting of the sea and the ultimate defeat of the Egyptian army at God’s hand, while the Israelites begin their trek to the Promised Land. On Shavuot, then, we naturally read about the giving of the Torah and all the preparations therefore, from the moment the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai up through the end of the climactic revelation and the reading of the Ten Commandments.

 

Unlike the other holidays, however, the Torah reading for Shavuot does not stop there. Instead it continues for one more aliyah in which Moses starts to expound on some of the laws we just heard. What, exactly, falls into the category of the “sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below or the water beneath the earth” that we have just been forbidden from making? And if we can’t use these items as a way to focus ourselves on our God as our neighbors do for their gods then how shall we worship our God without violating this commandment? If we are to make an altar then what means and methods of construction are acceptable for it? And what manner of conduct that our neighbors might engage in during their ceremonies should we engage or not engage in?

 

These questions whose answers Moses provides set the tone for the process of Jewish legal thought, but their placement here and their inclusion in the Shavuot Torah reading teaches us another important value of Jewish learning: there is always more to learn. The story of receiving the Torah does not end with the glitz and glamour of the revelation at Sinai. It continues from the moment afterwards right up until this very day. After Shavuot there are no holidays in sight for almost four months, but as we learn from the Shavuot Torah reading, our celebration of receiving the Torah must still continue.

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Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

21 Nov

Shemini Atzeret is probably the strangest of the Jewish holidays- and that is assuming that you take the position that it is even its own holiday at all as opposed to just the final day of Sukkot. Even its name is strange. While the “Shemini” part clearly translates to “eighth,” (as in the either “the eighth day of Sukkot” or “the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot), the “Atzeret” part is trickier. “Atzeret” can mean either “gathering” or “cessation.”

Despite the word never being used to describe it in the Torah, the Gemarah occasionally refers to Shavuot as a day of “Atzeret” as well. While this seems baffling at first, a closer examination reveals that these two holidays do share some quirky characteristics.   These are the only two holidays whose dates are not explicitly set forth in the Torah. While the Torah tells us that other holidays start “in the X month on the Y day,” these two holidays’ dates are deduced from the dates of other holidays. Shavuot is the day after the forty-ninth day after the first day of Passover, while Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot. Thus, both of these holidays can be seen as a cessation of counting. Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the Omer, the seven-week period from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, during which it is a mitzvah to count each day. On Shemini Atzeret we cease counting not only the seven days of Sukkot necessary to deduce that today is the eight day- Shemini Atzeret, but also the seventy bulls sacrificed over the course of Sukkot (representing the other nations of the world, of which there are traditionally seventy). Shemini Atzeret completely breaks from the pattern of the sacrifices of Sukkot, which starts with thirteen on the first day and decreases by one on every successive day. By contrast, Shemini Atzeret has only one.

The bulls sacrificed on Sukkot are well known to many Jews nowadays not for their own mitzvah but for their inclusion in a debate recorded in the Gemarah (Shabbat 21b) about the proper way to light Chanukah candles. The school of Shamai says that we should light eight the first day, seven the second day and so on in accordance with the Sukkot sacrifices, which could not be performed at their proper time that year because the forces of Antiochus and their followers had rendered the Holy Temple impure. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, says that we should light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on, due to the general principle of ma’alin bekodesh [v’ein moridin]- “we go up in matters of holiness [and do not go down].” While this principle is fairly easy to apply to Shavuot (we finish counting the Omer, then celebrate receiving the Torah, going from one mitzvah to all of them), we seem to run into a b it of a snag trying to apply it to Shemini Atzeret, where we go from the many sacrifices of Sukkot to just one for Shemini Atzeret.

The answer to this problem lies in the “gathering” facets of these two holidays. On Shavuot, all of the Jews, past, present, and future, were gathered around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The rabbis make much ado about the fact that every single person there accepted the Torah “as one voice (Ex. 24:3).” The reason that rabbis are so impressed with this is simply that they didn’t have to do so, but every last one of them still chose to do so.

Judaism applauds going above and beyond the call of duty, and that is what Shemini Atzeret is about. Unlike Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, there is no obligation for every Jew to appear at the Holy Temple on Shemini Atzeret, and yet the Israelites would do so anyway. While the seventy bulls sacrificed on Sukkot represented the other nations of the world, the one sacrificed on Shemini Atzeret represented the Jewish People, who have chosen to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Noachide laws in order to be closer to God. In this way, on Shemini Atzeret, we are ma’alin bekodesh.

Combining these concepts, we can finally understand the name of Shemini Atzeret. The number seven in Judaism represents a sense of completeness. On Shavuot we have just finished the mitzvah of counting the Omer (seven weeks of seven days each) and now, as we begin an eighth week, we move on to something even bigger and better in accepting all of mitzvot in the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret we have finished the seven days of Sukkot with their seventy (7×10) obligatory sacrifices, and now, on the eighth day, we voluntarily gather together to oversee the performance of one more sacrifice to show our desire to go above and beyond the call of duty in service to God. On Shemini Atzeret we gather together to turn an end into a new beginning.

Commentary for Shavuot

14 Jun

Shavuot is often referred to as a celebration of the giving of the Torah.   In our prayers we refer to it as zman matan Torahteinu– “the time of the giving of our Torah,” because it takes place on the anniversary of that momentous occasion. We celebrate the occasion by refraining from creative work and instead have festive meals with family and friends. We read about the giving of the Torah from the very Torah that was given to us, and insert special poems into the Torah reading and haftarah that praise God for giving us the Torah.

 

We also commemorate this great moment by trying to bring ourselves back to it. We eat only dairy foods, as our ancestors did while preparing for the giving of the Torah. We decorate the synagogue with flowers and greenery, hearkening back to the way that Mt. Sinai bloomed while the Torah was given, despite being in the middle of a desert. We read the Ten Commandments in the majestic “upper cantillation,” in which each of the commandments is given in one verse, regardless of length, with the exception of the first two, which are read as part of the same verse, just as they were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

 

While it is great to celebrate giving, it is important not to forget about the other side of the coin. Just as talking to someone does no good if they do not listen, so too does giving become irrelevant if the gift is not received and accepted.

 

On Shavuot, in addition to the Torah, haftarah, Hallel, and the special poems, we also read the Book of Ruth. While the Book of Ruth is known for its wonderful messages about family, loyalty, and caring for the needy, it is, at its core, the story of someone who chose to become a Jew. This is the same choice our ancestors made at Mount Sinai. While there have been many midrashim written over the years to praise the pious manner in which the Israelites accepted the Torah, the most important factor is not their piety in making that choice, but the fact that they made that choice at all.

 

Our ancestors did not have to accept the Torah. They could have, as one famous midrash depicts the other nations of the world doing, asked what was in it, decided that they didn’t like it, and told God “thank you, but no.” Instead, they made the conscious choice to receive God’s gift of Torah. We face that choice as well; not just on Shavuot, but on every day of the year. On Shavuot we celebrate God giving us the gift of Torah. Our task is to celebrate our accepting it every single day.

Commentary for Shavuot

22 May

There are many well-known traditions associated with the holiday of Shavuot. We eat dairy during Shavuot because the Israelites had not received the Torah and thus did not yet know which animals were permissible to eat, so they ate dairy to avoid accidentally eating a non-kosher animal. We stay up all night learning on the first night of the holiday to make reparations to God for the sin of the golden calf. On the first day of Shavuot, the day when the Jewish People officially entered into their covenant with God, we read the book of Ruth to learn about one individual’s journey into that covenant.

 

One of the lesser-known customs of Shavuot is to decorate the synagogue with flowers. The source for this custom is a midrash which says that on the day of the giving of the Torah, the desert around Mount Sinai bloomed with flowers. While this basic explanation is very nice, there is also a deeper symbolism behind this custom.

 

The sprouting of flowers in the barren desert symbolizes the Torah’s ability to bring a new life to areas of our lives that were previously lacking. Before receiving the Torah, eating was just eating. It was a thing we did to survive and to satiate our desire for food. With the Torah, though, the choices we make when we eat cease to be mundane and become a way through which we can serve God.   Burying the dead ceases to be icky, grimy work done simply to preserve the living by preventing the spread of disease, and instead becomes a beautiful declaration to the world that all of God’s creations deserve to be treated with dignity, even after the point that they cannot pay you back in kind. The giving of food to the poor transforms from merely being a nice thing to do into being a way in which we set an example for people and show them how God wants everyone to behave.

 

The Torah was not given at Sinai to remain there, high up on that mountain. It was given to our ancestors to take with them everywhere they went on their journey. And though the journeys may have changed throughout the centuries, it applies no differently for us.

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.

Commentary for Behar

12 May

This week’s parshah, Behar, in which we learn the laws of the Jubilee year, is always read during the Counting of the Omer. These two periods have a lot in common. We are required to count them both, and we do so in seven sets of seven (weeks for the Omer, Sabbatical cycles for the Jubilee), and in both cases we count forty-nine units (days in the Omer, years in the Jubilee cycle) in order to build up to an even more special, joyous fiftieth unit during which we celebrate our relationship with God (the giving of the Torah on Shavuot and God’s ownership over the land and our fealty to God and God alone in the Jubilee).

A deeper look reveals some very interesting contrasts and correlations between these two periods. While every individual Jew is commanded to count the Omer, the courts are tasked to keep count of the Jubilee cycles on behalf of the community. The Kabalistic tradition teaches that there are seven attributes that we are supposed to focus on improving in ourselves during the Counting of the Omer, while the releasing of debt slaves and reverting of property rights at the Jubilee is seen as an improvement of our society as a whole.

Strangely, though, the culminating “fiftieth day of the Omer,” Shavuot, is a holiday focused on the communal acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish People, while the day that the Jubilee year officially begins, Yom Kippur, is a day of personal introspection where we look at our own flaws and resolve to improve ourselves as individuals for the coming year. It seems backwards that period of focus on ourselves as an individual should lead up to a communal holiday while the major economic upheaval which the community is responsible for managing should begin on a day when we are judged for our individual actions (especially when there are other days on the calendar during which we are traditionally judged as a society, such as Shmini Atzeret or the Tenth of Tevet).

One thing that both days have in common is that they are both days when the Torah was given. While the initial revelation at Sinai occurred on Shavuot, a series of calculations by Rashi reveals that the on which Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets was Yom Kippur. One of the commonly used division for the mitzvot in the Torah is miztvot incumbent upon the individual vs. mitzvot incumbent upon the community as a whole. While looking at things along these lines can certainly lead to interesting insights, it is important to remember that they are all interconnected. The Gemara on Shevuot 39a warns us with the well-known statement “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh- all of Israel is responsible for one another.” It is our duty to help each other fulfill our individual responsibilities just as much as it is our responsibility as individuals to do our part for the community. Similarly, when we as individuals achieve a goal, the whole community celebrates with us, and when the community calls on us, we must ensure that we are ready to answer.