TIME, SPACE, AND THE SHAVUOT BRIDGE

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHOT EMOR

 

TIME, SPACE, AND THE SHAVUOT BRIDGE

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.     Introduction

 

"Mo'ed." This word is so central in the Torah, yet it is hard to find the appropriate English equivalent; "appointment," "contact," or "meeting" will have to suffice.  For the past ten parshiot, beginning in Parshat Teruma in Sefer Shemot, the emphasis of the Torah has been on the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, resting upon the Ohel Mo'ed.  For chapters on end, we have discussed the construction and creation of sacred space, both temporarily in the desert and for future reference in Shiloh and in Yerushalayim.  Last week, we noted how Sefer Vayikra suddenly and abruptly changes focus from the Mishkan and its service to how the Jewish people are to function as the bearers of Hashem's name in their dealings in the outside world.  Our parsha returns to discuss the holiness of the kohanim, not as they function within the confines of the Mishkan, but rather among their peers in the most mundane and human of activities – marriage and mourning.  The parsha then discusses the various holidays.  Instead of sacred space, the Jewish people must learn to construct sacred time – the "mo'adim" (holidays). 

 

B.    THE SHABBAT-SHAVOUT CONNECTION

 

The constructive role of the Jewish people in causing holiness and time to coalesce appears almost at the beginning of the parsha:

 

These are the mo'adim of Hashem, the sacred occasions which you shall proclaim, each at its appointed time… (23:4)

Proclaim – whether you do so correctly or incorrectly – these are the only moa'dim that Hashem will recognize! [Being contingent on the beit din's approval – Rashi] (Rosh Ha-Shanah 25a)

 

The Torah then goes on to describe the dates, determined by the proclamation of the new moon, of each of the holidays:

 

In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month … (23:5)

On the fifteenth day of the month … (23:8)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month … (23:24)

Just on the tenth day of this seventh month … (23:27)

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month … (23:34)

 

The imperative to proclaim the holidays appears almost at the beginning of the parsha – but not quite.  Commencing the list of holidays is Shabbat. Separate and yet connected, Shabbat differs from the rest of the list as there is not need for the vagaries of astronomical dating that afflict the others:

 

Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: The fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions, these are my fixed times. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Shabbat of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a Shabbat of God throughout your settlements.

These are the set times of God, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to God... (23:5)

 

The first point that we notice in this section is that it actually begins twice.  After the first heading – "Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: the fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions, these are my fixed times" – only the command about Shabbat follows.  Afterwards, the initial opening is repeated, almost word for word – "These are the set times of God, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time" – serving as the opening title for the list of the rest of the holidays. The second introduction isolates Shabbat from the rest of the holidays, but it also implies a connection that we must still determine.

 

The introductory heading for the holidays reads: "These are the set times of God, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time." To be called "sacred occasions," they must be observed in their proper times ("be-mo'adam"). There is a set day for the celebration of every holiday; once that specific date arrives on the calendar, we must declare it a sacred occasion.  The calendar, however, is a human invention; beit din proclaims the beginning of each month and sets the date anew with every sighting of the new moon.   Even if beit din were to err, they invest the day with holiness and sanctity, as noted in the gemara cited above.

 

The introductory heading for Shabbat, however, does not include the term "in their time" or "in its time." Man does not define or control Shabbat.  No court declares when Shabbat takes place.  Instead, we read: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Shabbat of complete rest, a sacred occasion." Unlike the holiday dates, set in relation to the natural astronomical world, there is a counting independent of the seasons or the revolutions around the sun. From the days of creation, every seventh day is holy; it does not matter what date the seventh day of the week falls out on.[1]  This reflects a consciousness of time disconnected from the physical world.

 

Through this disconnection from the natural world, Israel testifies that God created the world.  This method of counting presents an alternative to the seasonal, natural reality, which testifies that the world has existed forever.  Not so, proclaims Shabbat!  This world was created ex-nihilo, from nothing, through the word of God.  By keeping Shabbat weekly, we testify to that reality.

 

C.    The Meaning of Shavuot

 

In truth, it is not entirely accurate to say that all holidays are bound by astronomical determinations – all are, except one.  One mo'ed shares the Shabbat's disregard of astronomy.  Having no fixed point in the sky, its holiness derives from the grains of the earth, the counting of the harvests from barley to wheat:

 

Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first omer of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the omer before Hashem for acceptance on your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the Shabbat... And from the day on which you bring the omer of elevation offering - the day after the Shabbat - you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete; you must count until the day after the seventh week, fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Hashem. You shall bring from your settlement two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening, as first fruits to Hashem.... On that same day, you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations.  This is a law for all time in all your settlements throughout the ages. (Vayikra 23:9-11, 15-17, 21)

 

How can we explain the similarities between Shabbat and Shavo'ut?  In many ways, it is a holiday like the others; the same rules apply – only "melechet avoda" is forbidden, unlike Shabbat.  It receives its holiness from the declaration of the people:  "On the fiftieth day."  Yet, it is not tied to a specific date on the calendar[2] or the proclamation of the court: "Shavuot falls sometimes on the fifth, sometimes on the sixth, and sometimes on the seventh [of Sivan]" (Rosh Ha-Shanah 6b).  Instead, it begins where the Shabbat left off – "And the priest shall elevate it on the day after the Shabbat … You shall count on the morrow after the Shabbat, when you bring the omer offering."  Shabbat is defined by the cycle of seven, and Shavuot is seven cycles of seven.  

 

Apparently, Shavuot, like Shabbat, is beyond the natural cycle and is not determined by nature.  On the other hand, the unique preparatory period leading up to Shavuot is connected to the natural seasonal cycle of the harvest.  Clearly, then, Shavuot bridges the two worlds that are starkly differentiated at the beginning of the chapter.  What could possibly connect between the supernatural Divine world of Shabbat, residing above nature, with the daily grind to earn the bread of humanity on earth?  Only Shavuot – the date when we receive the Torah.  

 



[1] To fully appreciate the difference between the natural cycle of seasons and the weekly cycle, consider the following:  Should a person lose their way in the desert, they would, after some time, be able to determine the date and whether it was winter, summer, spring or fall, and act accordingly.  However, once the day of the week is forgotten, to astronomically recreate it is impossible (see Shabbat 69b for the practical ramifications of this quandary).

 

[2] The Ba'al Ha-Turim (Rabbenu Yaakov ben Asher, 1270-1340, of Germany and then Spain) views this quality as a purely technical reason:

 

There are those who explain that the reason for the counting of the omer is that [the days of the omer] are the days of harvesting and the people are busy [working in the fields] and are not in their homes. They could therefore not be reached by the messengers of the courts to be informed when the new month begins. God therefore commanded us to count the days.

 

We are suggesting a different approach in our study.