by Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – Each of the biblical pilgrimage festivals has both an agricultural and a historical significance. Thus, Passover is situated in the season of the “aviv,” the ripening of the grain. Sukkot celebrates the ingathering of the winter crops, and Shavuot the grain harvest and first fruits. The Torah endowed these days with their more prominent themes as commemorations of central events in Israel’s sacred history: Passover for the Exodus, Sukkot for the sojourn in the desert, and Shavuot for the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Well, not exactly.
The identification of Shavuot as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah is not stated in the Torah. In fact, the holiday is not assigned an actual date in the calendar, but rather—at least according to the Pharisaic/Rabbinic calendar reckoning—is arrived at by counting seven weeks from the beginning of Passover.
In interpreting its main theme, many traditional Jewish commentators, including Nahmanides, took their cue from the Torah’s statements that stressed its distinctive grain offerings: the ‘omer of barley at the start of the count, and the two loaves of wheat bread offered on Shavuot itself.
The thirteenth-century author of the Sefer ha-hinnukh explained these offerings as consistent with the Rabbis’ teaching that “anyone who benefits from this world without a blessing is guilty of stealing.” To be sure, before enjoying the benefits of basic foodstuffs like barley and grain it is appropriate to acknowledge the generosity of their divine provider, whether by reciting blessings or by setting aside portions as offerings. Only after such gestures of gratitude is it fitting to partake of the new produce for personal consumption or as sacrificial offerings. Consistent with his general theory about the function of mitzvot, the Sefer ha-hinnukh held that the practical performance of these rituals will effectively habituate our minds and spirits to proper religious sensibilities.
He noted as well that there are meaningful differences in the respective natures of the two offerings, the ‘omer and the two loaves. The former consists of raw barley, a crop that was generally regarded as fit only for animals; whereas the latter is a distinctly human food, wheat, that has undergone all the complex processing necessary to prepare baked loaves of bread. This serves as a model for the soul’s evolution from basic physical activities to subtle spiritual ideas.
In his legal compendia, Maimonides laid out the procedures for the offerings without explaining their purposes. However, in his Guide of the Perplexed he expounded that the act of counting the days between the anniversaries of the exodus and of the Sinai revelation recreates our ancestors’ emotional experience, as one would eagerly count days in anticipation of a meeting with a beloved friend. This teaches us that the liberation from slavery was not the ultimate goal, but only a means to the paramount objective of receiving God’s Torah on Shavuot.
Thus, the agricultural and historical understandings of Shavuot and its preludes tended to exist in separate parallel realms. There were, however, several interpreters who could not resist the challenge of blending those themes into a unified exposition.
We find this challenge taken up by two illustrious exegetes who flourished in fifteenth-century Spain. The main idea makes its initial appearance in Rabbi Isaac Arama’s Akedat Yitzhak, an expansive philosophical exposition of the Torah. Shortly afterwards it was stated in very similar terms by Don Isaac Abravanel. (In fact, Arama’s son Meir composed an angry letter in which he expressed his displeasure at Abravanel’s tendency to copy his father’s ideas without crediting them). While acknowledging the thanksgiving aspect of the grain offerings (analogous to the obligation to offer up the first fruits), they also interpreted them (as had Maimonides) as the lead-up to the Torah’s revelation.
Abravanel explained specific rules governing the seasonal offerings in connection with Israel’s receiving the Torah. Thus, the two loaves of Shavuot represent the two Torahs: the written and the oral. The greater complexity of the later Shavuot offering over the initial ‘omer symbolizes the progress that was made in the people’s understanding of the holy teachings.
True, the exodus set the Israelites apart from heathen nations who are depicted metaphorically as hay, straw or thorns. And yet (as had been observed by the hinnukh) the chosen people at that stage were like the lowest grade of cultivated grain, analogous to barley. It was still necessary to count a symbolic interval of fifty days to complete the process of spiritual refining that qualified them to receive the Torah.
The Mishnah describes how the flour for the ‘omer offering was subjected to thirteen stages of filtering through sieves. Rabbi Arama proposed a symbolic reading of those thirteen stages: they evoke the thirteen generations from Noah through to Jacob. The first ten generations were an era of depraved idolatry. Then, with Abraham’s appearance on the scene, commenced a period of purification until the patriarch Jacob produced progeny untainted by idolatry. Thus the thirteen stages of purification were built into the ritual of the ‘omer in order to define it as the commencement of a process designed to produce a similar state of religious enlightenment.
Abravanel extended that idea to the animal sacrifices that were offered with the loaves. Lest the humble grain be dismissed as an inconsequential rite, the Torah commanded that it be accompanied by loaves of fine flour, and by sheep representing the “scattered sheep” of Israel who are destined to receive the Torah.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took this a step further. The counting is to begin “from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain” —that is, when Israelite farmers are farming their own crops in their homeland. The real culmination of the process is neither the exodus nor the Sinai revelation, but the actual implementation of Torah laws and ethics in a living, labouring human society.
As Rabbi Hirsch declared, “From the point where others cease their counting, there does yours commence!”
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.