The Bible Says What? ‘The Torah wasn’t given on Shavuot’

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The Bible Says What? ‘The Torah wasn’t given on Shavuot’

 Rabbi Aaron Goldstein takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a Liberal Jewish response

Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)
Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)

Of all the major Torah festivals, Shavuot is the most unrecognisable from the descriptions in our Bible.

For UK Jews observing Shavuot, beyond the tradition of eating lots of cheesecake, it’s centred on Zman matan Torahteinu – the time of the giving of our Torah, the Revelation at Mount Sinai. But nowhere does our written Torah link the festival to the giving of the Torah. 

Rather, we get a largely agricultural celebration of the first fruits
of the wheat harvest, a festival with the specific directions for animal sacrifice and one marked possibly in a more urban setting.

The accounts, written at different times by different people, reflect a harvest festival or Israelite cultic festival to which most in the UK would find difficult to relate owing to the variance of climate and super-city dwelling tendencies. 

Instead, our Shavuot is an interpretation of the ancient rabbis, who created Judaism from the seeds of the written Torah. Trying to suit the lives of what was becoming an increasingly town-based and diasporic people, they changed Shavuot from an annual agricultural phenomenon to a festival grounded in a one-off historical event. 

Today we are still evolving Judaism. The popularity of an all-night Shavuot study session (Tikkun Leil Shavuot) has only relatively recently grown in popularity, now often with its own Seder.

In the early 20th century, the early pioneers of the land reintroduced Shavuot as a first fruits festival to be spent in the fields with flowers, baskets and produce. This was my experience on Kibbutz Hasolelim. 

The Bible says little about the Shavuot of today and its not the most popular of festivals, but what might come out of a lockdown with more people growing their own? Let’s see what we might create.

  •  Rabbi Aaron Goldstein serves The Ark Synagogue

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