The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.” Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.
In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest. The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.
On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple — two loaves of wheat bread — regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered.
This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.
Then the People Israel was severed from the land and from its ability to bring earthy offerings of foods of the Land of Israel to the Temple. During the same crisis when the People was deprived of its original, indigenous sacred relationship with the Earth, it was introduced to an alternative form of sacredness. From Hellenistic philosophy, it became clear that adept use of words could make connection with the Divine. And words could be carried from place to place, land to land.
So spiritual leadership was redefined. It was handed to a meritocratic lineage of men skilled in words –- the Rabbis. In accordance with this profound transformation, the Rabbis redefined Shavuot –— as no longer the celebration of spring wheat, but the anniversary of Revelation of the Word.
Just as Passover — the anniversary of Liberation from slavery –- offered the whole people the opportunity to renew its commitment to freedom from the many Pharaohs that haunted Jewish history, Shavuot as Revelation offered the People the opportunity to stand again at Sinai, every year, and make new Torah — midrash.
But this transformation of Shavuot left the festival almost bereft of ceremony, hands-on ritual that could engage people bodily and emotionally. Passover has the Seder and its foods; Sukkot, the fall harvest festival, has the building of a leafy, leaky hut; Rosh Hashanah, the ear-filling, heart-stopping blasts of the ram’s horn; Yom Kippur, a 26-hour fast; Hanukkah, the lighting of a growing blaze of candles. Shavuot –- what?
Words. Powerful words, but still only words. Reading the Ten Utterances of Sinai. Reading Ezekiel’s weird ecstatic experience of God in the form of a whirling chariot, crowned by a rainbow of flashing colors. Reading the Scroll of Ruth, about the transformation of a poverty-stricken immigrant from a despised pariah people into the ancestress of King David and therefore of Messiah.
When what we now know as Judaism and Christianity were just beginning to diverge, on Shavuot there was a gathering to celebrate the holy day. According to Christian tradition, in that gathering Words suddenly dissolved and multiplied into hearing and speaking the 70 different tongues of all humanity.
Shavuot became “Pentecost” (which means “Fiftieth Day”). The Holy Spirit –Ruach haKodesh, perhaps the Holy Breath that appears in every language — beckoned the emerging Church to speak to the many peoples in their many tongues. In following that path, Christianity gained a great deal — but left behind, even more than Rabbinic Judaism, the Earth-connection.
In another mystical experience more than a millennium later, the Jewish mystics in the town of Tzfat (Safed) 500 years ago embraced an all-night “teach-in” of the many faces of Torah. From the all-night learning could come both exhaustion – emptying out of the ego — and exhilaration – unifying each person’s “I“ into the higher, deeper, fuller, universal “I” of Sinai.
Some Jewish communities practice that all-night learning still. Perhaps for some it does engage the body. Still, the body and the Earth are under-involved — though we live in an era of crisis for the Earth, the Earth we overwork.
So perhaps the time has come to move beyond the word-focus of Rabbinic Judaism – not abandoning words but reintegrating Wheat and Word, the Food that comes into our mouths and the words of Torah that come out of our mouths.
There is a parallel pattern of 7×7+1 in Torah that especially calls us to unEarth the earthiness of Shavuot. This pattern of seven weeks and the fiftieth day is a microcosm of the pattern of Sabbatical/ Shmita Years and the Jubilee or Home-bringing Year.
In that pattern of a landed, indigenous people, every seven years, the Land and the People rested from organized agriculture and all debts were annulled. Then, in the year after the seventh seventh year -– the fiftieth year –- there was again a pause from all agricultural work (which made the Shabbat pause two years in a row).
Going even beyond this Sabbatical pause, during this 50th year there was a total redistribution of land, each family returning to its ancestral holding. The rich gave up being rich, the poor gave up being poor.
Seven times seven, plus one. 7×7+1=50. Imagine a whirling slingshot, round and round, higher and higher — and then: Lift-off!
This pattern of 49 days plus 1 day begins by affirming that it comes “B’Har Sinai” – “On Mount Sinai.” So we have an additional powerful reason to connect these patterns.
What can the 49+1 years of both social and eco-social transformation that lead to Jubilee/Home-bringing teach us about the 49+1 days that lead to Harvesting Torah?
How can we unify the earth-Shavuot of wheat harvest with the word-Shavuot of Torah?
One first vision of a tiny practice that could bring new power to Shavuot: Each household bakes two loaves of bread to bring to the communal reading of that Moment on the Mountain.
As we share the bread with each other, touching the loaves and touching the others who are touching the loaves, we share with each other, with our partner the Earth, and with our Highest Selves, the One:
From Earth we receive,
To the One we give:
Together we share,
And from this we live.
Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow is founder of The Shalom Center, a nonprofit organization which seeks to be a prophetic voice in Jewish, American, and multireligious life. Creator of the original Freedom Seder, he is author of several books, among them Freedom Journeys, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman. This essay originally appeared online at the Shalom Center website.