Shavuot: The Stopping Point
There is always something going on in the Jewish festival calendar. From the fast of the 10th of Tevet (January 5th this year) through Hanukkah (which ends on December 16th) right around to the next fast of the 10th of Tevet on December 23rd, it's hard to go more than four or five weeks in a row without finding some special day to be observed.
But it wasn't always so. The Jewish holidays described explicitly in the Torah are not scattered through the year, but occur in just two distinct periods. The key to understanding this is found in the rabbinic name of the festival that begins on Saturday night. We call it Shavuot—in English, it's the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost—but in rabbinic literature it goes by the name Atzeret.
Colloquially one might translate this name as "stopping." Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, in his note to Leviticus 23:36, explains it as meaning "detention." God, as it were, says to the Israelites, "I have detained you with me," like (says Rashi) a king who invites his children to feast with him for a certain number of days. When the time comes for them to leave, he says, "Children, please. Stay with me for one more day. I hate to see you go." But the straightforward explanation is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with the fact that the major festivals are related to one another.
The most obvious example of holidays that are separate but nevertheless maintain a relationship are Rosh Hashanah, the two-day Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We are used to speaking of these three days as "the High Holidays," but in fact there are technical reasons to consider the entire period from the first of Tishrei, when Rosh Hashanah beings, to the tenth of Tishrei, when Yom Kippur occurs, as a single period. What unites them is not merely the theological notion that (as the traditional prayer book has it) "on Rosh Hashanah [one's fate] is written down, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed." There is also a technical aspect that demonstrates the connection: the Ashkenazic liturgical custom of Yizkor, prayers in memory of the dead.
Yizkor prayers are recited on the eighth day of Passover (the seventh day in Israel) and the second day of Shavuot (in Israel, on the one and only day of the festival). But there is no Yizkor on Rosh Hashanah, because that festival is merely the beginning of a 10-day period that ends with Yom Kippur—and that is when Yizkor, at last, comes around. The festival of Sukkot, beginning on the 15th of Tishrei, likewise has no Yizkor, because it is followed immediately by a holiday that is marked as related to Sukkot by serving as its occasion for Yizkor: Sh'mini Atzeret.
That is the festival described in Leviticus 23:36, where Rashi's comment on the word Atzeret occurs, and this leads us back to the biblical year of festivals—not merely sparser than the religious calendar used by contemporary Jews, but organized into two quite distinct seasons.
The fall holidays culminate with Sukkot, the seven-day festival that begins on the full moon of the seventh month, the first month of fall. When Sukkot ends, the holidays stop for the year. Rashi's comment notwithstanding, the Atzeret the Israelites were commanded to observe on the eighth day (sh'mini is Hebrew for "eighth") did not commemorate their being asked by God to linger for just a few more hours. Rather, it marked the end, the stopping point, of the fall holiday season. What was expected to follow next, as it still is, were the six months during which rain falls in Israel.
At last spring comes, and on the full moon of the first month, which is also the beginning of spring, Passover arrives. Seven weeks later (hence "the Feast of Weeks"), that is, 49 days later (hence "Pentecost," marking the 50th day), Shavuot arrives—the only festival that does not have a calendar date. Instead, it is inextricably linked to Passover. In biblical times the link was agricultural (see Leviticus 23:15–21); nowadays, they are linked liturgically by the ritual known as the counting of the Omer.
And that is why the rabbinic Sages gave Shavuot the name Atzeret. As on "the Atzeret of the eighth day," today's Shemini Atzeret following Sukkot, Shavuot is more than just a holiday of its own. It marks the conclusion of the festivals of the spring season. With it, the first of the two original Jewish holiday seasons comes to a close. Who could blame the Israelites for wanting to be "detained," for just one more day, in the festive atmosphere of Jerusalem, before heading home for a summer of field labor? But they could not linger; pace Rashi, that is not why Shavuot was called Atzeret. Rather, it meant that the festivals of the beginning of the year were over, and summer—a season of hard work for the farmers envisioned by the book of Leviticus—was ready to begin.
Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
Yom Kippur participates in, extends and concludes the thematic emphases of Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah we enter into timelessness, the first sabbath of Creation, the turning point and New Year of the universe. We acknowledge the Lord of eternity, who was, who is, and who will be, forever. These temporal emphases guide the three major sections of the prayers, on past, present and future: God as universal King and past Creator of the universe, Malchuyot; present Lord of all history and Almighty Judge of all deeds, Zichronot; and future Redeemer in the coming messianic age, Shofarot. We have a foretaste of all these things in the ten Days of Awe. From that perspective we see all of our past in an eternal light, accept the Eternal's judgment, and therefore in repentance seek to re-set our life for the future. Because time is broken through, the dead are present with us in our communal service of God: we acknowledge their presence, lovingly think of them with us, and stand before God together with them (Zichronot). Effectively, this communion continues through all the following days. This too is part of our atonement, at-one-ment, with all that has made us. But on Yom Kippur, just before the day and our prayers end, we bid loving adieux to them again, in Yizkor, praying that their memory may be for a blessing for us, and that our longing commemoration of them and the righteous deeds to honour them that we pledge to do (thus the connection to charitable giving in Yizkor prayers) be considered by HaShem as a merit for them too. This is a chief reason many Orthodox dress in their white tunic/funeral shroud during this period: we are on a spiritual plane, joined with the dead, the not-yet born, and the angels, before God's holy throne.
On Succot, there is again a heightened and timeless period when the dead return to our midst and share in our devotions. This too ends with Yizkor, for the same reasons, thus bringing the autumn festival period, starting really with the First of Ellul shofar blowing some 51/2 days before, to a close. So much for the "autumn" festivals. But in the "spring" festivals, which are in a way the doublets of the autumn festivals, the same patterns occur, for the same reasons. We dwell with our ancestors on Pesach and revive all that happened then and over later generations, for we were all present back then in the Exodus, the Seder itself explicitly teaches. Again, it is the custom for many Orthodox to wear their funeral shrouds on this day of rejoicing. And we finally farewell our dearly beloved dead only on the last day of the festival, through Yizkor. But this only begins a 51/2 day cycle; we rejoin the dead on a spiritual plane during Shavuot and re-experience the Sinai revelation, and then farewell them on the second, last day, of Shavuot, which ends the spring 51/2 days.
It is all quite coherent and beautiful, and entirely appropriate to the deeper meaning of these festivals. There is nothing erroneous, pathological nor unhealthy in any of it. In faithfulness to my ancestors and all Jews of the past, and to the love of God that sustained all those previous generations, I personally am glad to participate, in love, in these observances and to be raised spiritually by them.
By way of contrast, Christianity is a cult of the dead, especially Catholicism with its intense focus on relics.
Judaism is the exact opposite: Choose life and the living.
Therefore to say things like “the dead are present with us in our communal service of God; we stand before God together with them”.."the dead return to our midst and share in our devotions” is kefira (unbelief), pure and simple. The only “spirits” to be found in a Jewish household, on any occasion, chag (holiday) or otherwise, should be in the liquor cabinet.
There is a further problem with the simplistic assertions of Shafran: the sacrificial service at the Tabernacle/Temple as laid down in the Torah itself centers in some degree on the death of the sacrificial victims (there are also non-bloody sacrifices that are effective, too). So death, in its purifying and regenerative aspects, can be and is at the very center of the Torah's stipulated divine service, and is subjected to utter transcendence, what lies beyond both life and death. Transformation, the overcoming of boundaries and oppositions, which is enacted in the Tabernacle rituals, brings renewal and regeneration of life.
A classic case in point is the use of the ashes of the red heifer, which would presumably merely pollute anything and anyone it touches, to accomplish the greatest purifications (cf. Num. 19). This certainly shows that both life and death have a common source, and when each is allocated its proper place and is properly understood and treated, they actually support each other. Death therefore helps to generate a sanctified divine order and life itself. As I indicated above, the Tabernacle rituals focus on Transformation as such, and directs it aright, allowing its regenerated energies to flow outward into the distinctions of the sanctified universe. In timelessness, eternity, when we face the Eternal, in which we however imperfectly dwell or at least touch during the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur period, and also in the other festivals, we are surrounded by the holy presence of all past Jewish generations, along with the angels. This is what the services themselves declare. The text of the prayers on the Days of Awe even evoke the imagery of the final Day of Judgment, when all living and dead shall stand together before the holy throne and receive judgment. We experience a foretaste of that in the experience of the Days of Awe.
I suspect that behind Shafran's assertions lie a confusion between the pollution conveyed by dead bodies and the purity possessed by the spirits released at death, which accompany us during the kedushah of the Amidah prayers, the Kaddish and during the festivals, and which, since their memory is a blessing, continuously sanctify our lives. Naturally, we do not pray to them, but we draw on their presence in turning to Hashem, for they are witnesses too to transcendence. After all, in the Kaddish and in all the other evocations of the dead in our rituals, we testify that death is not the final limit, but rather that death itself points to transcendence, namely that which is not death but the source of all, and offers yet another window into it. Mourning rituals for our own dead are structured on this realization and experience. As Rav Soloveitchik has written, there are two moments in the mourning ritual, the first of being crushed by the death of a loved one, aninut, which is followed by the second, avelut, in which we pick ourselves up and turn anew to what transcends both life and death, in whom now the mourned-for loved one dwells, namely Hashem the Lord of life and death. (See his essay "The Halakhah of the First Day," reprinted in Jack Reimer, ed., Jewish Reflections on Death .) Thus we begin to rebuild our lives. Death becomes a door into Eternity, not a trap-door into nothingness, and even this thus serves to elevate and not to destroy us.
In the same collection edited by Jack Reimer cited just above, there is also an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel, on "Death as Homecoming." For that is the ultimate stage of our encounter with death, homecoming, something supremely sacred and holy. Death is a door to God. The belief in eternal life has been strongly emphasized in traditional Judaism down through the ages. Death is therefore not just a negative. It is also a positive. Yes, Judaism affirms life, but it does not run from death: it also is large enough to recognize and affirm death's reality, and that death, in its proper place and rightly understood, enormously enhances our understanding of Hashem and Eternity. Yahrzeit, Yizkor, Kaddish and Kedushah, all are meditations on this.
The recitation of the Kaddish and Yizkor may prompt us to call to mind our departed loved ones, but that is the extent of it. Contrary to the poster, no seance takes place at that time.
Isn't calling up the spirits of the dead, what, according to the Bible tale of the witch of Endor, witches do?
And the disclaimer that "we do not pray to them, but we draw on their presence in turning to Hashem" is equally suspect. Who is "we" in this statement?
From which Christian catechism manual was that statement adopted?
Moreoer, "divine service"- i.e., "divine liturgy" - is a characteristic Lutheran/Eastern Orthodox term (as documented by Wikipedia).
I am all for ecumenical outreach, but this goes
beyond the pale!
Finally, the juvenile crack about "liquor cabinet. Is that where Mr. Shafran puts his Yahrzeit candles?" is not simply disrespectful but disgusting. It is an insult to the memory of those whom the poster otherwise so vaingloriously invokes as “the dead (who) are present with us" and "return to our midst and share in our devotions."
The Heschel and Soloveitchik comments simply affirm the reality of death. They say nothing about any spirits of the dead floating around on earth after their demise and accompanying the living "during the kedushah of the Amidah prayers, the Kaddish and during the festivals..." as Ben-Tzur posits. He is misrepresenting the views of these esteemed Jewish thinkers of blessed and sainted memory!
Secondly, I am not a mental health professional, but I was a psych major in college. Ben-Tzur's obsession with the spirits of the dead strike me as morbid, and decidedly unJewish. it is more in line with the Spiritualism movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Wouldn't you know- prolific poster B-Z is now invoking the royal "we," thereby declaring himself *the* decisor in all matters Judaic.
Heschel begins one of the chapters ("Intuitions of Eternity," pp. 74 in the Schocken joint edition with The Earth is the Lords ) in his The Sabbath: "That the Sabbath and eternity are one -- or of the same essence -- is an ancient idea. A legend relates that 'at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvot, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession. -- And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah? -- The world to come. -- Show us in this world an example of the world to come. -- The Sabbath is an example of the world to come." After mentioning, some pages later, that it is taught that we are all given an extra soul on the Shabbat to sense the present reality of the World to Come and savour it, he further adds that it is standard mystical teaching that the souls of the dead join us here on earth for that day (p. 88): "It is for a spiritual purpose, the Zohar implies, that supernal souls leave their heavenly sphere to enter for a day the lives of mortal men. At every conclusion of the Sabbath when the supernal souls return to their sphere, they all assemble before the presence of the Holy King. The Holy One, then, asks all the souls: what new insight into the wisdom of the Torah have ye attained while present in the lower world? ... "
There is nothing pathological about such a belief, Alan. And, Maskil, I was not using the royal "we" but the Jewishly inclusive "we." If you wish to exclude yourself from those who hold these beliefs, that is OK with me.
The tree Jewish pilgrimage holidays are Sukkoth (Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover) and Shavu’oth (Pentecost).
My search for their Whence left me exasperated. I suggest:
Moses was “slow of speech”. Aharon, his brother, was his PR representative. They were members of the tribe of Levi.
Aharon’s immediate family appointed themselves the Israelites’ Priests (Cohen, pl Cohanim) with a host of material and social privileges, and bestowed privileges also on all their family relatives, on all the members of the Levi tribe.
They established these three holidays as annual pilgrimage holidays as part of the tax-tribute system for their benefit, for their parasitic authority over the other eleven Israelite tribes. Sukkoth for the annual fruits ingathering, Pesach for livestock (including human firstborn redemption) tribute and Shavu’oth for the harvested plants.
This is my suggestion.
(comments from 22nd century)
“Tabernacles“, meaning also “house of worship”, is associated in my memory files with palm leaves, which remind me of Mesopotamia the Palms’ cradle, reminding me of the botanically grass “palm trees”, with their palm leaves spread open to heaven like praying human’s palms, with God’s gift (“dat” in ancient Persian, “dates” now) rewards for the prayer…ancient culture transfer from Persia to Greece to Rome…?
BTW, “Baghdad” (“God’s gift”) boasts of more than 300 varieties of dates fruit… DH
Tags: Jewish pilgrimages, Sukkoth, Shavu’oth, Pesach, Moses, Aharon, Levites, Cohen, palm dates
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