Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

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.

Relevant Links
The Forgotten Festival  Michael Carasik, Jewish Ideas Daily. What accounts for` the neglect of one of Judaism’s three great pilgrimage festivals?

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 podcastHe teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


James Tuttle on May 25, 2012 at 10:34 am (Reply)
The recitation of Yizkor on Yom Kippur- not to mention martyrology- is an error, and a 180 degree distortion of the original purpose and meaning of that Holy Day. The Sabbath overrides mourning- which is why mourners must get up from Shiva to get to shul then: & Yom Kippur is a Shabbat Shabbaton! Yom Kippur is a joyous day- when, God willing, our sins for the past year are forgiven. That is why white is worn - and we also abstain from eating and drinking- that day: to emulate the angels. However, the death and destruction wrought by the Crusades traumatized Ashkenazi Jewry, and it has been suffering from PTSD from that event ever since- hence, the introduction of the martyrology on Yom Kippur and obsession with Yizkor. Compare, for example, the Sephardi practice for that day (prior to its being contaminated by Ashkenazi influence).
Ben Tzur on May 29, 2012 at 1:02 am (Reply)
There is no error, "180-degree distortion" of the original meaning of the holy day, post-traumatic stress syndrome nor even "obsession" behind Yizkor being part of Yom Kippur, any more than these are the reasons for Yizkor being observed on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesach or the last day of Shavuot, or, for that matter, for the recitation of Kaddish at the conclusion of the reading of a tractate of the Talmud, the conclusion of each major section of the daily prayer service, or to honour the end of a loved person's life. Psychological pathologies and cognitive errors have nothing to do with it. As for Sephardi practices being "contaminated" by Ashkenazi influence, this terminology too is much too strong, unjustified and emotively prejudicial.

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.
Ben Tzur on May 29, 2012 at 1:31 am (Reply)
One other thing: the reason that Shavuot is so under-emphasized despite being the festival observance of the central event in the creation of our religion, the giving of the Torah revelation at Mt. Sinai, is that actually it is merely the first act of that drama: later events of the months that our ancestors (and therefore we, through the festival calendar) spent at Mt. Sinai included the worship of the golden calf (which we repent of in the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av), the return of Moses from the mountain top with the first set of Tablets, his discovery of the golden calf worship and breaking of the tablets, but calling all the people together with a blast of the ram's horn to begin self-purgation and preparation for his return (first of Elul), full assembly of a repentant Jewish people to start life anew and renew their covenant (Rosh Hashanah) with full readiness for atonement, for when Moses descends with the second set of Tablets and there is a full communion of God and Israel (Yom Kippur). There then immediately begins the building of the Tabernacle and establishment of the purified sacrifical communion between humanity and God (Sukkot). All of this was part of the Sinai revelation experience. Shavuot only begins it, but its true climax comes in the Days of Awe and Sukkot. Really, all the festivals circle around Mt. Sinai, aside from Pesach which prepares for it (and the much later created festivals of Chanukah and Purim).
Dina on May 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm (Reply)
Mr. Tuttle is spot on.
A. Shafran on May 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm (Reply)
For the Bible, death is the greatest source of impurity (tumah). Thus, the priest (cohain) must steer clear of corpses and especially cemeteries. And ancestor worship/reverence is forbidden (What ignorant Polish Jews may have practiced does not count.)
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.
Ben Tzur on June 1, 2012 at 1:02 am (Reply)
A. Shafran's comments anathematize any other version of Jewish belief and practice than Shafran's own. As even he must admit, we begin the Amidah prayers with an invocation of the founding ancestors of Judaism, whom we depend upon as our shield and support even now, and immediately go on to invoke the presence of the dead and, together with them and the angelic hosts, to declare the holiness of Hashem. In that spirit we can then continue the Amidah prayers. Furthermore, Kaddish, said symbolically in the presence of the dead and as a testimony to their continuing influence on us, is a regular very sacred part of the daily service. Similarly and just as a matter of fact,, and whether A. Shafran approves or not, Yizkor is a focal point and spiritually intense portion of the festival services. There is nothing "heretical" about any of this. So much for the synagogue service.
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.
Ben Tzur on June 1, 2012 at 1:35 am (Reply)
A. Shafran says that the only "spirits" to be found in a Jewish household on any occasion, chag or otherwise, should be in the liquor cabinet. Is that where he puts his Yahrzeit candles, then? Or perhaps that is kefira to him, heresy?

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 [1974].) 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.
Barton Malow on June 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm (Reply)
The comment about "spirits released at death, which accompany us during the kedushah of the Amidah prayers, the Kaddish and during the festivals" is flat-out superstition. What is the CANONICAL - not bubba maisa, not Christianity-influenced legend- basis for such 'accompaniment'?

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?
R. Halivni on June 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm (Reply)
I can't believe what I have read, here, in JID, of all places: "death, in its purifying and regenerative aspects, can be and is at the very center of the Torah's stipulated divine service... "

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."
Alan Schwartz on June 2, 2012 at 9:29 am (Reply)
I concur with Mr. Shafran.
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.
Maskil on June 2, 2012 at 9:41 am (Reply)
"spirits released at death, which accompany us during....'

"Us" ?

Wouldn't you know- prolific poster B-Z is now invoking the royal "we," thereby declaring himself *the* decisor in all matters Judaic.
Ben Tzur on June 3, 2012 at 11:35 pm (Reply)
I well understand the reluctance of various posters to deny the reality of life after death, and the ongoing spiritual existence of our ancestors in the After-life. In secular modernity this is taken for granted, after all, and fits comfortably with the denial of a personal God per se. Redemption and salvation have become, along with Eternity itself, merely psychologized metaphors for personal present contentment, with no other serious or actual significance. So there is no "Lord of salvations and consolations" as the phrase is often translated from the Hebrew invocations of the prayer book. The Geulah prayer ending the Shema paragraphs, El Maleh Rahamim, and other such devout affirmations, are mere comforting poetry. It is almost a dogma of secularized Judaism that there is no life after death, influencing even some Orthodox Jews, and I have even heard Reform rabbis state firmly that this is what Judaism has always authoritatively taught. However, with all due respect for the sincerity of these statements as justifications for present belief (and with due acknowledgment too that the Tanakh only clearly affirms the continuing existence of the spirits of the dead in texts dating from the middle Biblical period onwards), this is not true simply as a matter of fact. The doctrines of the Resurrection of the Dead, the Last Judgment, the existence of the World-to-Come, and the bliss there that the righteous enjoy, are all deeply part of traditional mainstream Judaism for thousands of years, and are often stated in traditional sources to be fundamental to Jewish faith. That our recitation of Kaddish has an impact on the souls of the dead and evokes their presence is part of our tradition too (some very interesting and moving examples of this are in Leon Weseltier, Kaddish [1998]). The remarks by Alan Schwartz to the effect that the views I have expressed indicate a "morbid ... decidedly unJewish" "obsession" amounting to that shown in pagan rites of spirit-worship (condemned indeed in the Torah and not in the slightest suggested nor advocated by me) illustrates a tendency amongst some people to exaggerate and psychologize all views with which they disagree, making the problem not the challenging views as such which do not need any further consideration but rather those what hold them. He is qualified to make such judgments, he thinks, because he took Psychology as a major in college. The end result of this sort of outlook is putting ideological non-conformists in insane asylums, as has indeed been done in various totalitarian systems. I would suggest however that such psychologizing anathematizing is not a serious nor respectful way to deal with religious differences.

Heschel begins one of the chapters ("Intuitions of Eternity," pp. 74 in the Schocken joint edition with The Earth is the Lords [1962]) 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.
Dov Henis on October 7, 2012 at 3:21 am (Reply)
Whence The Three Jewish Pilgrimage Holidays

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.

Dov Henis
(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

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham