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Shavuot: Why Isn't "Torah Day" Actually In the Torah?
Video 2 of 6
וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת,... שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.
עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם;
And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the Sabbath – the commentaries understand this to mean the first day of Passover – ... seven Sabbaths, complete ones. Until the day after the seventh Sabbath, you should count fifty days.
Now I want to play a little game with you. Meditate with me on those phrases and ideas we just heard. Do they remind you of anything else in the Torah?
Think about the different elements we are hearing here:
When it comes to this holiday, the Torah asks us to “count for yourselves.” When else does the Torah ask you to “count time for yourself”?
And it’s not just any time period we are being asked to count. It is 7 x 7 days that we are supposed to count. When else are we asked to count 7 x 7 units of time?
Moreover, look at how the Torah characterizes the 7 day unit here with Shavuot.That unit is described as a “Shabbat” – sheva shabbatot … Well, when else are we supposed to count seven Sabbaths, until you get to the fiftieth?
You might have guessed by now the other event I’m talking about: Yovel, the Jubilee year. It’s all the same, down to the precise language of the text – which I’ll show you in a minute. The only difference is whether you are counting days, or years…
Let me give you the background:
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE HERE PLEASE]
Every seventh year is known as the Shemittah or Sabbatical year - and during Shemittah, outstanding debts are cancelled and the land “rests,” lying fallow and unharvested, with all fruit available for the picking by everyone, not just the owners of that particular field.
So the Torah tells us that not only are we meant to count years until we reach seven, at which time we are also meant to proclaim a “Sabbath year”. But the Torah also tells us that we are supposed to count these Sabbaths, these seven year units – and every seven of those, after every 49 years in total – well, the very next year, the fiftieth – we are meant to proclaim a Yovel, or a Jubilee year.
On the Yovel year, just like on the Shemittah year, fruits are available for picking by everyone, and the land can’t be tilled or harvested by the owner – but in addition to all that, two more crucial things happen: servants are automatically set free from their masters; in the words of the text, they return to their families. And land returns to its original, ancestral owner. Which is to say: Land in Israel was apportioned to tribes, and to families within those tribes, as an inheritance. So if you possessed this ancestral land, you could sell part or all of it – but on the Yovel year, the land would go back to you.
OK, so that’s your quick background on Yovel. But now, let’s add it all up:
For Yovel, you are supposed to count seven units of Seven years – seven Sabbaths, according to the text – and then the next one, you are supposed to proclaim as Yovel.
And on Shavuot, you are supposed to count seven units of Seven days – again, Sabbaths, according to the text – and then the next one, you are supposed to proclaim as the holiday of Shavuot.
And, by the way, I’m not making up how eerie the correspondence sounds. It’s right there in the verses. Listen to the language carefully, and you’ll see how even the particular words the Torah picks to describe these two phenomena – Yovel and Shavuot – seem to contain intentional echoes of one another:
With Shavuot, we had:
וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת,... שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה...
תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם
... and now, with Yovel:
ח וְסָפַרְתָּ לְךָ, שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת שָׁנִים--שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים…
וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה,
You hear this? It’s all the same. The “safarta lecha”, the language for counting – it’s the same in both. The language of “Sheva Shabbatot”, it’s the same in both. Until the fiftieth… it’s the same in both. It's all the same. The only difference is: What are you counting? Days or years?
It almost seems like what Yovel is for years, Shavuot is… every year.
Is Shavuot a “Version” of Yovel?
So here is the possibility I want to raise with you: Could it be that the holiday of Shavuot really is related to the idea of Yovel, the Jubilee year? And keep in mind an interesting fact: Those two sets of verses, about Shavuot and about Yovel that I was just reading to you – they actually appear virtually back to back, towards the end of the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus. First you’ve got the Parshat HaMoadim, this listing of all the Torah’s festivals, including Shavuot – and then, like a chapter later, you have the Torah revealing to us the laws of Shmittah and Yovel.
So could it be that when the Torah tells us about Yovel, it is sort of referencing what it just told us about Shavuot. In other words, could the Torah be suggesting to us that Yovel is really just an iteration of the Shavuot idea?
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE HERE PLEASE]
I want to make a bold claim, here: That the connection between Shavuot and Yovel is actually the missing link that helps us unify the two “Shavuots” we talked about in the last video - the Biblical Shavuot, as it were, and the rabbinic one.
The Rabbinic Side of Shavuot
Now, you might say, that’s ridiculous. I see how maybe Yovel might be connected to the Biblical idea of Shavuot. I get all those language connections. But what about the rabbinic side of Shavuot? If Shavuot is a holiday that, according to the rabbis, celebrates the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, I’m staying up all night, reading the Ten Commandments in the morning, what would that have to do with the Yovel-like themes we seem to find associated with Shavuot?
Well, let me play a little game with you.
Take a minute to guess the very first place in the Bible that the word “yovel” ever appears.
Believe it or not, it is not with reference to the Yovel year. The word appears way before that. It appears all the way back in the Book of Exodus. There, we had a single, solitary reference to Yovel. And it comes, of all places, in the Torah’s description of the revelation at Sinai…
The Torah tells us that, at Sinai, the people weren’t actually allowed to touch the mountain. But at the close of the moment of revelation, there was a great shofar blast – and when that Shofar blast was heard, that was the signal that it would be safe for the people to approach and to touch the mountain.
The word for that shofar at Sinai?
It was “Yovel”:
בִּמְשֹׁךְ הַיֹּבֵל הֵמָּה יַעֲלוּ בָהָר
When the ram’s horn (or the “yovel”, in Hebrew) sounds long, they may come up the mountain...
Fascinating. Something called the “Yovel Shofar” signalled the end of revelation. But now ask yourself: How does a Yovel year actually start? What signals its onset?
As it turns out, the signal for the beginning of the Yovel year is a Shofar blast, too:
בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר, לַחֹדֶשׁ; בְּיוֹם, הַכִּפֻּרִים, תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר, בְּכָל-אַרְצְכֶם. י וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה,
The very instrument that signals the end of revelation signals the beginning of the Yovel year. It's almost like Yovel picks up where revelation left off.
And to further our sense that this might be so, let’s note that there are even more connections between the Sinai event and the Yovel Year. Again, let’s come back to the numbers: Remember the fifty year count of Yovel; in other words, count 7 x 7 years, and the one after that is Yovel?
Well, when did the revelation at Sinai take place? According to our tradition, which identifies Shavuot as signalling the anniversary of Sinai, Revelation took place fifty days after Pesach. Which means that… the same 7 x 7 + 1 count that brings you to Yovel… brought us first to Sinai.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE HERE]
And now, let’s go back once more to language. One of the striking things about the Yovel year is the way the Biblical text sums it up. According to the text, all the Yovel laws – the return of land, slaves going free, letting the land rest, all of that – it all gets summed up in these pithy words, spoken, as it were by God, about Yovel: “ki li ha’aretz” – for the entire land is mine.
Yovel expresses the truth that the land, ultimately, belongs to God. At some level, human possession of land is only an illusion. God is the ultimate possessor of this resource.
It’s a very intriguing idea, and we will come back to it later – but, just for the moment, focus on the language… Think about that phrase, and ask where you have heard it before…
“Ki li ha’aretz…”
That phrase didn’t originate with Yovel. It appears one other time, earlier in the Five Books of Moses. Where? The lone, other occurrence of that phrase is at Sinai. God says that Israel will be a treasure to God among the nations, “ki li kol ha’aretz”.
[Musical interlude here please]
Now, it is hard to know what to make of all this yet, but it is hard to resist the sense that, somehow, as I briefly suggested before, the Yovel year is modeled after an earlier event – the Sinai event. Somehow, the Torah asks us not to let the Sinai event pass into the realms of history, but that we are to recreate that event, in some way, every fifty years.
Now, I know that sounds strange, because in the Yovel year, we don’t, like, reenact the Giving of the Torah; we don’t make little models of Sinai with toy people gathered around the foot of the mountain. Instead we do things that seem to have nothing to do with Sinai: Things like… set slaves free, like return land to its ancestral owner. It is hard to see how any of this reminds us of Sinai. But I want to suggest to you that it does. You and I, we tend to see the significance of Revelation in terms of the Giving of the Torah. But perhaps the language through which the Torah introduces the laws of Yovel suggests that there is another lens through which to see Revelation: The Yovel lens. That blast of the Yovel Shofar; it wasn’t tangential to revelation. It was important. That sound gets commemorated, somehow, with a Yovel event every fifty years. Maybe, through that piercing sound of the Shofar, Yovel, the Jubilee year, really is a kind of Sinai re-enactment every fifty years.
That is the challenge you and I must try and decipher.
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