The Origin Of Shavuot | Aleph Beta

Shavuot Origin

The History of Shavuot

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Shavuot & The Giving Of The Torah

If you were asked what we remember on Shavuot, what would you say? The giving of the Torah, right?

But did you know that in the Biblical commandment to celebrate Shavuot, there is NO MENTION of the giving of the Torah?! The Torah describes the origin of Shavuot, it tells us that it's a harvest holiday, a day to remember that God took us out of Egypt, a day to be joyful with our families and workers – but absolutely nothing about receiving the Torah!

So how did we get to Shavuot as we know it? Ah, we have the rabbis to thank for that. The rabbis come along, in the pages of the Talmud, and spin this story for us: about how Shavuot isn’t just a harvest festival, it’s the commemoration of when we stood at Mount Sinai!! So is this what Shavuot really celebrates?

Now, the Torah tells us that we’re supposed to listen to the rabbis... but it’s times like these that make you wonder: “Where are they coming up with this stuff? And who do they think they are? Making a decree is one thing, but you can’t just decide that a holiday means something that it doesn’t. It’s God’s call, not theirs, right? Is there any appeals process here?"

It’s true, the Torah’s description of Shavuot's origin says nothing about the giving of the Torah — but there are echoes to be found elsewhere in the Torah, echoes that do suggest this very link. In this video, Rabbi Fohrman embarks upon a sweeping journey, closing the mysterious gap between the Biblical Shavuot and the Shavuot as we know it — and most importantly — discovering the hidden depth in this all-important holiday.

Discover other great Shavuot videos at Aleph Beta, including ‘The Hidden Structure of the Ten Commandments’, ‘The Book of Ruth’, and ‘Our Guide To Celebrating Shavuot


Hi folks, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Aleph Beta. The holiday of Shavuot it is on its way; what is this holiday all about? Well, as it turns out, the answer to that question isn't as simple as it might seem.

Where Did Shavuot Originate?

Most of us know this day as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. We stay up, many of us, all through the night, learning Torah, in honor of that incredible, momentous event that we actually read about in the synagogue in the morning, the story of the Revelation of the Torah, it's almost like the Israelites themselves encamped around that mountain long ago, waiting to hear the Ten Commandments. This focus on the Sinai experience, I think it really defines Shavuot for most of us. As we are used to saying in our prayers, it's zman matan torateinu, this is the time of the Giving of the Torah.


But there is one problem with all this. All of this stuff, that focus, it comes to us from later, rabbinic sources in our tradition.


In the Torah's own descriptions of the holiday of Shavuot – and there are several scattered throughout the Torah – exactly none of those descriptions describe Shavuot as meant to commemorate the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. There just seems to be no mention of that, at all, in the Bible itself.


And, by the way, you would expect to see something like that in the biblical text. I mean, after all, the text, when it ordains the holiday of Pesach, say, it's not shy about telling you why you are supposed to celebrate Pesach. We do it to remember the Exodus from Egypt, you know. The same goes for Sukkot. We do it to remember the protection God provided us in the desert, after we left Egypt.


So you would expect to hear a pretty straightforward verse somewhere telling you about how happy we are that we got the Torah, and how we are supposed to remember that each year by celebrating this newly-minted holiday, Shavuot. But we don't hear that.


What does the Torah tell us about this holiday?

Shavuot in the Bible vs Rabbinic Text

It tells us about all sorts of other stuff. In particular, we hear that Shavuot is a chag hakatzir, a harvest holiday. We hear that it is a yom habikkurim, a day on which first fruits are brought – in particular, a day on which we bring a special offering, two loaves of bread, the shtei halechem, from the new crop of wheat.


And we hear about some other things. The Torah tells us that on Shavuot, we should be happy. We should rejoice together with poor and dispossessed peoples – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. Right after that, it tells us Vezacharta ki eved hayita bemitzrayim (Deuteronomy 16:12) – you should remember that you were slaves in Egypt, because somehow, the Shavuot holiday is meant to make us remember our experience as slaves in Egypt. But throughout all of this, the text seems to neglect to tell us what seems like the most important part: The part about commemorating the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. I mean, why are we staying up all night anyway?

Does Shavuot Remember Matan Torah or the Harvest?

So we are a little confused here. It almost seems like there is a Biblical Shavuot, and a Rabbinic Shavuot.


The Biblical Shavuot seems to be some kind of harvest festival, a day on which we give first fruit, and are supposed to be happy and rejoice with the less fortunate, a day to remember we were once slaves in Egypt. I mean, there are some gaps here, I guess, in how this all fits together – exactly why we are supposed to be happy, doesn't really get spelled out; exactly how the holiday is meant to help us understand we were once slaves doesn't really get spelled out – but basically, you know, that's what the holiday is like.


But that whole picture of Shavuot seems very different than the "rabbinic Shavuot", the one that celebrates the Giving of the Torah, the one where we stay up all night, we read the Ten Commandments.


So, what happened here? Did the rabbis get it wrong somehow? Did they not bother reading the Biblical description of the holiday? And what are we, you know, regular, ordinary people, supposed to do with Shavuot?

How Should We Celebrate Shavuot Today?

Are we supposed to happily learn all night, and ignore what seems to be the Biblical version of the holiday; pretend we don't know that Sinai seems curiously absent from the Torah's own description of Shavuot?


Or maybe – you know, let's just go out on a limb and be heretical for a moment here – maybe we should just discard this "rabbinic" version of the holiday and go back to what we think is a purer understanding of the day. Maybe we should just go back and celebrate the Biblical Shavuot, or what we think the Biblical Shavuot is. But... where would that even leave us? Everybody else in shul is learning all night, and you, you're doing what? You don't have a farm. You don't have a harvest. You can't bring first fruits.


The closest you come to living an agricultural life is the name of your suburban development – Owings Mills; Thayer's Fields – it's named after the farmland that was destroyed by the developers when they came to build the houses in your white-picket-fence gated community. So who are you kidding? How exactly are you supposed to connect with the Biblical version of the day, you rabbinic-rejecting purist?

A Closer Look at Shavuot's Origins

I want to suggest to you that there really aren't two Shavuot holidays, a Biblical one and a rabbinic one; there is a singular, unitary Shavuot – a Shavuot that melds the two visions seamlessly. Astonishingly, I think, it is that Shavuot, the unified one, which is truly relevant to us throughout time, even in a more urban, less agricultural, age. To focus on either the rabbinic or what appears to us to be the Biblical Shavuot is to celebrate an incomplete holiday. The rabbis, I want to suggest to you, they weren't crazy, and they weren't willfully ignoring the Biblical text. On the contrary, they were reading it quite carefully indeed.


What did they know that you and I don't yet know? That's what we need to figure out.

Remembering Revelation

In trying to figure out the essence of Shavuot, the natural place to start would be the Biblical verses that describe the holiday, so let's try one on for size. Here's a verse from Leviticus, which describes Shavuot as part of a larger, Parshat HaMoadim – a section of text that describes all the holidays: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:


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?


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.


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".


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.


But how?

That is the challenge you and I must try and decipher.

Not Just At Sinai

In our last video, I suggested to you that there was something about the every 50-year Yovel experience, that harks back to the Revelation experience at Sinai. But what is that "something"? What does it mean to speak of Revelation, such that we see Yovel as a 50 year recurrence of this event? Yes, the textual similarities are there – but what explains these similarities?


So I want to suggest to you that we are not quite at a point where we can understand this yet. We don't have enough data. We are not yet seeing all the pieces of the puzzle. Because… if it's true, as we've posited, that before there was ever the law of Yovel, there was a great nationwide Yovel experience, which is to say, Sinai – it turns out that this was not the only great, nationwide Yovel-like experience that the Children of Israel experienced on their way out of the desert, heading into the Land of Israel. There was actually another one, too.


I want to suggest to you that these two, great, historic Yovel events – the Sinai event, and the second event that I'll tell you about in just a moment – these, together, form two halves of a whole. They, together, express in our collective history something that the Yovel laws will recreate a version of, every fifty years. So it's not enough to understand how Sinai prefigures Yovel; we have to see the second, historic, Yovel event, in order to complete the picture.


What was that second, historic, Yovel event?

It was the conquest of the city of Jericho.



The city of Jericho was the first city conquered by the Children of Israel as they entered the Land of Israel. The tale of that conquest is told in the beginning of the Book of Joshua. The narrative has many dramatic elements, but perhaps the most dramatic of all is the way in which God engineers the city's capture: The Almighty causes the walls surrounding Jericho to simply collapse under themselves.


Now, parenthetically, we might ask why it had to happen that way. I mean, it's dramatic and all; don't get me wrong; the optics are terrific. But was there any meaning to God's choice of this particular means of engineering the conquest of the city? You know, fire and brimstone raining down from heaven would have done the trick, too, albeit a little bit more messily. Was there any meaning in this particular choice of miracles – causing the walls of Jericho to collapse?


But let's not lose our train of thought. The bigger point I want you to focus on right now is that the miracle of the walls' collapse didn't just "happen" out of the blue. God required an elaborate ceremony to be performed first, by the Children of Israel who are encamped outside the city. And when you look at that ceremony, it seems a little, shall we say, haphazard; it's almost like God was asking us to say "abracadabra" before His great, Heavenly magic trick of causing the walls to fall down. Was it really just a random bunch of ceremonies we needed to undertake before the Great Magician in the Sky did His astonishing "wall-collapsing trick" – or was there some deep and abiding reason for it all?


Let's look at the ceremony. Here's what God asked Joshua to do:

First, all the Israelite warriors must walk around the city; they need to make a circuit around its walls – once a day for six consecutive days.

While they do that, 7 Kohanim holding seven Shofrot, should be walking in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and in advance of the warriors.

Then, on the Seventh Day, the people shou ld circle the city 7 times. And then the Kohanim should blow on the Shofrot. Then, the people should all cry out – and at that moment, the walls will fall.


Look at all the sevens here. 7 days. On the 7th day, 7 circuits around the city. 7 Kohanim with 7 shofars. Once again, everything is 7 times 7… and what tops it all off? The shofar blast.


The seven times seven days of Jericho, come with shofar blasts at the end.

The seven times seven years of the Yovel cycle come with a shofar blast at the end.

Jericho is starting to sound like Yovel. And if you keep looking, the correspondence just deepens. Look carefully, for example, at the Shofarot at Jericho. The Shofrot, the text says, were to be in motion, going around the city. In Hebrew, the words for this are: עָבְרוּ וְתָקְעוּ בַּשּׁוֹפָרוֹת, they shall pass by and blow on the Shofarot.


And now look at the Biblical description of the Yovel year. You'll find, curiously, that the idea of "Shofar in motion" pops up there, too:

וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר, לַחֹדֶשׁ; בְּיוֹם, הַכִּפֻּרִים, תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר, בְּכָל-אַרְצְכֶם.

Literally: And you shall cause to pass a shofar blast on Yom Kippur; You shall cause to pass a shofar through all of your land…


The Skeptic

OK, so now, maybe you're a bit of a skeptic, and you're feeling especially dismissive right now, and you say something like...

"Look, Fohrman, I don't really know. I don't necessarily buy that the Torah means to create some kind of conceptual link between the Jericho event and the Yovel year. Yes, there are multiple cycles of sevens with both. Yes, there is a shofar that signifies the onset of both. Yes, the verbs are the same, thewhole shofar in motion thing, I get it. But those correspondences might just be coincidental. Can you give me more? I'm not convinced…"


Well, here's the kicker:

As it turns out, the Torah gives a name to those Shofrot that were blown at Jericho. What name does it give them? Yes, you probably guessed it. The Shofrot of Jericho were called "Shofrot HaYovlim, just like the Shofar at Sinai was…"

וְשִׁבְעָה כֹהֲנִים יִשְׂאוּ שִׁבְעָה שׁוֹפְרוֹת הַיּוֹבְלִים, לִפְנֵי הָאָרוֹן,

The seven kohanim will carry seven Yovel shofars…

Not only that: Even the language of the text describing these two events; it's all so remarkably similar. Listen to it in Hebrew. First, at Sinai:

בִּמְשֹׁךְ הַיֹּבֵל הֵמָּה יַעֲלוּ בָהָר


The text says when the Shofar would blow an elongated blast, that's when it would be safe for the people to touch the mountain and ascend it. But look at those words in Hebrew: "bimeshoch hayovel"... "ya'alu behar"... Pay attention to those three words: Meshoch; Yovel; and Ya'alu, go up.

And now look at Jericho:

וְהָיָה בִּמְשֹׁךְ בְּקֶרֶן הַיּוֹבֵל,

וְעָלוּ הָעָם

Same three words; virtually identical. When the shofar of the Yovel would blow elongated blasts, "ve'alu ha'am", the people would ascend, and would conquer Jericho. The walls, they would fall, but the people, they would ascend.


One more element, too, while we are at it: Encirclement. At Sinai, the mountain was encircled - as the text says: vehigbalta et Hahar saviv - and at Jericho the city was encircled, too: Vesabotem at ha'ir. The encirclement at Sinai somehow put the mountain off limits (anyone who would touch it would die); and the encirclement at Jericho somehow put the city off limits, too (Joshua says that anyone who goes back to Jericho and rebuilds it is cursed with death – death of his children [See Joshua 6:26]).


So, it does seem like Sinai was not the only Yovel-like event in our collective history. There was another one, too: The conquest of Jericho.

Together, these two experiences that the Children of Israel lived through, as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land – they expressed two sides of the same coin. And the laws of Yovel are the secret to their connection.


To this point we've seen a lot of language connections. Shavuot seems related to Yovel. So does Sinai. So does Jericho. But connections are one thing; deciphering why things are connected is entirely another thing. That's what we need to turn to now. If we can understand something of the meaning behind these language connections; if we can understand why Sinai and Jericho have anything to do with Yovel, then we might begin to understand what it is that the Jubilee Year is meant to replay; what it is that Shavuot is mean to reply.


To do that, to piece together the meaning behind all of this, we are going to look a bit more closely at the laws of Yovel. Let's do that now.

Understanding Yovel

Let's go back to Yovel, as it expresses itself in the Torah. What, exactly, does this year do? The truth is that it does two things. And both of these things might have had a great deal of relevance to the nation of Israel that, wandering through the desert, experienced the revelation at Sinai, and then experienced the Jericho conquest. These two things that Yovel does are expressed by the Torah in the following language:

וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ.


You should proclaim freedom throughout the land, it's a Yovel year for you, and each man will return to his ancestral plot, and people will return to their families, slaves will return to their families as well. First, the Torah says that people return to their ancestral holdings; which is to say, ancestral land that was sold, goes back, in the Yovel year, to its original ancestral holder. Okay, so just to review, the Torah says that land goes back to its primary owner. And slaves are released.

Hmm… do you see how these two things might have been more than idle curiosities for the Israelites on their journey through the desert?


Let's first talk about land. The Israelites were about to conquer the Land of Canaan. But in a deep way, they weren't really "conquering" it. They weren't occupying someone else's land. There was a Yovel event that was going on simultaneously with the conquest. The land was returning to a deeper owner, to an ancestral owner. The land had been promised as an ancestral holding to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our forefathers who had lived in this land long ago, and had been promised it. That land was now returning to its rightful place as the inheritance of the Children of Israel.


When the Shofar blast sounded at Jericho, it truly was the Shofar of the Yovel. The seven circuits of the people on the seven days, and the seven circuits on the seventh day – it was like the seven times seven circuits of time that comprise the forty nine years of the Yovel cycle. A Yovel event was happening. And, as a consequence, the walls of Jericho were going to come tumbling down.


It wasn't a coincidence that the walls came tumbling down – that this, of all things, was the mode by which Israel would take possession of Jericho. It would happen through the walls coming down because walls signify ownership. The Canaanite walls would evaporate, because their hold on the land – not just their physical control of the land, but their legal control, their title – was evaporating. The Land of Canaan was going back to its deeper owner, the progeny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were the ancestral holders of the land.


Okay, so much for Jericho. But what about at Sinai? In what way was Sinai a Yovel-like event?

Well, remember that Yovel does a second thing, too; it doesn't just release ancestral land back to its original owners. It also takes slaves and makes them free.


Interesting. That would have been the second great imperative for the Children of Israel. Freedom. Because think of these people on a journey through the desert – so yeah, at the endpoint of that journey, once they got to the Land, then, yes, it would be important to them that the Land would belong to them, that title would revert to them; that the land they were entering was really going to be theirs – but remember, at Sinai, they hadn't yet gotten to the land. They had just left Egypt.

That was what was on their mind. And in Egypt they were… slaves.


Yes, having escaped Egypt, they were no longer subjugated by cruel Egyptian masters. But is it possible that, on some level, they were not yet completely free? In other words, could it be that an escaped slave is not the same as a fully free person? Might Sinai, then, have been the event that finally freed them, in some ultimate sense? In other words, could Sinai have been their Yovel event – the moment at which slavery completely evaporated and became just a restless memory of times past?

Elaborating the Theory

Okay, so this is shaping up to be an interesting theory, that the Yovel events of Sinai and Jericho were actually meant to address freedom from slavery and title of the land of Canaan, but there are some theories I think we want to clarify if this theory's really going to be convincing. Here are two potential problems with this theory that I think we really need to address:


First, exactly why would escape from Egypt not in itself be enough to set Israel free? That point, I think, would need to be refined a bit more. Because, you know, the minute the Children of Israel left Egypt, they were no longer subject to their Egyptian masters; so they're free, right? I mean, like, what else needs to happen exactly? Why do I need Sinai to somehow complete the process? In what sense, really, is an escaped slave not fully free?


Secondly, an even more basic question should bother us about the theory that Sinai was a Yovel event. Because, you know, on a very basic level, why would that be so? We haven't really answered that yet. Because… let's grant that the language of Sinai is suffused with Yovel-like language. And let's even grant that Sinai made the nation of Israel free, just like the laws of Yovel would ultimately free individual slaves every fifty years. But what does the experience of standing around a mountain and accepting the Torah have anything to do with Yovel?


Even if you could show me somehow, cleverly, that the effects of these two events are the same, that the numbers associated with them are the same, that the language a book uses to speak about them is the same – I'd still want to know, how, essentially, are they the same?

There must be a fundamental similarity in these events that we are missing. What is that?


What Makes Yovel Tick?

I think we might be able to find some clarity in all these issues if we try and explore Yovel itself, and understand, if possible, what makes it tick; how it works.

Now, to some extent, that may actually be an impossible task. The Torah just tells us that there is this phenomenon called Yovel, and then it tells us what Yovel does: It frees slaves, and causes ancestral land to revert back to its primary, ancestral holder. The Torah doesn't spend much time talking to us about any "mechanism" through which these things happen. It just says they happen, and that's that. But it may be that there is some kind of mechanism at the heart of Yovel, and if we look at the laws of Yovel and the text of the Torah that describes it, we might be able to infer what that mechanism is.


Let me start by asking you a pretty straightforward, intuitive question. We've seen that Yovel does two things, right: It frees slaves, and it causes ancestral land to go back to its original owner. But...why should one event, Yovel, do two entirely separate things? It would be more satisfying if those two things were linked – so that, in a way, they are both aspects of one overarching phenomenon. So my question to you is: are these two things, linked in some fundamental way??

Veshavtem Ish El Achuzato, V'ish El Mishpachto Tashuvu

The Torah itself seems to indicate that such a link does, in fact, exist. The evidence comes from the language in which the Torah couches these two laws of Yovel. There is a symmetry in the language used to describe these two Yovel laws, and that suggests, at least to my ear, a kind of symmetry in the essence of the laws as well.

Now, listen to how the Torah phrases these laws:


Ukeratem dror ba'aretz lechol yoshveiha… Veshavtem Ish el achuzato, v'ish el misphachto tashuvu… (Leviticus 25:10).

You should proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. That seems to be a general idea, and it is immediately followed by what seems to be two permutations of that idea. The first is: Veshavtem ish el achuzato, that land shall go back to its ancestral owners, and the second is that v'ish el misphachto tashuvu – slaves should be freed, go back to their families. But it's that kinda interesting, because each of the two permutations contains the same key verb: "to return". People are being "returned" to their ancestral land, and slaves are being "returned" back to their families.


So it seems like the Torah thinks that the two main ideas of Yovel are related: Yovel is about returning people to where they belong. Where do people belong? Well, They belong with their ancestral land. Or, they belong with their families.

Land as a Kind of Family; Land as a Defense Against Slavery

But we can perhaps sharpen the connection between these laws still further.

Consider a slave – the person who, according to the verse, is separated from his family. And consider someone who is separated from his ancestral land. These are the two kinds of people that Yovel laws are meant to address. How are these two people, related to each other?


It turns out there is a very meaningful connection between them. The easiest way to express that connection is to speak in economic terms, but in reality, the connection is deeper than just economics. For insight into the economic connection, at least, let's look at how God speaks with Abraham concerning the Israelites' descent into hundreds of years of slavery. The first thing he tells Abraham is ger yihiyeh zaracha b'eretz lo lahem… your children will be strangers in a land not their own. And the next thing he tells him is: va'avadum, ve'inu otam … and the inhabitants of that land, they'll enslave them, and they will abuse them, for four hundred years.


These are not disconnected events. There's a kind of progression being detailed here. The process starts with being dispossessed of land, finding yourselves "strangers" on someone else's land. That's the most benign step in the process, but it is a starting point – and it makes you vulnerable to the next step, which is slavery. The most extreme step is the last one, ve'inu otam – they'll be abused, crushed with hard labor.


If you think about it, this progression is not something that exists only in an ancient, sacred text such as the Torah. It is alive and well in today's age too. I think, think about citizenship. You know, you and me, we take citizenship for granted – but what is it like not to be a citizen? So, I was speaking to a woman I met recently. She came from Honduras, a nation torn apart by violence. She crossed the border illegally, and was stopped by border control. They gave her papers for a court date, but she couldn't speak English, so she couldn't read the instructions and figure out when and where to go. She would have been eligible for asylum but she missed her court date – and once she did that, there was no hope for her. She was an illegal immigrant. A ger. A stranger in someone else's land.


What were her options? For the last seven years, she's been working as a housekeeper for wages that you and I would never accept. She's grateful to have the job. But she has no chance for advancement. She's bright as a whip. If not for the accident of her birth, she could be in medical school here. But she won't ever go to medical school. She's a ger, and she's doing difficult housework – work that few American citizens are willing to do. She doesn't have a way out. The family she works for doesn't abuse her – but abuse is actually quite common, according to an immigration lawyer I spoke to. So if the family did it, they could get away with it. What is her recourse? Calling the police? The police will deport her. She has no protection. Because she is not a citizen, because she is not a stakeholder in the land, she is vulnerable. Vulnerable to the modern equivalent of enslavement. Vulnerable to abuse.


My point is that there is a natural connection between land and slavery. The former is a bulwark against the latter. Owning land is my guarantee that I will not become a slave.

This is true for citizens, those who hold a stake in the collective land ownership of an entire nation – and it is also true for individuals who own their own little piece of private property, too. Think about it: Historically, how did people become slaves? You would become a slave when you couldn't pay your debts. You would become a slave when you couldn't feed yourself or you were homeless. As a last resort, you'd sell yourself and become someone else's slave. But if you had land, you wouldn't need to do this. You would always have a solution for food; you could grow food on your plot of land. You would always had a solution for shelter; you could sleep on your land. And, if push came to shove, and debts threatened your independence, you could sell your land, and avoid slavery that way.


So we might say that the Yovel laws are engineered, so to speak, such that they combat slavery –they combat slavery in two ways. The first is a direct way, by freeing slaves and returning them to their families. But the second way is preventative. Yovel acts to forestall slavery, by returning people to their ancestral land that they once sold. In other words: If you sold your land because you came on hard times, and you find yourself a stranger in someone else's land – you are a step closer to slavery. You are vulnerable to enslavement. But then Yovel comes along and returns you to your ancestral land. So now you're safer.

Deeper than Economics

So all this, I think, is correct – but it's not the whole truth. In actuality, the linkages between land ownership and avoidance of slavery are actually much deeper than mere economics. And it's here, I think, that Yovel works its real magic.

The Great Reprieve

Okay, let me come back to that verse, in which the Torah expresses the dual Yovel laws concerning release from slavery and return to ancestral land:Veshavtem Ish el achuzato, v'ish el misphachto tashuvu… (Leviticus 25:10).


Now, I mentioned before that a common denominator here is that people are returning to "where they belong": A slave is returning to his family, a person who sold his land is returning to that land. But maybe it's more than that. Maybe it's not just that people are "returning to where they belong". Ask: Where do they belong? Maybe "returning to your land" and "returning to your family" are similar ideas. So similar, maybe, that they are really one and the same.

Freedom for the Land

Go back to the Yovel language for a minute: The Torah says that on Yovel, you must "proclaim freedom throughout the land" – that's the general idea. And then it gives you an aspect of that idea, which is, "veshavtem ish el achuzato," ancestral land returns to its owner, that's a kind of freedom for the land. But ask yourself: Why does this return of land to the ancestral owner make land "free"? One way or the other, the land is owned! What difference does it make if the land is owned by Beryl or by Shmerel? Look, people might care that land goes back to its original owner – but why would the land itself care? Why would the land, so to speak, regard this as "freedom"?


Unless… unless there is something special in the connection between an ancestral holder and his land. Each "belongs" with the other, in a way that transcends mere economics. An original owner's hold in land is something more than a monetary connection. It is almost a family-like connection. Slaves going back to their families and people going back to their land are almost one and the same thing: In each case, people are returning to the embrace of their families.


So, to get a sense of what I'm talking about, read Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Or watch the film version of it. One scene in particular struck me as really very powerful. A representative of a bank comes by car to deliver the news to a small Oklahoma farming family that the bank is repossessing their land. So, Tom Joad, he looks at this guy, this bank representative, he just can't fathom it. He wants to talk to the person in charge. So the representative says to him that he doesn't know who's in charge. I got my orders, he says, they told me to tell you to get off, and that's what I'm telling you. Tom says back to him, you mean get off my own land? The man in the car says, now don't go blaming me, it ain't my fault. Tom says, well, whose fault is it? The bank guy says, well, you know who owns the land, the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company. So Tom says, and who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company? The bank guy says, it ain't nobody! It's a company. So Tom goes, they got a president, ain't they? The bank guy goes, oh, son, it ain't his fault, the bank tells him what to do. All right, where's the bank? Tulsa. But what's the use of picking on him? He's ain't nothing but the manager. Tom says, I want to shoot somebody, who do we shoot? The bank guy says, b Brother, I don't know. If I did, I'd tell you. I just don't know who's to blame.


So then the car drives away, and you, you;'re just left there, contemplating this. There's the big, impersonal bank, who's really no one, there's Tom, who's very much a someone, and his land, who,m for Tom, is very much a someone too.


So Tom sinks to his feet, he grabs a clod of land, and he says, "my grandpa took up this land 70 years ago. My pa was born here. We was all born here, and some of us was killed on it." Then he just breaks down, and he's sobbing, he repeats those words, "and some of us died on it. Born on it, worked on it, died on it. That's what makes it ours, not no piece of paper with writing on it."


Tom Joad is talking about a kind of ownership that makes monetary ownership seem paltry by comparison. We lived in the land. We were born there. We worked on it. We died on it. That's why we own it… It's almost like land is as much a part of his family as his his wife and kids. To be deprived of it is a tragedy.


And to refine the idea just a bit more: Think about what land gives us. It really is a kind of parent. What does a parent do? A parent gives us a home, a place to be – and our parent nourishes us. And now think about what we look to land for. It's the same things: Land provides us a home, land nourishes us – we can grow crops in land. The Ramban tells us that, in the very beginning, when God said: "Let us make man", He was talking to the land. As Ramban puts it, God said, "I'll contribute the soul, and you, land – you contribute the material that will become his body". And so it was, God took earth from the ground and made Adam, from the Hebrew word for land, Adamah.

Slavery and Family

As it happens, parents do one more thing besides give you a home and nourish you. They keep you safe from strangers. Parents keep me safe from kidnappers – and so, by the way, does land. If you couldn't pay your debts, you would eventually find yourself enslaved; you'd end up selling yourself to come up with the money you owed. But if you had land… land, the great parent, keeps you safe. By providing you food and shelter, it forestalls slavery. And not only that, if push came to shove and you owed money and you had no other way to repay it – as a last ditch measure, you could sell your ancestral land to pay your debts, and you could retain your own personal freedom.

Think about that, for a minute, in parental terms, and I think you can kinda sense the tragedy here.


What wouldn't a parent do for a child? If a child was facing the prospect of slavery, of being taken by strangers and pressed into their service, a parent would say "take me first!" And in a way, that is what land – our existential parent – does for us. In the words of the Talmud, nichsei d'inish arvin lei – a person's land acts as his guarantor. Land will pay our debts for us, if we can't. Land will be sold so that we don't have to be sold.

But there is a tragedy in that.


The sale of ancestral land for mere money is an inherently tragic act. You are taking a relationship you have with land, that is deeper than money, and reducing it to mere economics. It is almost as if you are selling a member of the family. What ensues when the land is in someone else's control is something akin to slavery – slavery for the land.


Meanwhile, as for me. Having divested myself of ancestral land, I have staved off the immediate threat of slavery for myself – but I have also taken one step closer to eventual slavery. Because I no longer have a place on earth that I can sleep the night for free; I no longer have land that will provide nourishment for me. So I will need to buy or rent these things, and if I don't have enough money to do so, I will have to become indebted in order to purchase these things. The specter of slavery, if I cannot repay those debts, looms.

The Advent of Shmittah

But every seven years, a kind of reprieve arrives in the form of the Shmittah year. Let's actually follow the trail of this person we've been talking about, this person who's become alienated from his ancestral land. For him, Shmittah acts as a reprieve both for him, and for his land.


From the land's perspective, this piece of land that has been alienated from its family, that finds itself under some stranger's mastery – from that land's perspective, Shemittah is a year off; a year where no one can exert mastery over it; a year where the land is treated as if it is no man's land.


Shmittah, then, is a reprieve for the piece of land but it is not actually full freedom for the land, so to speak. The land is like no man's land, it is not being subjugated by a stranger – but it still has not been reunited with its family, as it were. It is still alienated from them. And so it is not yet fully free, in the eyes of the Torah.


A similar dynamic is happening during Shmittah with reference to the person who sold his ancestral land. We said before that this person finds himself a step closer to slavery, left without any economic safeguards, such as land, that would keep him from experiencing the kind of crushing debt that would lead to slavery. So the Shmittah year provides him at least a temporary reprieve. For one year, at least, he has the benefits of taking produce, for free, from anyone's land, because all land now is no man's land. Moreover, the Torah ordains that the Shmittah year cancels any outstanding debts. But the reprieve is only temporary. Next year will come – and without his land; he will still need to pay for a place to sleep and for food to eat. And therefore, the possibility of debt piling up, and the possibility of slavery, again begins to loom.

The Advent of Yovel

But then, every fifty years, a kind of freedom comes to the world. Yovel arrives.

Ukratem dror ba'aretz lechol yoshveihah


And you should proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. When freedom is proclaimed throughout the land, slaves go back to their families. And land that had been, so to speak, enslaved, is reunited with its family. Yovel is the great homecoming event. When land and people experience Shmittah, they experience the land as no man's land. But a slave on no man's land has only a tenuous kind of freedom. It is only when a slave is reunited with family, or a person is reunited with land, that he is truly safe. It is then that he is in the embrace of his creators, of those who will care for him; of those that will provide a home for him, nourishment for him – and will keep him safe from kidnappers.


So in a way, we might say that Yovel is a more intense version of Shmittah. Shmittah provides a respite from slavery; but Yovel cancels out slavery directly. Yovel, which occurs after a cycle of 7 times 7 years, is like Shmittah squared.

The Great Yovel

And now, let me come back to a theory I began to suggest to you a couple videos back. Might it be that the law of Yovel itself, this fifty-year iteration of freedom – might it be that this is the legal reflection of a historical event, a great Yovel-like event, that is the source, in history, for the very idea of Yovel? The event I am talking about is the revelation at Mount Sinai, the moment when all of Israel heard the sound of the Yovel Shofar.


If Yovel is about people going back to their source, back to their creators, might something like that have happened at Sinai?

At Sinai, the Creator of All showed up in the world. Or, to be more precise, he didn't show up at all, because He couldn't be seen. Instead, the moment of revelation happened through sound. It happened through a Heavenly shofar blast that became louder and louder, a Divine sound that eventually resolved itself into words, words which we apprehended as the Ten Commandments. God descended upon a mountain, with all of Israel gathered around it; but we couldn't see anything; it was dark, the text tells us, and a thick fog hovered over the mountain. But we heard, oh, did we hear. And it was there that we heard God proclaim a great truth that would once again be heard in the laws of Yovel: Ki li ha'aretz – the earth is mine.


This experience at Sinai, was a homecoming event in spades. In Yovel as we know it, the event that takes place every fifty years, individuals who were slaves come home to their families, and individuals come home to their land. In this way, people return to their earthly creators. But now, at Sinai, all that would happen on a collective level. In the grand Yovel event of Sinai, the land – the earth itself – it would be not parent but child this time. Land itself would be gathered into its Creator. That expressed itself in very direct terms with the mountain itself – God descended in a fiery cloud atop the mountain, and the mountain was set off limits; it became part of God's world.


So God would quite literally make the mountain His own; He would gather in land to its heavenly Creator. And the people? He would do the same for them. An entire nation of families who were enslaved, they would be gathered into their Heavenly Creator, too.


אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם; וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל-כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי


You have seen what I have done to Egypt, and how I have lifted you on Eagles wings, and have brought you [here] to Me…

In Yovel, people who are enslaved go back to their source -- their parents, their families. And at Sinai, a nation of families who were enslaved goes back to its source; the nation is gathered into the Creator of All, and finally becomes secure. Until then, the Children of Israel had been traveling through a desert. They had experienced no man's land. And in no man's land, they attained a provisional kind of freedom. There was no more Egyptian taskmaster standing there with a lash, forcing them to submit to backbreaking labor. But on the other hand, there was no security. They were nomads. Where would water and food come from? Where would they take shelter? Suddenly, at Sinai, they experienced a Creator who actually descended into their world, and claimed them as His own. They were standing on His land, now – God-land. They had come home to their ultimate family, their Heavenly Creator.


And so it was, for the rest of their sojourn in the desert. They would wander, yes; but strangely, they would always have food. They would always have shelter, because their family – their Parent in Heaven – would directly provide it to them. It is fascinating to note the language the Torah later uses to characterize the manna that Israel would eat in the desert as they traveled to Canaan. Toward the very end of the Torah, in Shirat Haazinu, the Torah speaks of God as if he were a mother bird, a powerful eagle, caring for His young.


יג יַרְכִּבֵהוּ עַל-במותי (בָּמֳתֵי) אָרֶץ, {ס} וַיֹּאכַל תְּנוּבֹת שָׂדָי; {ר}


He caused [His young] to ride over the high places of the earth, and they would eat the produce of My fields.

The little chicks in the desert – they wouldn't have access to the bounty of the earth. The earth was just a parched desert, and anyway, it was like they were flying over it, they weren't connected to terrestrial ground that could nurture them. They were fed from the bounty of Heaven's fields. They ate manna, bread that came to them from the sky.


At Sinai, the people experienced what it meant to be gathered into their Heavenly family. Connected to Divine earth and the Divine Presence, they experienced the ultimate in family connectedness. And for the rest of their sojourn in the desert, while they lived in terrestrial no-man's land, they lived in the residual cocoon of Sinai's connection – in the embrace of their Creator, in the embrace of His heavenly fields.

Until… until, they would come to the Land of Canaan.

The Real Shavuot

Jericho At the cusp of entering the land of Canaan, at Jericho, we would finally leave no man's land and come into possession of land of our own. As the walls of the city came tumbling down, we had the experience of being reunited with land that was particularly our own, our own ancestral land to which we, as a nation, were deeply connected from generations past, from the time of our own ancestors. The event that would give it to us would be a Yovel-type event. After seven times seven circuits around the city, the land would be demarcated, as Sinai had been, back in the desert. And once again, we would hear the blast of the Yovel Shofar, as we had heard it at Sinai.


With that blast of the Shofar, the era of life in the desert came to an end. Seemingly, we had left the intimate cocoon of God's direct embrace; we were no longer fed from the Manna of Heavenly fields. We would have our very own land, now. Terrestrial land. Land that you could touch and feel and farm and it would provide for you. Land that you could build upon – that you could make permanent homes for yourself upon.


Except that, even as this was the case, a taste of the desert would remain with us. Because, remember, Jericho was a Yovel event – and, as a Yovel, event, it carries a distinct message:

Ki li ha'aretz…


The land, at the end of the day, is Mine. It belongs to God. It is not really something that can be owned by people. Yes, people relate to the land deeply. Land provides for us. Gives us shelter, gives us food. But it gives us that, as a parent would give a child these things. A child doesn't really own a parent. We don't really own the land. It is too sacred and special to be owned.


And to symbolize that, just as Sinai was set off limits and demarcated as "God space", so would Jericho be. God proclaims that Jericho, this first bit of the conquest of Canaan, is not to be built up again by people. The spoils from the conquest of Jericho are not to be enjoyed by people. This little bit of land needs to actually be set apart from human consumption as a way of embedding in our consciousness that this entire body of land that we are getting – the Land of Canaan as a whole – although it will provide for us, although it will nourish us… we don't really own it. It is too sacred for that. If anything, a parent possesses a child; a child doesn't possess a parent. If anything, our land is owned by God, its parent. The child of the land – us, the people of Israel – as much as we get from the land, we can never really be its masters.

Every Fifty Years…

To help remind us of these truths about our connection to God and to the land, the Almighty ordains two observances that will recur perennially, as the years unfold.

One of these is the Yovel year, brought to us courtesy of a Shofar blast. This blast of a physical Shofar, produced by a human being, recalls for us the blast of a Heavenly Shofar we heard at Sinai. It signifies God's Presence in the world – like it did at Sinai – and when God is present, we become aware of the realities about people and land. These two beings, these children of God, are too precious for us to really own. When God is present, the convention that we humans made up – the convention of private land ownership, the convention of human slavery – all that dissipates in the presence of the Master of the Universe. Land and People are free. We can never really own either. I can rent a land's crops for a number of years; I can rent a person's labor – but the idea that I can really own either; that either can be reduced to a mere economic asset controlled by me; that idea is a farce. In the Yovel Shofar's call of the fiftieth year, we hear an echo of the Shofar at Sinai, and the message of each is the same: The Master of the Universe is present in the world, and He is claiming His children as His own: Ki Li Ha'aretz.

And Every Year…

But this truth is so important that it is not something we should remind ourselves of only every fifty years. God ordains another observance, too – a yearly observance – to help us live these truths. A Yovel-like holiday:



Look at how Shavuot lines up with Yovel:

When it comes to Yovel, God first asks us to count seven years – and then experience the neutrality of no-man's land that is the Shmittah year. After that, God asks us to count seven times seven years – Sheva Shabbatot – and then experience the homecoming, the freedom, that is Yovel.


And now look at Shavuot. God first asks us to count the seven days of Pesach, days on which we remember exiting the land of slavery and heading into the desert, into no man's land. After that, God asks us to count seven times seven days – Sheva Shavuot – and then to re-experience the homecoming, the freedom, that was Sinai – the event that transpired forty nine days after we exited Egypt.

Biblical Shavuot, Rabbinic Shavuot

It is now that we see how the Biblical and Rabbinic concepts of Shavuot really fuse into a single, seamless, whole. On the one hand, Shavuot is, as the rabbis say, an event that commemorates the Revelation at Sinai. But it commemorates that event from a certain perspective. The language of the Biblical text focuses our commemoration of that experience, so that we view it through a certain, particular lens. That lens, so to speak, is the Yovel-like quality of Sinai.


God's radical revelation, His Presence – vibrates through our very bodies through the sound of the Shofar -- that sound, at Sinai, it set us free. It brought us back to our Parent in Heaven, allowed us to be gathered in by Him; and at that moment that we stood around Sinai, land that literally exited the terrestrial sphere and became taken over, as it were, by God – it was at that moment that we also came to understand, as clearly as never before, that: li kol ha'aretz – land is the possession of God's, we do not really possess it. In the language that the Torah later on uses to characterize Yovel, gerim vetoshavim atem imadi, all we Israelites really are, are sojourners in God's land.


And so, from the Biblical perspective, Shavuot – this day of commemorating revelation – it really does take on the character of an agricultural holiday. It is the holiday on which we learn how to relate to our land. It is the holiday that we gratefully experience our national homecoming to our Parent in Heaven, the Master of the Universe, and our understanding that if we come home to God, then our parent, land, it comes home to God, too.


And so the Torah tells us that Shavuot is a chag hakatzir, a harvest festival. We celebrate it during the time of our harvest. It is a time when we would otherwise be inclined to triumphantly reap land's bounty and proclaim our sovereignty over this land that gives us wheat. Instead, though, we take pause, and ask ourselves: Who really owns this sacred resource?


Instead of hoarding the harvest, and simply stockpiling the grain in silos – Shavuot asks landowners to celebrate the harvest in a particular way. In the words of the text, on Shavuot we are to take מִסַּת נִדְבַת יָדְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּן: כַּאֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, the bounty of your hands-work [in the fields], as God has blessed you, וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, and you should rejoice in the presence of God with a great feast. And who should you invite to the feast? Your whole family: , אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ– you, your son, your daughter. After all, Shavuot is homecoming day, a day when people are gathered into their families. So you must celebrate with your families. But look at the definition of family here. Curiously, it has been expanded. Because look who else you are celebrating with: וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ – you must also rejoice in your bounty with your servant, your maidservant; with the Levite, with the ger, the sojourner, and with the widow. Who are these people? These are all people who don't have any land. They are the dispossessed. And they are your family, too.


What are we supposed to do with these people? Listen carefully: We are not supposed to give them charity. Leftovers; handouts? No. We are to rejoice with them, celebrate with them. The point here is to include them as equals in the feast, and to let them experience the joy of the harvest the way an owner would -- the way a real stakeholder in the land would experience that joy. Indeed, the Torah even goes out of its way to tell us that, at the feast, we should serve our guests נִדְבַת יָדְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּן: כַּאֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ – food commensurate with the way God has blessed us. If we got more that year, the feast should be bigger. If we got less, the feast should be smaller. Now, you might intuitively say: Look, here's a rich guy, he's a landowner – let him feed them generously this once, even if it's been a relatively lean year for him. He can afford it! But the Torah says no: Give your guests bounty as God has given you. Treat them as stakeholders. As if they were landowners, too, reaping more in good years, less in lean ones.


Why? Because we and them are similar: Geirim Vetoshavim atem imadi. You are all sojourners in the land. The land is too big to really be owned. The land provides for you, but the way a parent provides for its family. So, on this holiday in which you recognize that truth – here's what you do: Bring first fruits to God, and recognize that the land is really His. And feast and rejoice in the land's bounty with your family – expanding that sense of family to include all God's Children, far beyond what would seem the obvious borders of family. The poor, the widow, the orphan, your servant – these are all your family, too. On this day, on Sinai day, the Master of the Universe made a nation of slaves free and proclaimed us all members of His family, all eligible for sustenance from the fields of Heaven. So on this day, emulate that – and let them all partake in the bounty of the land that God has given us.


In so doing, vezacharta – we remember, as the verse concludes, ki eved hayita b'eretz mitzrayim, that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.

How to Relate

So, let's take stock together. How, if at all, would this understanding of Shavuot affect how it is that we actually relate to the holiday?

We talked before about a kind of "Biblical side" of Shavuot and a "Rabbinic side" to the holiday – and we've now seen that those two sides of the holiday actually complement one another. Yes, as the rabbis tell us, Shavuot celebrates the Sinai experience – but the Biblical side of the holiday gives us a lens through which to view that experience. We are celebrating more than just what was given to us on that Day of Revelation. We are celebrating the fact of revelation itself. What it meant that God showed up in the world, for us to be gathered into Him like family.


In a way, this idea that revelation was a Homecoming Day is actually the foundation of the Torah itself. What we received at Sinai, the Torah -- is inconceivable without how we received it, without the homecoming experience of Revelation. The original Shavuot, at Sinai, was a day on which we humans came home to our Father in Heaven, and it was a day on which we experienced land coming home to Him as well. On the day we experienced these truths about the sanctity of people and of land, about the fact that we cannot really own either; on that day, we received the Torah. It is a torah built on those truths, a Torah that tries to help us live those truths out every day of our lives.


Indeed, without those two truths, living out the commandments of the Torah is almost a farce. If the land is mine, if it is just an asset, nothing more – then I can take for granted how it nurtures me, and the home that it provides for me. And why should I listen to anybody, like God, tell me what to do? I have what I need. And if people are mine, if my neighbor can be just an asset, that I own – if my neighbor is reducible to my economic interest; then the Torah that asks me to relate to that neighbor is a farce.


The Torah is built on the realization of the sanctity of land and people. At its deepest level, God, people and land – they are all part of my family. Once those truths are accepted, the Torah – which gives me rules by which to relate – starts to make sense.


On Shavuot, we both bring bikkurim to God, and we feast and share the land's bounty with those less fortunate and realize that they are family, too. For many of us in the twenty first century, it is hard to relate to Shavuot the way the text of the Bible portrays it. Most of us aren't farmers. We don't bring bikkurim, first fruits. Leaving aside the wilting tomato plants my son planted on the side of the house, we don't really have bounty from our personal land that we could share with the Levite, the poor and the widow. I don't have slaves. What am I supposed to do? How is Shavuot supposed to look for me?


Well, I might not have crops, and so I don't give bikkurim to God. But I do create things – whether I'm an artist, a CEO, a musician, or a partner in a law firm. Maybe those are my fruits. Maybe there's a way I can take some of my talent, what I do best in life, and say to myself: Most of these fruits I use to take care of myself, my family. But how can I dedicate some of them back to God? What might He wish me to use them for?


I may not have slaves. I may not know any orphans. But I might have a housekeeper from Honduras. She's a stranger in a land not her own. Maybe Shavuot is a time to remind ourselves of the humanity she shares with the rest of our family. Maybe, as we celebrate Shavuot with our nuclear families, Shavuot is a time to give her a gift, give her a reason to celebrate a little along with you.


The anniversary of Revelation at Sinai is a day to learn Torah, to prize Torah, but it is also a day to recognize that the Master of the Universe is present in the World – and when He is, the sacredness of people shines. We come to understand that we are all members of the family of the Most High – even those whose fortune is low, or at least lower than ours. With our gifts above and below, given in joy, we recognize that all that we have is really the bounty of the Fields of Heaven.

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