Why Is Shavuot Celebrated
Shavuot Customs & Laws: What's So Exciting About Getting A Bunch Of Laws?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
"Shavuot! Laws!!! WOOHOO!!!"...said no one ever. So... why should we be excited about celebrating Shavuot? About the day when we honor the giving of the Torah? A super pious person might say: "We're rejoicing in the obligations that God placed upon us!", and while that sounds really nice and religious, let's get real: those laws are burdensome. So why are we pretending that they're so great?
And when you think about when God imposed these mitzvot on us, you have to ask: Wasn't it pretty lousy timing? We received the Torah fewer than two months after leaving bondage in Egypt. It's like we just got done celebrating our freedom from one master, from Pharaoh, and all of a sudden, God swoops in and says, "It's nice being free, huh? BAM!! 613 laws. You answer to Me now. Say bye-bye to your freedom. How do you like that?"
And... that's what we're celebrating on Shavuot??!
Look, no one's suggesting that we defy God. He's... God. The laws are the laws. But do we really have to be excited about it?
Watch this video and get excited about why we celebrate Shavuot. For real.
Why Do We Celebrate Shavuot & Shavuot Traditions
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Aleph Beta.
Well, Shavuot is in the air and I want to begin by asking you a few questions about this upcoming holiday.
Why Do We Celebrate Shavuot Laws? Tradition has it, that this holiday celebrates the Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. It is, in other words, a celebration of law – obligations that God places upon us. But the whole notion of a holiday that celebrates law, of all things… I don't know; I certainly don't want to sound heretical over here, but honestly, how excited does one usually get about laws? The tax code. Lawyer's offices. Courtrooms. Penal statutes. Rules. These are the words we usually associate with law – but none of these words inspire much excitement in any of us. When I go to pay my traffic ticket at the County Courthouse, I don't see the citizens rejoicing in the hallways with champagne and party hats, overjoyed at the privilege of participating in the state's judicial system. Following laws might be something you are supposed to do, but it doesn't sound like something we would greet with overwhelming joy, something to be "celebrated." Why, then, do we celebrate this, with the holiday called "Shavuot"?
Why Is Shavuot Celebrated?
In a way, this question gets compounded, if you think about Shavuot and its proximity to the holiday of Passover. On Passover, we celebrate our freedom. Our freedom from what? From a master by the name of Pharaoh who imposed all sorts of laws and obligations upon us. And now… now we've suddenly got another Master? Okay, so it's God; and yes, you can't see Him, He's up there in the Heavens, and maybe he's not quite as mean as the last one – but look, there's still all this stuff you've got to do for your Master.
So why do we celebrate all these new laws? We might have to follow these new laws – we're not going to defy God – but why should we celebrate these new obligations? But celebrate law we do. Make no mistake about it: Shavuot asks us to get excited about law. How are we supposed to do that?
What Does Shavuot Mean?
So I'd like to suggest a theory here. To understand why we celebrate the law, and how we can possibly do so without getting whiplash after celebrating freedom on Passover, maybe we can find a clue in the name of this law-celebration-holiday. It is called Shavuot. Weeks. Not Law-day or Torah-day. Just "Weeks." Why call it that? Well, you say, here's why it is called "weeks": Shavuot comes 7 weeks after Pesach! But...how is that really an answer? When it came time to name the holiday of Purim, no one suggested we should call the holiday "T-Minus 30 Day" – because, look, Purim always falls out thirty days before Passover!
Clearly, the period connecting Passover to Shavuot is not just a seven-week period that happens to separate two holidays; rather, it is something more essential than that. It seems we're meant to conceptualize Shavuot as some sort of climactic culmination of this seven-week process. As such, it would follow that we can't really understand Shavuot without understanding the significance of that seven-week period. So let's jump in and try and make some sense of it.
Understanding the Background of Shavuot's Rules
The transition period between Passover and Shavuot, these 7 weeks are known, in modern parlance, as Sefirat Ha'Omer, the counting of the Omer. The Omer is a grain offering that, according to Leviticus 23, was brought on the second Day of Passover, and it is the event that kicks off the counting of these weeks.
Feels like a dead-end, right? Shavuot as a celebration of Sinai, I get that, at least more or less. But Rabbi, what seems even more hopelessly unrelatable than a holiday celebrating law? A holiday celebrating a grain offering! Rabbi, I'm not much into korbanot. I never understood sacrifices, offerings. In the 21st century, this stuff doesn't quite call out to me. Can't we just think of Shavuot as "10 Commandments Day" and leave it at that?
Well, unfortunately, we can't – or at least we can't if we are interested in understanding Shavuot on its own terms. Let's explore a bit: What, if anything, was the larger significance of the Omer offering?
The Customs and Laws Leading Up to Shavuot
At face value, the Torah doesn't tell us much about its significance. We know that, from a halachic standpoint, the Omer certainly had a function: The Torah prohibits people to consume the new year's harvest of grain until after the Omer offering is brought. But the Torah doesn't tell us a whole lot else about the offering. Its larger significance, if there is one, seems somewhat shrouded in mystery.
But perhaps the language the Torah uses to describe the bringing of the Omer can offer us some clues. As I mentioned before, the Omer offering is brought on the second day of Passover. You know, there's a pretty clear way to say that: Hear ye, Israel – bring the omer on the second Day of Passover. But the Torah doesn't say that. Instead, the Torah tells us the laws of Passover, and right after that, it tell us that mimacharat HaShabbat – "on the Day after the Sabbath" – that's when you bring the Omer.
We are left to figure out that the term "Shabbat" in this context doesn't refer to Saturday, like it usually does; it instead refers to the first day of Passover, and that the Omer is brought on the day following that first day. Weird, right? Why does the Torah make it so unnecessarily complicated, instead of just telling us, bring the omer on the second day of Passover? For some reason, when reading about the Omer, it is hard to resist the notion that the Torah seems kind of fixated on the idea of Sabbath. First it was that "Day After the Sabbath" talk. But then… we meet the Sabbath again in the context of the Omer.
You see, the Torah tells us that after you bring the Omer offering, we are meant to count fifty days until we get to our next holiday, Shavuot. But instead of just telling us "count fifty days," the Torah phrases the count in terms of weeks: It says 'count seven full weeks.' And the language for those weeks? You guessed it: Sheva Shabbatot. Seven "Sabbaths" we are supposed to count, for a total of 49 days.
And then… just when you thought we'd seen the last of "Sabbaths" and "the Day After the Sabbath…" – bang, it's back: The Torah says: mimacharat hashabat hasheviit… "on the day after the seventh of those Sabbaths," that's when you have another holiday, on which you bring an entirely new offering: The Shtei HaLechem, two loaves of bread. And of course, this is the holiday of Shavuot.
So… what's with the Omer and all this 'Sabbath' and 'day-after-the-Sabbath' talk? Why is the Omer so closely tied to that phraseology? Clue Number Two.
So that's clue number one to the larger significance of the Omer: The preponderance of all that talk about Sabbath. And here's clue number two. What does the word Omer actually mean? As it turns out, it is a measurement of grain; the Torah in Exodus defines it as a measurement equivalent to a tenth of an eiphah. So that's how much grain was in the omer offering. Now, I know that may not mean a whole lot to you just now, all you folks used to pounds, ounces, liters and all that good stuff – but just bear with me for a minute. Let's now talk about the Shavuot.
On Shavuot, 7 times 7 Shabbatot later, we bring another offering involving grains: The two loaves of bread known as Shtei HaLechem. And… how much grain should be used to bake those two loaves? The Torah specifies that two tenths of an ephah were used. So, here's clue number two: One gift to God of an omer worth of grain… followed by another gift that is double as much as that. Does that remind you of anything?
And now, clue number three. We all know what Passover commemorates: The Exodus from Egypt. And, we all know what Shavuot commemorates: The Giving of the Torah at Sinai. So… curious minds want to know: What about the time in between those two holidays – the days we call The Omer? Might they be celebrating something, too? Could they be celebrating something that happened, somewhere out there in the desert, as the Israelites were making that 49 day trek from Egypt to Sinai?
Could the Omer, a gift of grain to God, be celebrating another gift of grain that we received, out there in the desert, a gift that has "double-as-much-ness" associated with it? A gift that has the idea of both "tomorrow" and "Sabbath" associated with it?
What might that gift have been?
Manna: The Background for Receiving Shavuot Mitzvot?
Well, a final clue comes, I think, in the form of a particularly revealing coincidence: That word for the grain offering whose larger significance we've been trying to figure out – the Omer Offering? Well, it turns out that word, Omer, is a very rare one. It appears only one other time in all the Five Books of Moses.
The only other time it appears is with reference to... the Manna. The Manna we received in the desert after we left Egypt, but before we arrived at Sinai. The manna which fell for us on every day… except for the Sabbath. The manna of which we received from Heaven one portion every day of the week, but a double portion on Friday, in preparation for the Sabbath which would happen… tomorrow.
Yeah, that manna, whose single portion per person of Manna got miraculously doubled every Friday – how much, exactly, was that portion? Well, the Torah tells us: זֶ֤ה הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה לִקְט֣וּ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ אִ֖ישׁ לְפִ֣י אָכְל֑וֹ עֹ֣מֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּ֗לֶת
Yes, fair viewer, when we add it all up – all those language particularities which show up with respect to the Omer Offering – the double as much-ness, the emphasis on Sabbath, on tomorrow – they all have their genesis in the gift of the Manna, right down to the measurement of the Omer itself.
The Omer offering is couched in language about Sabbath and 'tomorrow' because the Manna was all about Sabbath and tomorrow. As a matter of fact, the gift of the Manna was the very first time, historically, that the idea of Sabbath was first introduced to the People of Israel.
So you see, all the dots seem to line up. It seems that, just like Pesach and Shavuot, the holidays that bookend the Omer – the Omer time-period itself just might be meant to celebrate something too: The Manna.
Laws as the Significant Theme of Shavuot
So if we are right about the significance of the Omer, the question, I think, we need to ask ourselves, is this: It appears that the Torah designates our experience with the gift of Manna as some kind of predicate, almost a preparation of sorts, for our Receiving the Torah. Historically, we first experienced one, then the other. And every year, we kind of re-enact that history, celebrating first the Omer and then Shavuot; first a 7 week Omer count, then a Feast of Weeks, the culmination of that count.
So… why should that be? What is it about Manna, of all things, that paves the road from the freedom of Passover to the Law-giving of Shavuot? What does the Manna have to teach us about how to celebrate the law, and what secrets does it have to share with us about the meaning of Shavuot?