Everybody knows Shavu’ot is an important festival, but it doesn’t have a tractate to describe it. The others do – Pesachim, Rosh HaShanah, Yoma, Sukkah, even Megillah. There is no tractate of Chanukah, but that’s a different problem.
There is no date specified for Shavu’ot in the Torah: all we have is a law to count 49 days of the Omer and keep the 50th as a festival. Ancient days saw a debate between Pharisees and Sadducees as to when to begin the count, with the result that each group ended up with Shavu’ot on a different date.
The tradition is that Shavu’ot is the anniversary of the Revelation upon Mount Sinai, but all we hear about in the Torah is the agricultural aspect, the identification of Shavu’ot as the Day of the First Fruits.
Even the name of the festival is a problem – is it Shavu’ot, weeks, or Shevu’ot, oaths? If the second view is correct, one could argue that the festival enshrines two oaths – God’s promise that He will not abandon Israel, and Israel’s promise that it will not abandon the Torah. But Judaism prefers the first option!
In Greek it became Pentecost, fifty; Judaism called it Atzeret, conclusion, linking it to Pesach as Sukkot is linked to Sh’mini Atzeret. The idea is that Pesach gave us physical freedom but the Torah given on Sinai completes the liberation.
The story is that Shavu’ot indeed has a story. The Torah source clearly links Pesach and Shavu’ot by means of the Omer, so if we have a date for Pesach we know how to calculate Shavu’ot. True, the Sadducees argued about when the counting began, but they have been left behind by history.
When we ceased being an agricultural people we moved our emphasis to the historical, ethical and spiritual side of the three pilgrim festivals. Shavu’ot needed extra work, since the text did not precisely spell out that the giving of the Torah coincided with the festival of the First Fruits, but tradition made the connection and gave us, as Lord Jakobovits put it, a festival which “denotes the first ‘ripening’ or ‘maturing’ of Israel: through the giving of the Torah the purpose of Jewish history began to come to ‘fruition’”.
A well-known rabbinic statement says there are 600,000 letters in the Sefer Torah, analogous to the 600,000 Israelite males (to be pedantic, 603,550) who left Egypt – i.e. there is one letter for every Israelite.
The idea is really beautiful. It derives from the Zohar, but actually the arithmetic is faulty and there are not 600,000 but just over 300,000 letters in the Torah. One of the explanations is that there are not precisely 600,000 letters but there are that number of spaces for letters, provided we understand “letters” as small consonants like yod and vav, not big ones like shin and aleph which take up more room.
This view, while it might still contain a mathematical problem, has two lessons for us to learn. One involves the Mishnaic teaching, “Every Jew has a place in the world to come” (used at the beginning of every chapter of Pir’kei Avot), which implies that we all have a reserved place but in the end some possibly do not live wisely enough to occupy that seat. In that sense we could say that there are 600,000 places reserved for the Jewish people, but maybe some, perhaps as many as nearly half, will jeopardise their potential place.
Another possibility is that every Jew has two souls (2 x 300,000 souls = 600,000) – the regular soul with which we were endowed at birth, and the “neshamah yeterah” – the “additional soul” conferred upon us by the observance of Shabbat.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com