THE JEWISH COUNT-DOWNS
The countdown to Shavu’ot is the 49 days of the Omer. Beginning on the second evening of Pesach we formally count the days that link the two festivals.
Not that this is the only count-down in Jewish practice and philosophy. Every time we are on the road to a culminating moment we count the days one by one. Like a little child counting how many sleeps there are to their birthday, we confirm that we are en route, and we declare where we have got to so far.
We have so many time-counts in Judaism – 7 days making up each week, 3 weeks linking the fasts of Tammuz and Av, 10 days starting with Rosh HaShanah and culminating in Yom Kippur, 7 years making up the cycle from one Shemitah year to the next… and so on.
Three things feature in every count – where we have come from, where we are heading, where we are at this moment. Where we have come from shows where we have been, where we are heading announces what destiny we hope for, where we are enables us to judge whether we are on the right track.
Shavu’ot is the only festival we have whose date we arrive at by calculation and not by textual announcement.
In ancient times – in the days of the Second Temple – when the Pharisees and Sadducees were in conflict about a whole range of theological and halachic issues, they knew and accepted that they had to follow the rule in Parashat Emor (Lev. 23:15) that “from the morrow of the day of rest”, seven weeks had to elapse before celebrating Shavu’ot on the fiftieth day.
But each group defined “day of rest” differently. The Sadducees took the phrase literally and said it meant Saturday, so for them the counting of the days and weeks always began after just after Shabbat, and Shavu’ot was always on a Sunday.
The Pharisees said that “day of rest” did not have to mean Saturday but could also indicate a festival. So they began counting as from the second day of Pesach, “the morrow of the Pesach festival day”. The two groups ended up with different results.
Why we follow the Pharisees is that they had the advantage of the Oral Torah which studied and interpreted the Torah text. It’s because of the Pharisees that Jewry is a people of scholars, and with the necessary background and belief every Jew can play a part in learning and living the tradition of Judaism.
A century ago some scholars argued that “day of rest” meant “full moon’. Since the date of Pesach is 15 Nisan the counting towards the festival of Shavu’ot commenced on the second day of Pesach. It’s an ingenious suggestion, but it is hard to know what evidence there is for this interpretation of “day of rest”.
GREENS & FLOWERS
Long established custom decorates homes and synagogues on Shavu’ot with green branches and flowers.
One explanation is that when the Torah was given on Sinai, the barren mountain responded to the privilege by sprouting greenery.
Another view is that, as we see in Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, the month of Sivan when Shavu’ot occurs is a time of Heavenly judgment of the fruit of the trees. Hence decorating homes and synagogues with greenery reminds us to take Shavu’ot seriously… otherwise it seems to be the poor relation in the Jewish calendar.
In many places it is the lily of the valley that is the favourite flower, symbolic of the beauty and majesty of the Divine commandments.
SITTING UP ALL NIGHT
Nobody knows enough Torah. Even the “gedolei ha-dor” (the intellectual giants of the generation) will tell you how ignorant they are. Sitting up all night on Shavu’ot to study Torah is a wonderful opportunity to add to our knowledge.
It is said that the night of study was introduced by Rabbi Joseph Karo, redactor of the Shulchan Aruch. Why is this practice called “Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot”? “Tikkun” means “repair”. What we are doing is to make good the lapse which the Midrash attributes to the Children of Israel, who slept in on the night before the Revelation and needed thunder and lightning to wake them in the morning to hear God revealing the Ten Commandments.
Some follow the order of study in a book which combines passages from Biblical and rabbinic literature; others work out their own agenda of issues to discuss and debate.