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The Deeper Meanings of Shavuot

Shavuot reflects the centrality of 'seven' in Judaism.

7-SEVEN

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Based on the Jewish Sages.

1.   Shavuot (Pentecost) was, originally, an agricultural holiday, celebrating the first harvest/fruit by bringing offerings (Bikkurim-ביכורים) to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Following the destruction of the second Temple and the resulting exile in 70 AD - which raised the need to entrench Torah awareness in order to avoid spiritual and physical oblivion – Shavuot became a historical/religious holiday of the Torah.  The Torah played a key role in shaping the U.S. Constitution and the American culture, as well as the foundations of Western democracies.

Shavuot is celebrated by decorating homes and houses of worship with Land of Israel-related crops and flowers, demonstrating the 3,500 year old connection between the Land of Israel (pursued by Abraham), the Torah of Israel (transmitted by Moses) and the People of Israel (united by David).  Shavuot is the holiday of humility, as befits the Torah values, Moses (“the humblest of all human beings), the humble Sinai desert and Mt. Sinai, a modest, non-towering mountain.  Abraham, David and Moses are role models of humility and their Hebrew acronym (Adam - אדמ) means “human-being.”  Humility constitutes a prerequisite for studying the Torah, for constructive human relationships and a prerequisite to effective leadership.

Shavuot – a spiritual holiday – follows Passover – a national liberation holiday: from physical liberation (the Exodus) to spiritual liberation/enhancement (the Torah), in preparation for the return to the Homeland.

2. The holiday has 7 names: The fiftieth (חמישים), Harvest (קציר), Giving of the Torah (מתן תורה), Shavuot (שבועות), Offerings (ביכורים), Rally (עצרת) and Assembly (הקהל).  The Hebrew acronym of the seven names is “The Constitution of the Seven” - חקת שבעה.

Shavuot reflects the centrality of “seven” in Shavuot and Judaism.  The Hebrew root of Shavuot (שבועות) is the word/number Seven (שבע - Sheva), which is also the root of “vow” (שבועה – Shvuah), “satiation” (שובע – Sova) and “week” (שבוע Shavuah). Shavuot is celebrated 7 weeks following Passover. God employed 7 earthly attributes to create the universe (in addition to the 3 divine attributes).  The Sabbath is the 7th day of the Creation in a 7 day weekThe first Hebrew verse in Genesis consists of 7 words. The 7 beneficiaries of the Sabbath are: you, your son and daughter, your male and female servants, your livestock and the stranger.  God created 7 universes – the 7th hosts the pure souls, hence“Seventh Heaven.” There are 7 compartments of hell. There are 7 basic human traits, which individuals are supposed to resurrect/adopt in preparation for Shavuot. 7 key Jewish/universal leaders - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aharon, Joseph and David – are commemorated as distinguished guests (Ushpizin in Hebrew) during the Tabernacle holiday, representing the 7 qualities of the Torah7 generations passed from Abraham to Moses. There are 7 species of the Land of Israel (barley, wheat, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive and date/honey. In Hebrew, number 7 represents multiplication (שבעתיים–Shivatayim.  Grooms and Brides are blessed times. There are 7 major Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, Chanukah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot); 7 directions (north, south, west, east, up, down, one’s inside); 7 continents and 7 oceans and major seas in the globe; 7 world wonders7 notes in a musical scale; 7 days of mourning over the deceased; 7 congregants read the Torah on each Sabbath; 7 Jewish Prophetesses (Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Abigail, Choulda and Esther); 7 gates to the Temple in Jerusalem; 7 branches in the Temple’s Menorah; and 7 Noah Commandments.  Moses’ birth and death day was on the 7th day of Adar.  Jethro had 7 names and 7 daughtersJoshuaencircled Jericho 7 times before the wall tumbled-down.  Passover and Sukkot (Tabernacles) last for 7 days each. The Yom Kippur prayers are concluded by reciting “God is the King” 7 times.  Each Plague lasted for 7 days.  Jubilee follows seven 7-year cycles. According to Judaism, slaves are liberated, and the soil is not-cultivated, in the 7th year. Pentecost is celebrated on the 7th Sunday after Easter.

3.  Shavuot is celebrated 50 days following Passover, the holiday of liberty.  The Jubilee– the cornerstone of liberty and the source of the inscription on the Liberty Bell (Leviticus 25:10) - is celebrated every 50 years. Judaism highlights the constant challenge facing human beings: the choice between the 50 gates of wisdom (the Torah) and the corresponding 50 gates of impurity (Biblical Egypt).  The 50th gate of wisdom is the gate of deliverance.  The USA is composed of 50 states.

4.  Shavuot sheds light on the unique covenant between the Jewish State and the USA: Judeo-Christian Values.  These values impacted the world view of the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Separation of Powers, Checks & Balances, the abolitionist movement, etc. John Locke wanted the 613 Laws of Moses to become the legal foundation of the new society established in America. Lincoln’s famous 1863 quote paraphrased a statement made by the 14th century British philosopher and translator of the Bible, John Wycliffe: “The Bible is a book of the people, by the people, for the people.”

5.  Shavuot is the second of the 3 Jewish Pilgrimages (Sukkot -Tabernacles, Passover and Shavuot – Pentecost), celebrated on the 6th day of the 3rd Jewish month, Sivan.  It highlights Jewish Unity, compared by King Solomon to “a three folds cord, which is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).  The Torah - the first of the 3 parts of the Jewish Bible – was granted to the Jewish People (which consists of 3 components: Priests, Levites and Israel), by Moses (the youngest of 3 children, brother of Aharon and Miriam), a successor to the 3 Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and to Seth, the 3rd son of Adam and Eve.  The Torah was forged in 3 mannersFire (commitment to principles), Water (lucidity and purity) and Desert (humility and faith-driven defiance of odds). The Torah is one of the 3 pillars of healthy human relationships, along with labor and gratitude/charity. The Torah is one of the 3 pillars of Judaism, along with the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.

6.  Shavuot highlights the eternity of the Jewish People. Thus, the first and the last Hebrew letters of Shavuot (שבועות) constitute the Hebrew name of the third – and righteous – son of Adam & Eve, Seth (שת). The Hebrew meaning of Seth – שת – is “to institute” and “to bestow upon” (Matan-מתן  in Hebrew).  The Hebrew word for the bestowing of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is Matan Torah (מתן תורה).

7. Shavuot (שבועות) is a derivative of the Hebrew word “Shvuah’” (שבועה) – vow, referring to the exchange of vows between God and the Jewish People.  The origin of Shavuot occurred 26 generations following Adam and Eve. The Hebrew word for Jehovah equals 26 in gimatriya (assignment of numerical values to Hebrew letters). There are 26 Hebrew letters in the names of the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham (אברהם), Yitzhak (יצחק), Yaakov (יעקב) Sarah (שרה), Rivka (רבקה), Rachel (רחל) and Leah (לאה).

8.  Shavuot highlights the Scroll of Ruth, who lived 3 generations before King David, son of Jesse, grandson of Ovad, the son of Ruth. The Scroll of Ruth is the first of the five Biblical scrolls, which are studied during five holidays: Ruth (Shavuot), Song of Songs (Passover), Ecclesiastes (Sukkot), Book of Lamentations (Ninth of Av), Esther (Purim).Ruth – a Moabite Princess and a role model of loyalty (“Your people are my people and your God is my God”) and gratitude - stuck by her mother-in-law, Naomi, who lost her husband, Elimelech (President of the Tribe of Judah) and two sons.  Naomi went through family, economic and social calamities, similar to those experienced by Job: both lost their close-ones and financial assets; both complained to God; both preserved confidence in God and reconstructed their families; both were role-model of faith-driven tenacity.  Naomi’s suffering constituted a punishment for emigrating from the Land of Israel upon difficult times.  Leaders do not desert their people when the going gets rough!  Ruth’s Legacy: Respect thy mother in-law (!), be driven by conviction over convenience be cognizant of the central role played by women from Sarah, through Ruth, until today.  The total sum of the Hebrew letters of Ruth (רות) – in Gimatriya – is 606, the number of laws granted at Mt. Sinai, which together with the 7 laws of Noah form the 613 Laws of Moses.  According to the scroll, “Ruth [the daughter-in-law] was better than 7 sons.”

The Scroll of Ruth highlights the Judean Desert and Bethlehem as the Cradle of the House of David and Jewish history – not “occupied territory.”

9.  Shavuot is the day of birth/death of King David (as well as the day that Moses was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter), the great-grandson of Ruthwho united the Jewish People, elevating them to a most powerful position. The David-Torah linkage demonstrates that physical and spiritual leadership are mutually-inclusive, as long as governments are driven by values. According to Deuteronomy (17: 18-20), the king must write his own Torah scroll, in order to refine his character, gain knowledge and absorb leadership qualities, mostly humility. In contrast with King Saul, King David assumed responsibility and accountability for his sins. He didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk! 150 candles are lit at King David’s tomb on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, consistent with the 150 chapters of Psalms mostly attributed to David. Number 150 is the numerical value of Nest (קן), the warm environment of the Torah. David’s personal history (from shepherd to king) – and Jewish history – provides a lesson for individuals and nations: Despair is not an option and every problem is an opportunity in disguise (from slavery in Egypt to the sublime deliverance at Mt. Sinai and then in the Land of Israel).

10.  The two portions of the Torah, which are recited/studied around Shavuot, are נשא and בהעלותך, which mean – in Hebrew – spiritual enhancement and elevation. נשא is the longest portion of the Torah (176 verses), highlighting the inauguration of the ancient tabernacle and altar.  בהעלותך highlights the Menorah (Candelabrum) of the ancient tabernacle, which had seven branches, similar to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot.

11.  Dairy dishes consumed during Shavuot, commemorate divine providence. According to the Kabbalah (Jewish mystical school of thoughts), milk represents divine quality. Babies – a divine creation – are breast fed by mothers.  Dairy dishes commemorate the most common (humble) food – of shepherds like King David – during the 40 years in the desert, on the way to the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Israel.  Unlike wine, milk is poured into simple glasses.  The total sum of milk (חלב) is 40 in Gimatriya, which is equal to the 40 days and nights spent by Moses on Mt. Sinai and the 40 years spent by the Jewish People in the Desert. 40 is also the value of the first Hebrew letter (מ) of key Exodus-Terms: Moses (משה), Miriam (מרים), Manna (מן), Egypt (מצרים), Desert (מדבר), Menorah (מנורה), Tabernacle (משכן), Mitzvah-Commandment (מצווה), etc.  40 generations passed from Moses – who delivered the “Written Torah” – to Rabbi Ashi and Rabbi Rabina, who concluded the editing of the Talmud, the “Oral Torah.” The first and the last letters in the Talmud is the Hebrew “מ”, which equals 40 in Gimatriya.

Originally published as “Shavou’ot (Pentecost) Guide for the Perplexed” as The Ettinger Report.

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About the Author: Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is consultant to Israel’s Cabinet members and Israeli legislators, and lecturer in the U.S., Canada and Israel on Israel’s unique contributions to American interests, the foundations of U.S.-Israel relations, the Iranian threat, and Jewish-Arab issues.


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