Class 6: Shavuot - sinai & Sacred Loaves
In this class, we'll learn about the first fruits festival of Shavuot and its connection to the revelation of Torah.
Shavuot falls fifty days after Passover, on the sixth of Sivan. Shavuot is also known as Chag haKatzir, the holiday of the wheat harvest, and Chag haBikkurim, the holiday of first fruits. In ancient times, Shavuot was a pilgrimage festival during which the celebrants brought the first of their crops, as well as two loaves of bread symbolizing the wheat harvest, to the Temple. Although this pilgrimage ended when the Temple was destroyed, in some communities people still bring baskets of fruit and flowers to the synagogue as a reminder of the first fruits, and in other communities (kibbutzim, Isabella Freedman, etc.) there is still a first fruits procession and offering.
Shavuot is also celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of Torah and of the covenant between God and the Jews. Although the Torah mentions Shavuot only as the first fruits festival, later Jews came to associate it with the giving of the Torah, and so it became a holiday of study. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments is the Torah portion we read on Shavuot. This portion is read with great pomp and circumstance, and people rise to receive the Ten Commandments.
There is a long-standing tradition to see Shavuot as a wedding. At first, Jews saw Shavuot as a wedding between the people and God. The kabbalists came to see Shavuot as a wedding between the transcendent and immanent, between the masculine and feminine faces of the divine. On the first night of Shavuot, some Jews have the custom of staying up until dawn to study. This all-night study session is called the tikkun leil Shavuot, the “repair of Shavuot eve.” Those who study the Torah that night are like bridesmaids waiting up with the bride on the night before she marries. Each new insight they unfold is an ornament or garment for the bride. In the morning, the participants in the tikkun “accompany the bride to the chuppah”— they pray at dawn, and read the story of revelation (Zohar I, 8a).
Shavuot is a festival that effortlessly weaves nature and sacred story. Like first fruits from the fertile ground, we imagine new Torah nourishing us and making our ethical and mythic imaginations fertile for yet another year. We decorate our synagogues and homes with flowers and greens to bring new fertility and creativity into our lives, as we read our people’s sacred stories to renew us and give us wisdom. We experience the harvest as the product of the marriage of heaven and earth, and we also promise to become God’s partners, so that we too are part of the marriage of divine and earthly reality.
lease read the following readings in preparation for our class:
- Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, p. 185-206
- Jill Hammer, Jewish Book of Days, p. 270-301
- “Mountain High: Wilderness Torah Celebrates Shavuot in the Hills of Oakland"
Two Midrashim on Revelation
Read these two midrashim on revelation at Sinai. Many of them speak of the miraculous nature of God’s voice, which can come from anywhere, and reaches each person in a unique and personal way. How do you understand God's voice? What does Sinai mean to you?
The voice at Sinai reached each Israelite according to his or her ability to hear. The elderly heard according to their strengths, and the young according to their strengths, the children according to their strengths, the women according to their strengths. Moses too heard according to his strengths, for it says: Moses spoke, and the Divine answered him with a voice.” ( Midrash Tanhuma, Shemot 21)
When God gave the Torah on Sinai, God displayed innumerable miracles to Israel through the Divine voice. What happened was that god spoke and the Voice reverberated through the world. Israel heard the voice coming to them from the south, so they ran to the south. From the south it moved to the north, so they ran to the north. From the north it shifted to the east, so it ran to the east, but from the east it moved to the west, so it ran to the west. From the west it shifted to the sky. But when they raised their eyes skyward, the voice seemed to come from the earth, so they looked down at the earth. (Exodus Rabbah 5:9)
The sound of God’s voice. The sound
Of nothing running to greet something.
Of a mountain uprooted.
The sound of a shocked breathless laugh.
The sound of one
who came again and again to this place
across centuries, searching.
Who came to this place and never left,
like a broken wheel from a caravan.
Who came to this place only once, and never again...
The sound of one who came to this place
cloaked in sound, as thunder cloaks the lightning.
The sound of one who came to this place in silence,
wiped free of sound, like a baby after its bath.
The sound of one who knows and wants us to know.
The sound of one who knows and wants us to find out.
The sound of one who knows, and does not know.
The sound of God’s voice.
The sound of questions dropped like bricks
into our peace and quiet. Yes, that sound.
—Rabbi Jill Hammer, (Published in The Torah: A Women's Commentary)
Shavuot as Sacred Wedding
he Zohar speaks of a mysterious divine wedding that takes place on Shavuot:
R. Shimon was sitting and studying the Torah during the night when the bride was to be joined to her husband. For we have been taught that all the “members of the bridal palace,” during the night preceding the Shekhinah’s espousals are in duty bound to rejoice with her in her final preparations for the great day: to study all branches of the Torah… for these represent her adornments. The bride with her bridesmaids comes up and remains with them, adorning herself at their hands and rejoicing with them all that night, and on the following day She enters the chuppah in their company. (Zohar I, 8a)
This beautiful text describes the heavenly purpose of the leil tikkun: the practice of staying up all night to study Torah before the story of the revelation at Sinai is read on Shavuot morning. The Torah, who is the Divine presence (Shekhinah) on earth, is imagined as a bride, and the students of Torah are the bridesmaids who prepare her to marry the heavenly Divine. By studying Torah, they partake in the magic of the Divine wedding. This is one Jewish version of the hieros gamos or sacred marriage, which represents the union of opposites and the oneness of the Divine. Just as nature is engaged in fertility, blossoming, and reproduction at this time, so too our souls give forth new Torah.
This sacred wedding of Shavuot is conceived differently by different communities. In many Sephardic synagogues, a special wedding contract is read on Shavuot, sometimes between the Torah and Israel, sometimes between Israel and God (with the Torah as dowry), and sometimes between God and the Torah. This wedding contact heightens the drama of the day by making worshippers feel as if they are actually at a sacred wedding. The covenant of Sinai seems more intimate and personal when conceived as a union of love.
Here are some excerpts from a contract written by Israel Najjara, a sixteenth century poet of Sfat:
" Friday, the sixth of Sivan, the day appointed by the Lord for the revelation of the Torah to His beloved people… The Bridegroom [God], Ruler of rulers, Prince of princes, Distinguished among the select, Whose mouth is pleasing and all of Whom is delightful, said unto the pious, lovely and virtuous maiden [the people of Israel] who won His favor above all women, who is beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun, awesome as bannered hosts: Many days will you be Mine and I will be your Redeemer.
"Behold, I have sent you golden precepts through the lawgiver Jekuthiel [Moses]. Be My mate according to the law of Moses and Israel, and I will honor, support, and maintain you and be your shelter and refuge in everlasting mercy. And I will set aside for you… the life-giving Torah by which you and your children will live in health and tranquility.
"This bride [Israel] consented and became His spouse. Thus an eternal covenant, binding them forever, was established between them. The Bridegroom then agreed to add to the above [dowry] all future expositions of Scripture... The dowry that this bride brought from the house of her father consists of a wise heart that understands, ears that hearken, and eyes that see. "... The Bridegroom has followed the legal formality of symbolic delivery of this document, which is bigger than the earth and broader than the seas. Everything, then, is firm, clear, and established… I invoke heaven and earth as reliable witnesses. May the Bridegroom rejoice with the bride whom He has taken as His lot and may the bride rejoice with the Husband of her youth while uttering words of praise."
In other places in Jewish mystical literature, the Torah is described as a lover who reveals herself beneath her veils only slowly, as the student of Torah comes to understand her secrets:
So it is with the Torah, which discloses her innermost secrets only to them who love her. She knows that whosoever is wise in heart hovers near the gates of her dwelling place day after day. What does she do? From her palace, she shows her face to him, and gives him a signal of love, and forthwith retreats back to her hiding place. Only he alone catches her message, and he is drawn to her with his whole heart and soul, and with all of his being. In this manner the Torah, for a moment, discloses herself in love to her lovers, so as to rouse them to renewed love. […] And when he arrives, she commences to speak with him, at first from behind the veil which she has hung before the words […]. Then she speaks to him behind a filmy veil of finer mesh, she speaks to him in riddles and allegories […]. When, finally, he is on near terms with her, she stands disclosed face to face with him, and holds converse with him concerning all of her secret mysteries, and all the secret ways which have been hidden in her heart from immemorial time.” Zohar II, 99
What would your wedding contract with the Divine say? How would you describe your relationship with Torah?
Three Shavuot Rituals to Try
Once, the Israelite nation offered two loaves of bread to the Divine on Shavuot, to represent the goodness of the harvest. One great earth-based ritual to do in preparation for Shavuot is to bake a loaf of bread (preferably with local flour) and eat it on Shavuot evening at the first sacred meal of the holiday. While you are kneading, think of wisdom you and your loved ones need and whisper them into the dough so that when you eat the bread you will be eating the revelation you most crave. Tell your family and guests what holy secrets they are eating and invite them to bless and charge the bread as well as you say the blessing over bread. If bread is too hard to make this year, make cookies or cake and whisper your blessings as you are mixing!
Writing a Shavuot Wedding Contract
Another powerful Shavuot ritual might include writing a wedding contract between Torah and Israel, or between God and Israel, and reading it in community on Shavuot. Let your imagination guide you. What do you think God or the Torah would promise Israel? What would Israel promise in return? How do you imagine the wedding of heaven and earth? Convening a group to invent this contract would be a great way to start a conversation about the meaning of revelation.
The labyrinth is an ancient technology for spiritual journey work. Jewish Temple texts and mystical texts often approximate the shape of a labyrinth, in which there is a curving, winding path to the center and a curving, winding path out again. Lay out a labyrinth to walk our journey to Sinai. On the way to the center, meditate on what it is you need revealed. At the center, listen for a revelation. On the way out, meditate on what you have received.