Friday, June 13, 2008

The growth of Shavuot

One of the most affecting biblical stories is the Book of Ruth, set in ancient Israel during the period of the Judges. Ruth's character embodies all the virtues delineated by political philosopher William J. Bennett: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

A family - Naomi, Elimelech and their two sons - is forced to abandon Judah for Moab to escape famine. The sons take Moabite wives, but before long the men all die and Naomi finds herself left alone with her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. By now the famine is over and Naomi sets out on a return journey to Judah accompanied by the two young women. Knowing that she faces an uncertain future back home, Naomi pleads with them to remain in their own homeland. Orpah tearfully agrees.

Ruth's response captures our hearts: "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried."

We won't give away all that happens next - the full account is recited on Shavuot, marked on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which falls this year on Monday (and extends to the 7th of Sivan, Tuesday, in the Diaspora). Suffice to say that Ruth the convert becomes a forbearer of King David. And her tribulations become symbolic of the sacrifices the Jewish faith demands. Tradition also has it that King David's yarhzeit - the anniversary of his death - falls on Shavuot.
Shavout is one of Judaism's three pilgrimage festivals. It is observed at the end of the counting of the Omer - seven weeks from the first day of Pessah. In Temple times, the cycle began with a barley offering and concluded with a wheat offering.
WHAT fascinates is Judaism's vibrancy and adaptability,

how its traditions and customs evolved over thousands of years to accommodate changing circumstances in order to preserve continuity and cohesion. And so, what began as an agricultural festival was transformed.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, with the Jews cut off from their land, the Sanhedrin (circa 140 CE) introduced an additional motif for the holiday - commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Hence the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is recited in the synagogue on Shavuot.

Cut off from the soil during their dispersion, Jews nevertheless recited the Torah portion pertaining to the Temple's agricultural sacrifices and decorated their synagogues with greenery for the holiday. In this way, they never lost sight of the bond between the Land, God and religion of Israel.

Each generation and locale added something to the accumulation of practices today associated with Shavuot. Mystics urged staying up all night learning so as to be wakeful at the precise anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Kaballah teaches that those who remain awake studying will come to no harm for an entire year.

During the morning synagogue service, many Ashkanazi congregations recite Akdamot, an Aramaic rhyme of tribute to God for giving the Torah to the Jews. Aramaic was once the language spoken by most people and the rabbis wanted congregants to feel connected to the services. Though familiarity with Aramaic has fallen by the wayside, the melodic recitation of the poem survives as part of the liturgy.

As on other holidays, food plays a not insignificant pedagogical role. In medieval times, the practice of eating dairy foods was adopted to symbolize the Torah's association with milk and honey.

WITH THE return to Zion, the Jewish calendar took on added relevance. Even non-observant Israelis often maintain some of the holiday's traditions. For instance, kibbutzim hold ceremonies and parades on Shavuot displaying their produce. And younger school children craft and wear garlands of fresh flowers.

As Shavuot demonstrates, tradition does not mean standing still; it can denote redefining ancient practices to make them contemporary and ever meaningful. Tradition is an expression of respect for continuity, for connecting us with a shared past and - let us hope - a common future.

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