Shavuot And True Spirituality

A Meaningful Shavuot

Pesach has Matzah, Rosh HaShanah the Shofar and Sukkot the four species and the Sukkah, but Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, seems to be lacking in specific observances. It has been suggested that while the other festivals commemorate seminal historical moments through the observance of the Torah, Shavuot is about the Torah itself, and, as such, it needs no ceremony. Instead of the externality of ritual, Shavuot invites us to focus on the significance of the origin and ideology of the Torah system itself, and to admire its momentous impact on humanity. Sadly, perhaps as a result, it is the least understood and observed of the festivals.

In reality, the Torah does describe special observances for Shavuot, but they are restricted to the Temple era. One of them affords us a remarkable insight into the deeper meaning of Shavuot, as well as a glimpse of the Torah’s attitude to the use of the material world. Two distinctly shaped loaves of bread were brought to the Temple on Shavuot in a special celebration. This may seem of academic interest, except for the fact that most unusually, the Torah prescribes that they are baked from chametz – leaven, the villain of Pesach. Shavuot falls seven weeks after Pesach; the intervening forty-nine day period is known as the omer, during which the days that are counted in anticipation of the coming festival. It is understood that physical redemption, celebrated at Pesach, is only the start of a process that led to its goal – the revelation at Mount Sinai. As such, the spiritual journey starts with Pesach and climaxes at Shavuot. It is a matter of great interest that such vigorous efforts are required to remove chametz from the Pesach environment, yet the omer period concludes by placing leaven loaves in the Temple, the locus of Jewish spirituality.

This resolution of this discrepancy reveals a great deal about the significance that Judaism attributes to physical pleasure. Pesach, during which chametz is strictly forbidden, seems to represent the limitation of physical enjoyment, whereas Shavuot signifies its ultimate sanctification in the Temple itself. As such, the omer period, which bridges the gap between the two, offers an opportunity to develop from the radical position represented by Pesach to the more mature one offered by Shavuot. The extent of the role played by physical pleasure in religious life has been the subject of extensive theological debate throughout history. Some systems of thought adopt the position that religious achievement is only possible when it is divorced from material experience. Celibacy, cessation from normal life and even quite extreme ascetic acts are not uncommon amongst religious groups, which have concluded that these offer the only route to true spirituality. Judaism addresses this issue, but reaches a quite different conclusion. Abstinence is never an ideal, but in various forms, may sometimes be used as a very temporary device for achieving a higher goal.

Perhaps the most significant example of this idea is the observance of Yom Kippur, when, since the pleasures of food and marital intimacy are proscribed, one ‘afflicts’ oneself by disengaging from the physical world. Yet the Torah requires us to abstain in this way for only one day near the start of each year; this serves as a way of reawakening our spiritual lives at the year’s outset. This is not the ideal, but a powerful kick-start to spiritual growth. The mystical thinkers hint to this notion in observing that Yom Kippur, which we are accustomed to considering the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is somehow inferior to Purim, the day on which we rejoice and imbibe alcohol to excess. The observance of Yom Kippur may be essential, but its self-denying nature means that it can never be more than a powerful, yet short-term instrument. In contrast, Purim, when properly celebrated, enables the Jew to reach the heights of ecstasy using the most physical means at his disposal, and hence articulates a Weltanschauung much closer to the Torah’s ultimate model.

It seems that the human tendency to become immersed in material pleasure must be addressed by a temporary emphasis on its ephemeral nature and thus comparative insignificance. This is achieved by a strong, albeit brief involvement in spiritual-only pursuits.

The process that leads the Jew from Pesach to Shavuot is now clear. The requirement to abstain from chametz on Pesach is reflective of the nascent moments of Jewish nationhood that the festival commemorates. A group of ex-slaves with the potential for spiritual greatness, yet still beset by the mentality engendered by centuries of deprivation, was likely to abuse the newly accessible pleasures of the material world. Thus at the moment of their national genesis, it was necessary to forbid the consumption of chametz, which represents selfish use of the physical world. Yet the goal is not the rejection of physicality, but its integration into the Divine system. The seven weeks that elapse from Pesach to Shavuot enable a personal transformation to take place, hopefully culminating in a mature attitude to the use of the material world. All physical pleasures may be used - indeed must be used, but in a context and within a framework. These are defined by the Torah, the guidebook to the meaningful use of everything. This, the purpose of the Jewish mission, could not be given to the embryonic nation when they left Egypt, but by Shavuot, they were capable of understanding and implementing it.

This concept is represented by the two loaves of chametz that were the focus of the Divine service in the Temple on Shavuot. The two loaves are said to represent the twin passions that drive so much of human enterprise – material success and sexual satisfaction. These ambitions, so frequently eschewed by religious systems, are brought, as it were, right into the Temple on Shavuot, assuring us that the elevated use of every physical experience lies at the heart of true Jewish living.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.