Shevues-Shevuot — The Festival of the First Fruits


Welcome to the CSJO celebration of Shevues.

In ancient Israel, Shevues was the holiday that celebrated the spring harvest. Thousands of Jews would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem. Accompanied by music, they would present offerings to the Priests: bread (from newly harvested wheat), oxen and fresh fruit.

In Hebrew, the Festival of the First Fruits is called HAG HA-BIKURIM. It comes 7 weeks after Passover, which is why the word “Shevues” or “Shevuot” simply means “weeks.”


We are not farmers and here, in North America, the harvest is in the fall. But we can still celebrate the seasonal aspect of this holiday by following the tradition of decorating our homes with flowers and greenery.

Farming remains an important activity in Israel. From the Zionist tradition, we have this rousing Hebrew song: ALL SING:

Artza alinu (3X) kvar charashnu vegam zaranu (2X), aval od lo katzarnu. (2X)

Translation: We ascended to the land. We’ve already ploughed and sown too, But we have not yet reaped.



After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Shevues could no longer be celebrated in the old way.

The Talmudic rabbis gave it new meaning by claiming that Shevues was the anniversary of the most dramatic moment in Jewish history—the day when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah on Mount Sinai.


As secular humanistic Jews we do not accept the Torah as God’s gift to the Jewish people. Nor is it a reliable account of Jewish history.

It is a human creation, written by different authors, over hundreds of years, to convince Jews to worship the one “true” God and follow laws and rituals developed by priests and prophets.

Yet for millennia, the Torah was considered the “portable homeland” of the Jewish people. Its stories are the foundation of Jewish culture and its code of laws have had a vast impact on world civilization.

What are the Ten Commandments?


I. I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. II. You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make any graven images to worship. III. You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. IV. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Do no work on that day. V. Honor your father and mother. VI. You shall not murder. VII. You shall not commit adultery. VIII. You shall not steal. IX. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. X. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his livestock or any of his possessions.


Do you agree with all of them? Or only some?

Do you know that the second commandment also states that “I am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children up to the fourth generations?”

Or that the seventh commandment only applied to married women?

Or that in the tenth commandment, women are considered their husband’s property?

Or that the punishment decreed in the Torah for violating many of these commandments is death?

Can you think of different laws that you would include, if you had the chance?



If we consider Torah a symbol for Jewish learning in the broadest sense, Shevues embodies three Jewish values that we can fully adopt:

• The importance of education • The importance of welcoming non-Jews into the Jewish community • Social justice



According to an old Yiddish saying “Toyre iz di beste skhoyre”---“Learning is the best merchandise.”

For centuries, Shevues was the day Jewish parents began their son’s education by enrolling them in elementary religious school or kheyder. Reform Jews built on this tradition by making Shevues into a confirmation ceremony for teenagers who have completed three years of post b’nai mitvah education. There is also long tradition among Jews to stay awake on the first night of Shevues studying Torah and other Jewish subjects.


Certainly Jewish education is important to us. If it wasn’t, we would not be here today and there would be no CSJO. But since 1970, Jews like you have kept our affiliates alive.

In this spirit, let us sing Oyfn Pripitchik, (At the Fireplace), the classic Yiddish song about childhood education, written by Mark Warshavsky.


Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl           The fire burns in the fireplace Un in shtub iz heys           And the house is hot Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh           And the rabbi teaches little children Dem Alef Beys           The alphabet Un der rebbe lernt kleyne kinderlekh Dem Alef Beys.

Lernt zhe kinderlekh           Remember little ones. Gedenkt zhe tayere           Remember precious ones Vos ir lernt do.           What you are learning now Zog zhe nokh amol un takeh nokh amol           Say once and say it over Kometz Aleph “O”           Kometz Aleph “O” Zog zhe nokh amol un takeh nokh amol Kometz Aleph “O”

Lernt kinderlekh           Learn your lessons well Mit groys khayshek           With great interest Azoy zog ikh aykh on           This is why I ask Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre           And to the best Hebrew student Der bakumt a fon           I will give a flag Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre Der bakumt a fon

Az ir vet kinderlekh elter vern           When you children become older Vet ir aleyn farshteyn           You’ll know all too well Vifl in di oysyes lign trern           How many tears lie in the letters Un vifl geveyn           More than tongues can tell. Vifl in di oysyes lign trern Un vifl geveyn.


The fact that Shevues usually falls in June makes it an ideal time to honor graduates—from your folkshuln, from public school, from colleges and universities etc.

Who would you like to congratulate day?


Let us also take some time to remember the struggles of our immigrant ancestors to acquire an education in their new homes in America.

In this passage from a Yiddish short story called Gershon by Chaver Paver (pen name for Gershon Einbinder), we read:

On the darkening streets of Brownsville, thousands of people are again rushing to and fro, but this is a different kind of rushing than the early morning rush to work. This is a joyful movement of young fellows and girls, immigrant fellows and girls who have been in the country two, three or at most six months. Dressed up in their new American clothes, bought for them by their relatives the first week they arrived, they now rush through the Brownsville streets on their way to the night schools, spacious red bricked buildings with large, brightly lit windows. In a warm, brightly lit classroom, with a large blackboard covering the entire front wall, with world maps spread over the other walls, with the American flag standing in a corner, Gershon and other brand new greenhorns sit at desks used by schoolchildren during the day, small desks, and Gershon doesn't know what to do with his long legs. The teacher teaches the class the skill of spelling "night," which is almost like the Yiddish "nacht" but which has that extra "g" in the middle: "Sister," which means "shvester," is a pleasure to spell, without any extra letters at all. But "knife," with that unnecessary "k" right smack at the beginning! And the gang of greenhorns have all put in a hard day's work in the shop. You can see that in their tired fingers which hold the pens, But not in their eyes. Their eyes are all asparkle with the desire to learn, to know....

-- from Max Rosenfeld , Pushcarts and Dreamers, p. 213-214


Respect for learning has deep roots in the Jewish experience. Among Jews, education was never meant to be a monopoly of the elite. Here is a Jewish folk tale that dates back to Talmudic times:


There were two families that lived in Sepphoris. One consisted of aristocrats, educated people who were wise in counsel. The other one consisted of common, undistinguished people.

Each day, when the two families proceeded to the house of the Nasi [the leader of the Jewish community in Roman times] to pay their respects to him, the aristocrats would enter first and the common people could go in only after the others had left

Now it happened that these insignificant people began to apply themselves to study, and in time they became great scholars. Then they demanded that they get precedence over the aristocrats when they went to pay respects to the Nasi

This incident raised a great deal of discussion everywhere. When Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish was asked for an opinion he passed the question on to Rabbi Yohanan [i.e. the Nasi] who concluded:

"A bastard who is a scholar is superior to a High Priest who is an ignoramus."

-- from Nathan Ausubel, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore


From Pirkey Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), the Talmud’s best exposition of ethical values, we find that:

He who learns from his neighbor a single chapter, a single rule, a single expression, yea even if only a single letter, is obligated to show him the honor of a teacher.

Yet this noble sentiment exists alongside another saying that demonstrates the anti-humanistic side of traditional Jewish learning

Rabbi Jacob said: He who studies while traveling on a journey and in the very midst of his studies interrupts himself to admire the scenery, saying, "How beautiful is this tree, how fair is this field," such a person has brought injury upon his own soul.


Let us turn to a modern thinker for a more progressive perspective:

Horace Kallen said: If Jewish education of American Jews is to succeed in preserving Jewish living, it would need to be transformed from indoctrination in a Judaism confined to religious schools and ending at the Bar Mitzvah. It would need to be shaped into an inquiry into the values of the entire Jewish cultural heritage ... It would need to be fused with the humanities of liberal education. It would need to convert the record of the Jewish past from inert remembrances into living roots of future growth...

Horace Kallen (1882 1974),was an American Jewish scholar and activist who originated the concept of cultural pluralism. He believed that a democratic society required the maintenance of cultural differences between ethnic groups rather than their disappearance in the "melting pot." His ideas directly influenced major figures such as John Dewey and Louis Brandeis.



Shevues is also the time of the year when the Book of Ruth is read in synagogues.

Ruth is described as a Moabite, a people considered enemies of Israel elsewhere in the Bible. After her husband dies, rather than remain among her own people in the land of Moab, Ruth returns to the land of Israel with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Her motive? She loves Naomi and wants to belong to the Jewish people.


Without any conversion ceremony, Ruth is accepted by Naomi’s family, marries a kind man named Boaz, and has children. Despite her non-Jewish origins, no one ever questions their Jewishness. In fact, her great grandson is none other than King David, one of the most exalted figures in Jewish history and lore.

From this beautiful Biblical story, we learn that a sincere attachment to the Jewish people is sufficient to become Jewish and that "Jews by choice" are the equals of born Jews.


With so many intermarried, or as we call them, "intercultural" families in our midst, let us take this opportunity to welcome them to our community.

Would anyone with non-Jewish origins like to explain why you chose to become Jewish?


Let us now sing the famous Yiddish courtship song: Tum Balalaike


Shtayt a bokher un er trakht           There stands a young man deep in thought

Tracht un tracht a gantze nakht           He thinks and thinks the whole night through

Vemen tsu nemen, un nit farshemen           Who to choose without causing shame

Vemen tus nemen, un farshemen           Who to choose without causing shame.


Tum bala, tum bala, tum balalaike           Play the balalaike

Tum bala, tum bala, tum balalaike           Let’s rejoice

Tum balalaike, shpil balalaike

Tum balalaike, freylakh zol zayn

Meydl, meydl, ikh vil bay dir fregn           Tell me maiden, I’d like to know

Vos ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?           What it is that needs no rain to grow?

Vos ken brenen un nit ofyheren?           What’s not consumed although its burning?

Vos ken beynkn, veynen on trern?           What weeps no tears, although its yearning?


Narisher bokher, vos darfstu fregn           You foolish boy, didn’t you know

A shteyn ken vaksn, vaksn on regn.           A stone does not need rain to grow

A libe ken brenen un nit ofheren           Love’s not consumed, although it’s burning

A hartz ken beynken, veynen on trern.           A heart weeps no tears, although it's yearning




The Book of Ruth also provides the only example in the Bible of “gleaning.” According to Jewish law, landowners must not harvest the corners of their fields and must leave whatever is missed in the harvesting process in the fields for the poor. While working in the fields, a worker may eat his fill of the produce.

You can call this an ancient anti-poverty program.

Without any land of her own, Ruth exercises her right to “glean” from Boaz’s fields and Boaz, who is a just man, respects it. As noted above, they later marry.


Jewish law is especially concerned with the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. In addition to the right to “glean,” the Torah provides widows, orphans and the poor with special protection. Poor people must be generously supported and must not be further impoverished or harassed if they fall into debt. It is forbidden to abuse a needy or destitute laborer or delay payment of his wages. Every seven years all land must be left fallow and whatever grows on its own also belongs to the poor.


Other measures to insure a relatively fair distribution of wealth include cancellation of all debts every seven years, liberation of Israelite slaves every seven years and property redistribution every 50 years, known as the Jubilee year.

This is the true meaning of the statement “proclaim liberty throughout the land” which comes from the Torah and appears on the Liberty Bell. On the Liberty Bell, it is meant to honor the principle of political liberty, but the statement is actually about realizing social equality. In the Torah, even kings are forbidden to accumulate excessive wealth!

We know that many of these laws, especially the far reaching ones, were never enforced, but their very existence must have served as a reminder of the importance of social justice as an ideal in Jewish tradition.


The crown jewel in the Torah's conception of social justice is the Sabbath. According to the fourth commandment, the entire population, including strangers, slaves, (and draft animals!) are granted one day off from work every week to rest.

Chaim Zhitlovsky, one of the greatest philosophers of Jewish secularism, called the Sabbath "the holiday with social significance, when for the first time the right to rest was proclaimed for the slave and the worker." It is undoubtedly one of the greatest Jewish contributions to world civilization and a direct precursor to the struggle for a shorter workweek and more vacation time.

According to Albert Einstein, “The bond which united the Jews in the course of thousands of years and also unites them today, is, first of all, the democratic ideal of social justice, as well as the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all human beings…The institution of the day of rest must be remembered here as a great blessing or all humanity.”


In keeping with this theme of social justice, let us sing, If I Had a Hammer, written by two non-Jews Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, and sung by the Weavers, composed of Seeger, Hays and two Jewish performers, who are still alive today: Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.


If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land

I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out warning

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land.

If I had a bell, I’d ring it in the morning…

If I had a song, I’d sing it in the morning…

Well I got a hammer and I got a bell

And I got a song to sing all over this land

It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom

It’s a song about love between my brothers and sisters

All over this land.



Can there be a joyous Jewish holiday without food? On Rosh Hashanah, we eat apples and honey; Chanukah is known for latkes. What is Purim without homantashn and no Pesach seder is complete without matzos and kneydlach (matzo balls).

What foods go with Shevues? Dairy products--- a reflection of the holiday's seasonal origins---and challeh too. So break out the cheese blintzes and cheese cake and let’s eat!