Shevuos and the Giving of the Torah

Max Rosenfeld (1913-1997), founder and for many years director of the Philadelphia Jewish Children's Folkshul, was an essayist, folklorist, poet and translator from the Yiddish. Here is his essay on Shevuos, reprinted from his last book Festivals, Folklore & Philosophy. A Secularist Revisits Jewish Traditions (Sholom Aleichem Club Press, 1997). For information on these books, contact the Sholom Aleichem ClubPress.

A rabbi had written a commentary on one of the books of the Bible, and when it was printed he traveled to Berditchev and announced that he would be staying at such-and-such inn, where people could come and buy his book. As might be expected, customers were few and far between.The rabbi was bitter and poured out his heart to a local sage. "How can you account for this? I write a book which explains the Torah and nobody is interested!"

The sage tried to console him. "What's so unusual about that? The Almighty Himself was a pretty good writer and his book was no worse than yours. Yet he didn't open up an office and expect people to come and buy it. He went from place to place to peddle it — and nobody wanted it."

The allusion here is to the legend that before God gave the Torah to the Jews he offered it to many other peoples, each of whom refused it because they found something in the Ten Commandments which they could not conceivably subscribe to without upsetting their old way of life.

Then there's the story about the half-baked melamed (teacher) teaching the Bible to a class of beginners, who came to the part about Moses marrying the daughter of Jethro the Priest. A smart-aleck pupil interrupted the lesson. "Rebbe, a priest is not even allowed to have a wife. How could he have a daughter?"

Without a moment's hesitation the melamed retorted: "Dumkop! This happened before matan Torah — before the giving of the Torah!"

Tales about matan Torah exist in the hundreds, ranging from the highly moralistic to the downright bawdy. The story of the acceptance of the Torah and the Ten Commandments has been a fertile subject for the imagination of the common people for centuries. But the association of this event in Jewish "history" with the holiday of Shevuos was itself a reinterpretation, a later adaptation. Shevuos, like Pesach and Sukkes, was first purely a nature festival. The word Shevuos means "weeks" and originally designated the end of the grain harvest which began after Passover with the reaping of the barley and culminated seven weeks later with the cutting of the wheat.

The occasion was marked by offering as a sacrifice two loaves of bread baked from the wheat of the new crop. The festival was thus also called yom ha-bikkurim, "the day of the first fruits" of the wheat harvest. "There was no effort made, even in later biblical times. to tie up the festival with a historic event. It remained through all that time an agricultural holiday... In none of the books of the Bible is there any trace or mention of Shevuos in connection with the giving of the Torah." (Chaim Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days) But in time Jewish tradition, following a typical pattern, added a historical meaning to the holiday, in this case the legend of matan Torah. "Stripped of the supernatural," writes Chaim Zhitlovsky in his essay The National-Poetic Rebirth of the Jewish Religion, "the legend tells us that a people which had only just freed itself from slavery and benightment, provided for itself a 'law of life,' a code which taught how people could live together in social peace."

Zhitlovsky continues:

Modern research has shown quite clearly that a great part of that which we are accustomed to call 'The Torah of Moses' originated among the neighboring civilized peoples of the time, especially from Babylonia. If any of our enemies, however, think that this fact depreciates in any significant measure the originality and the remarkably high moral level of the Jewish people, they are mistaken. In that period of human civilization Babylonia played almost the same role which France played at the beginning of the 19th century. And just as it is difficult today to in any progressive nation which is not adapted from the French Code Napoléon, so in that ancient period adapting the Code of Hammurabi was a clear sign that a people was on the highest stratum of juridical consciousness thus far attained by mankind.

But the Jews did not stop there, Zhitlovsky points out. They not only took over the Hammurabi Code, they developed it further. Compare the Jewish Torah with the old Babylonian original and you will see that the development proceeded along the line which is so characteristic, the line of maximum social justice and humanity. In those ancient days the Jewish people stood alone on the heights of the Torah of Moses. The Torah was the Mt. Sinai from which the Jewish prophets could spread their eagle wings and soar to the highest heavens of the human ideal.

The Torah of Moses, whoever its authors may have been, is an important historical document of human progress, and since the Jewish people assigned a holiday for it we should observe it. For us the Torah is sacred because it is primarily a symbol of learning, because in it the people gathered together its entire treasure of knowledge and justice, and for the first time in history announced to mankind that the treasure of learning and justice is a people's most sacred possession, about which a man must 'think night and day' and which he must pass on to the coming generations.

That the general outlines of Shevuos have parallels among other peoples goes without saying. Dr. Theodor H. Gaster even asserts that they are more than parallels; he traces their Christian origin and declares flatly that Judaism "opposed its own version" of the Pentecost to the dominant Christian one. Shevuos "became, to a certain extent, a conscious counter-balance to the Christian festival of Whitsun, with which it approximately coincides."

According to Dr. Gaster's theory, since Whitsun is in Christian tradition the birthday of the Church, Judaism injected an element into Shevuos which signified that the community of Israel had been founded on that day. In Judaism, however, revelation had come not to a few favored disciples, but to a whole people. One could add here that another Jewish tradition suggests that revelation was offered to the whole world at the same time, because, says the legend, every word of the Torah was pronounced from Mt. Sinai in each of the 72 tongues then spoken by humanity. Talk about your UN simultaneous translation!

Even in the folkways of the holiday Dr. Gaster finds influences of Christian lore - and here one would least expect it since the holiday began originally as a nature festival. The custom of "greens for Shevuos" apparently was borrowed from the Whitsun usage of decking churches with wreaths and flowers. (The Galician chasidic custom of decorating windows with paper flowers, known as rayzelech, sounds uncannily like the ancient Roman festival of Rosalia, which included a practice of decorating the image of Venus with roses!) And the tradition of eating dairy dishes (milchigs), says Dr. Gaster, also has its counterpart in Gentile usage. This is already too much and I object! But for the sake of scientific impartiality we must allow Dr. Gaster to state his case: "Cheese and dairy dishes are eaten at this time because the festival has a pastoral as well as an agricultural significance... Churning and cheesemaking are a common feature of spring harvest festivals in many parts of the world." Dr. Gaster cites Scotland, Macedonia, Germany, and ancient Rome as examples.

But, of course, that's carrying historical science too far! Any child knows that the real reason is this: The Jews stood patiently at the foot of Mt. Sinai all day listening to the duties and obligations they were taking on by accepting the Torah. Naturally, they grew tired and hungry. When they finally returned to their tents they couldn't wait for an elaborate meal, so they devoured milchige snacks which were always on hand - like vegetables and sour cream, with fresh pumpernickel!