Continuing his series of articles on the Jewish holidays, THEODOR H. GASTER here describes the daring transformation of Shavuoth or the “Feast of Weeks” (which falls this year on May 30) from a primitive bucolic festival to a joyous yet solemn celebration of the giving of the Law. He sees in this development a striking illustration of the creative spirituality of Jewish tradition.
Judaism has always insisted that its God is a God of history as well as of nature. Where other peoples, ancient and primitive alike, have usually drawn a distinction between the Supreme Being who is the almighty lord of the universe and the genius loci who is the patron spirit of their own community, Israel has protested from the start that its God is revealed not only in the wonders of creation but also in the fate and fortune of His peculiar people. If He “causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend,” He also “goes forth for the salvation of His anointed.”
Nowhere has this concept found more eloquent expression than in the three great seasonal festivals of the Jewish year. Each of them started out as a simple agricultural celebration, current in the Holy Land from time immemorial and of a type such as one might find among rustic populations anywhere. Yet before they could become fully acceptable to Judaism, they had perforce to be invested with an additional historical significance, so that at one and the same time they would celebrate the presence and operation of God, not only in the phenomena of nature, but also in the destinies of men. Each of them came therefore to be associated, sooner or later, with some crucial event in the career of Israel.
Nor was this merely another instance of pouring old wine into new bottles—that is, of accommodating to more advanced ideas time-honored and traditional institutions which were too firmly rooted to be dislodged. By a rare stroke of genius, the historical interpretation of the festivals was made to run parallel, in every case, with their “natural,” seasonal significance, as if the same basic meaning was being expressed concurrently on two planes. The spring festival of Passover, which had originally been no more than the beginning of the first grain harvest—an operation completed only after seven weeks of hard and back-breaking labor—was now taken, at the same time, to commemorate the exodus from Egypt: that initial phase of Israel’s own national fruition which likewise reached its climax only after seven weeks of toilsome wandering to the foot of the Mount. Similarly, if Succoth, or the Feast of Booths, had originally marked the season when men dwelt in booths at the autumnal ingathering of fruits, it now became, by a happy flight of fancy, a memorial of the (imaginary) booths in which the ancestors of Israel had dwelt in the wilderness, and—more significantly—the anniversary of the date whereon God Himself had first taken up His dwelling in the holy tabernacle of the Temple.
But the most inspired of all transformations was reserved for Shavuoth, or Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks.
In The Bible, Pentecost plays a somewhat minor role beside the major seasonal festivals of Passover on the one hand and Booths (or Ingathering) on the other. It is simply the end of the grain and barley harvest, and its characteristic feature is the presentation to Jehovah (apart from special sacrifices) of an offering of first fruits consisting—according to one version of the Law—of whatever one feels prompted to give, or—according to another—of two loaves made out of the new corn. The festival, we are told, is to take place a full seven weeks after the sickle has been first applied to the standing corn.
It is easy to dismiss this early phase of the festival as nothing but the product of a crude, unsophisticated age, and to think one has explained the presentation of first fruits by collecting parallels from other parts of the world, without stopping to penetrate to their significance. The truth is, however, that even at this primary stage, though the form of expression may be primitive, the underlying meaning of the festival is at once subtle and profound. Two ideas are combined, and each is capable of an extension and development of far-reaching import.
The first is based on the common Oriental principle that land belongs to him who “quickens” it, or brings it under cultivation. Since, it is here affirmed, the earth obviously depends for its fertility not only on the labors of men but also on the cooperation of the God who furnishes it with rain, wind, and sunlight, He is necessarily a part owner of it. The presentation of first fruits is thus no mere token of thanksgiving or mere submissive rendering of tribute—although, to be sure, by a blunting of religious sensitivity, it may (and often does) degenerate into this. It is the payment to God of the dividend on His investment. To withhold that payment is an act, not of impiety, but of embezzlement.
Translated into broader terms, what is here proclaimed is that the relation between God and man is not that of master and servant but of mutually dependent partners in a joint enterprise of continuous creation. This idea gives new validity to human existence and at the same time provides a signal and momentous alternative to that more common conception which, projecting the image of God from the model of kings and magicians, regards Him merely as a supernal lord and benefactor of mankind. For the conventional attitude of subservience, worship, and adoration there is substituted a concept of God which is at once more robust and more mystical and which, indeed, modern religion might do well to recapture.
The second idea which underlies the primitive form of the festival is that the natural vicissitudes in the life of a community—the alternation of the seasons and of the periods of rain and drought, sowing and reaping—affect and involve, not only its present generation, but also its past and its future, that is, the whole of its ideal, continuous existence, of which the present is but the immediate phase. For this reason, it is commonly believed in primitive societies that both the gods and the spirits of the ancestral dead attend the seasonal celebrations and receive, like everyone else, their due share of the yield. In attenuated form this idea survives even in our own day, for a reflection of it may be seen in the custom of leaving a “vacant chair” at class reunions or of referring, in commencement addresses, to “our founders who are here with us in spirit.”
Here again, it is only the form of expression that is primitive, for the content is capable of a reformulation which has permanent significance and value. What is offered in this ancient rite is an eloquent, periodic protest against the easy view that the present is culturally or spiritually autonomous, a timely reminder of the fact that we live not only in our own age but also in time, and that today is responsible both to yesterday and to tomorrow.
To these two interpretations of the ritual of first fruits modern anthropologists have added a third. Primitive man, they tell us, regards anything new and unused as being fraught with potential peril—much as an infant might regard a new toy. The first fruits of the harvest (and likewise the first-born both of men and of beasts) are therefore consigned to the gods or spirits so that the newness may be taken away and the rest thereby rendered “safe.” The present writer has never been able to accept this view and believes that the evidence on which it relies can be better explained on a different basis. But if it is indeed correct, it possesses a deeper implication than the anthropologists themselves would appear to have seen. For, in that case, the important thing is not so much the why as the how of the ritual: the danger of a new thing is removed by bringing it into contact with some eternal being to whom it is not new, inasmuch as he transcends the limitations of our own temporal experience. Thus behind the symbolism of the primitive procedure lies the permanent, universal message that the only immunity against the terror of new things is to try to see them sub specie aeternitatis, and the only protection against the perils of human existence is to dedicate the prime portion of it to God.
Thus, even in its rudimentary agricultural phase, the festival of Pentecost possessed its own spiritual values. For Judaism, however—especially after it had outgrown its Palestinian origins—these alone were not sufficient. The presence and operation of God had to be recognized at this season not only in the phenomena of nature, but also—and on parallel lines—in some crucial event of history. Accordingly, in the first centuries of the Common Era, inspiration and ingenuity produced the necessary development.
The Scriptural narrative states clearly (Exodus 19:1) that the children of Israel reached Mount Sinai in the third month after their departure from Egypt. This, it was now argued, does not mean that a full three months elapsed, but only that the event took place in the third month of the year, and in that case the giving of the Ten Commandments might (with a little latitude and fancy) be made to coincide with the Feast of Weeks. Pentecost thus became the birthday of Israel—the anniversary of the date on which the Covenant had been concluded between God and His people, and the Law revealed. Such, ever since, has been its primary significance; the festival is known, in fact, as “the season of the giving of our Law.” The portion of the Pentateuch read on this occasion deals with the promulgation of the Ten Commandments; the liturgical poems (piyyutim) interspersed in the traditional morning service are elaborate (and seemingly interminable) variations on this theme; while the latter-day custom of collectively “confirming” adolescents at Pentecost is based on the same association. In the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) ritual, rhymed versions of the 613 commandments contained in the Torah are chanted as a prelude to the afternoon devotions.
All of this is but a translation to the plane of history of the same message that is conveyed in the agricultural aspect of the festival. For, according to Jewish teaching, the important thing about the session at Sinai was the receiving of the Law, as well as its giving, the two acts of offer and acceptance constituting a Covenant (or contract) between God and Israel. Under the terms of that contract—freely offered and freely accepted—God and Israel are partners in a mutual obligation, entailing protective Providence on the one side and the realization of the Torah on the other. If the Law issues from God, its fulfillment lies with Israel. Inspiration and aspiration, revelation and perception, are the two sides of a single coin: on the one side is the face of God; on the other, that of man. What Saint Theresa said of the relation of the Christian to Jesus was expressed by Judaism, many centuries earlier, in its conception of the mission of Israel: in the world of men, we are God’s hands and feet and eyes.
Nor is it only in this major respect that the natural and historical aspects of the festival run parallel to each other. For if the former marks the end of seven weeks’ collaboration between God and man in reaping the material harvest, what the latter celebrates is the end of a corresponding spiritual harvest, which began with the deliverance from Egypt and reached its climax with the conclusion of the Covenant And just as the ingathering of the harvest is the necessary condition of life and prosperity during the coming year, so the event at Sinai is the necessary condition of Israel’s continuing existence and good fortune. Moreover if, in the primitive agricultural rite, man offers to God, as a symbol of cooperation, two loaves of the new bread, in the historical counterpart—by a fine and inspired inversion—God offers to man the two tablets of the Law.
Lastly, as the harvest is renewed from year to year, so too is the historical experience of Sinai. Jewish teaching is insistent on the point that the festivals are not mere commemorations. All the generations of Israel, say the rabbis, were released from Egypt, and all were present at the mountain. By this they did not mean—as is so often supposed—that all of time was telescoped into a single moment, but rather that a single moment was projected into all of time.
In The early centuries of the Common Era, a further element, scarcely less interesting, was injected into the celebration of the Feast of Weeks: it became, to a certain extent, a conscious counter-balance to the Christian festival of Whitsun, with which it approximately coincides.
In Christian tradition, Whitsun is the birthday of the Church, the anniversary of the date on which the Holy Spirit was miraculously poured forth upon the original disciples of Jesus. The event is narrated in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, in the New Testament. At Pentecost, we read, “they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
To this Christian version of Pentecost, Judaism now opposed its own. Not the Church, but the community of Israel had been founded on that day. Not to a select few, but to a whole people had come the revelation of God. Not over the heads of favored disciples had the tongues of fire appeared: “. . . all the people saw the thunders and the flames” (Exodus 20:15). Not the astonished onlookers, but God Himself had spoken in a multitude of tongues; for, so the rabbis asserted, every word uttered from the mountain had been pronounced in seventy-two languages at the same time! Moreover, if Christianity emphasized at this time the figure of its resurrected savior, Judaism replied by giving special prominence to that of David, the Messianic king. Pentecost, it was maintained, was the anniversary of David’s death. The Book of Ruth, which is not only an idyl of the harvest-tide but also ends with the genealogy of that monarch (Ruth 4:13 ff.), became prescribed reading for the festival; and on the second evening the pious would stay up late into the night reading the Psalms of David.
Nor this alone. If, according to the dominant faith, Jesus would return at the end of days and fight the great Dragon of the Deep and bring renewed salvation to men, so too, in the equally fervent conviction of the Jews, would David or his scion appear to usher in the Messianic Age. In the 12th century this belief found eloquent expression in the liturgy of the festival, for into the morning service of the second day there was introduced the famous Aramaic poem, Akdamuth. Written by a certain Meir ben Isaac Nehorai (possibly of Worms), this poem described, in highly fanciful terms, the ultimate victory of God over the monsters, Leviathan and Behemoth, and the lavish banquet at which He would regale the faithful in heaven:
As maidens to the dance are led
God will lead us, and outspread,
As viands at a royal feast,
Shall be the flesh of that fell Beast,
That raging monster of the sea
Who dared assail His sovereignty.
For when that monster coils and curls
And beats the angry sea and hurls
Defiance at his sovran Lord,
Unsheathèd then shall be the Sword,1
And He that made him shall arise
And smite him, till that dead he lies.
The oxen on a thousand hills 2
Shall be our meat, the while He fills
Gleaming goblets crystalline
With that most rare and perfect wine
Which in His cellar He hath stored
Since first creation knew its Lord.
But it was not only in the loftier realm of doctrine that Pentecost was influenced by contemporary Christian lore. The usages of the Church (themselves borrowed from earlier pagan custom) seem likewise to have been imitated by the synagogue. In many parts of Europe, for instance, it is customary to deck the churches at Whitsun with wreaths and bunches of flowers; while in Catholic districts of Germany, even private dwellings are adorned with green twigs on this occasion. Similarly, in Jewish practice it is customary to adorn the synagogue with flowers, and the lilies which are used for this purpose are sometimes taken to symbolize that “lily of the valley” which, in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, is none other than Israel itself.
Another Pentecost custom which has its counterpart in Gentile usage is that of eating dairy dishes, especially those made with cheese. The usual explanation of this custom is fanciful enough. In Psalm 68—a psalm anciently reserved for the festival and still chanted on the eve of it in the Sephardic liturgy—the mountain on which the Law was given is described (verse 16) as “a mountain divine, a Bashan-like mount, a mount of gabnunim, a Bashan-like mount.” The word gabnunim (which does not recur in this form elsewhere in Scripture) really means “gibbous, many-peaked,” but it was fancifully connected with the Hebrew gebinah, “cheese,” and it was therefore maintained that the eating of cheese was a reminder of the giving of the Law at this season! In reality, cheese and dairy dishes are eaten at this time because the festival has a pastoral as well as an agricultural significance. Thus, at the analogous Scottish celebration of Beltane, on May 1, dairy dishes are customarily consumed, and churning and cheese-making are a common feature of spring harvest festivals in many parts of the world. In Macedonia, the Sunday before Lent is known as “Cheese Sunday”; while in several districts of Germany cheese and dairy dishes are (or were) standard fare at Whitsun.
That such usages are extremely ancient is shown by the fact that at the Roman rustic festival of Parilia (April 21), which took place at the same time of year as marks the beginning of the barley harvest in Palestine, milk and must were drunk, and the image of the pastoral god Pales was sprinkled with the former. Moreover, that a rite involving the seething of a kid in milk was part of the Canaanite celebration of Pentecost is strongly suggested by the fact—noted already by Maimonides—that in two passages of the Pentateuch (Exodus 23:10; 34:26) where this practice is prohibited to the Israelites, it is somehow connected with the offering of first fruits; while the rite of seething a kid in milk seems actually to be mentioned in a recently discovered Canaanite text possibly designed for a spring harvest festival.
In the same way, too, the custom of observing the first five weeks, or thereabouts, of the Omer period—that is, the period between Passover and Pentecost—as a time of lenten austerity and abstinence, may be readily illustrated from parallel usages in several parts of the world. Although, to be sure, Jewish tradition has supplied the custom with a distinctive, quasi-historical explanation, its real origin lies in the widespread primitive idea that life comes in a series of annual or periodic leases. Accordingly, towards the end of the agricultural year, or of a particular agricultural cycle, when one lease of life is drawing to a close and the next is not yet assured, everything is, so to speak, in a state of suspended animation, and this is symbolized by an official curtailment of normal activities, a prohibition of marriage and sexual relations, and the observance of fasts and other forms of mortification. In the Malay Peninsula, for example, special taboos are imposed for three days before the reaping of the rice harvest; rice, salt, oil, and money may not leave the house, hair must be cut, and perfect quiet observed. In ancient Greece the agricultural festival of Thesmophoria, in the latter part of October, was characterized by fasting, while the Feast of the “Yellow Grain-Mother” (Demeter Chloe), held in mid-May, when the corn was ripe, was marked by rites of mortification.3
If, However, anthropology and comparative religion throw light on many features of the festival, there is one which still remains a puzzle, namely, its precise date. In the earlier code of the Pentateuch, it is said, quite vaguely, that it is to take place seven full weeks after the beginning of the harvest. This is the kind of vague and general dating which one would naturally expect in a primitive agricultural society unconscious of a fixed and stable calendar. Later, however, the date is given more precisely; the festival is to be celebrated seven full weeks “after the morrow of the sabbath” (Leviticus 23:15). Scholars have long disputed the meaning of this term. According to the Sadducees and the Samaritans, the word “sabbath” is here to be taken literally and refers to the first Sabbath in Passover. Pentecost would therefore always fall on a Sunday. The Pharisees, on the other hand, contended that “sabbath” was but a loose term for “festival,” and this interpretation has prevailed in Jewish usage. The counting of the fifty days therefore begins with the second day of Passover. A novel view was put forward, some fifty-five years ago, by the distinguished Jewish Assyriologist, the late Morris Jastrow. According to this scholar (later followed by many others), the original meaning of the word “sabbath” was full moon, i.e., the moment when the moon comes, as it were, to a stop, its waxing changing to waning. Jastrow supported this view by reference to an Assyrian calendar now in the British Museum, where the term was applied to the fifteenth day of a lunar month. Since Passover in fact begins at full moon, “the morrow of the sabbath” would denote, quite simply, the second day of the festival. The objection to this is, however, that there is no evidence to prove that the term “sabbath” regularly bore this meaning. All that is really implied by the statement in the Assyrian calendar is that in a given month, on a particular occasion, the sabbath (in whatever sense we take it) happened to coincide with the full moon, not that this was the standard term for that event.
Lastly, an ingenious theory has recently been propounded by Professors Julius and Hildegarde Lewy, the distinguished Semitists, the former of whom is now associated with Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. According to these scholars, the ancient Semites used more than one calendar, and for practical purposes these had often to be accommodated to one another. One of the prevalent systems was to reckon time by pentecontads, that is, in stretches of fifty days, while another was to reckon by lunar months. The two methods were reconciled by regarding the interval between the end of a pentacontad and the next new moon as a “vacant” period, outside the ordinary calendar. Such a period would have been called “sabbath” or standstill, and the reference to “the morrow of the sabbath” would thus be a relic of this archaic computation. (Later, it is supposed, the “vacant period” was distributed over the dates in the pentecontad divisible by seven, and so arose the weekly Sabbath.)
Whether this theory is right or wrong, further discoveries alone will tell. In the long run, except to professional students of antiquity, this is not particularly important. What matters is not the origin of the festival but the meaning and value which it has acquired in the course of its history. And these are values which transcend any single date or, for that matter, any single epoch.
1 Compare Job 40:14 (Heb. 40:19).
2 Compare Psalm 50:10.
3 This subject is discussed at length in the present writer’s Thespis (New York, 1950).