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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Articles about Shavuot

Firstfruits of the Wheat Harvest

National liberation, in its initial stages, awakens great excitement. After this, though, one begins to sense that freedom is not the solution to all problems. Only with the receiving of the Torah do the firstfruit Festivals draw to a close.
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1. A Duality That Is One
2. Firstfruit Festivals
3. Positively Free


A Duality That Is One
Each of Israel’s three major Festivals - Passover, Succot, and Shavuot - contains two sides. They are at once nature Festivals and historically commemorative. Passover is the both the Festival of Spring and the Festival of the Exodus from Egypt; Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah and it is the Firstfruit Festival of the wheat harvest. Succot, the Festival of Harvest, commemorates the booths that our forefathers sat in while wandering through the wilderness.

In the Scriptures, this duality appears as one, without any sort of intervening considerations separating between the two aspects. The two meanings can be found consistently side by side in the same passages. True, through the ages there have always been parties who, due to various considerations - the nature of the generation or historical factors - tended to lay emphasis on one of the sides, sometimes to the point where the other side was brushed completely out of the picture. It should come as no surprise that during the many years of exile, with the weakened relationship of Jews to nature and agriculture, the more spiritual-historical aspects of the Festivals received punctuation. The three Pilgrim Festivals were looked upon almost entirely as days of historical remembrance.

The return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, with the anti-exile protest and historiosophia of disdain that accompanied it, led to a tendency to transform the Pilgrim Festivals into exclusively nature Festivals. It thus happened that the Festivals sometimes lost not only their historical meaning, they even lost their specific Jewish value, becoming almost pseudo-paganistic in nature, or nationalistic imitations of true religious tradition. At any rate, any sort of separation between the two aspects, no matter in which direction, is essentially a symptom of a deeper problem in Jewish life - a loss of spiritual equilibrium between the two facets of life and a undermining of scriptures harmonious mixture.

Therefore, the relation between the two meanings embodied in each of the three Pilgrim Festivals is not a mere outward, incidental relation. Rather, it is an expression of a unified approach to existence. There is hence good reason to view each of the two sides in the light of its partner. In this manner it becomes possible to receive a complete picture of the essence of the Festival.

Firstfruit Festivals
In traditional sources, Shavuot is called by a number of names. On the one hand, it is called "the Time of the Giving of Our Torah." On the other hand, it is referred to as the Festival of the Firstfruits (On this occasion Jews would bring the firstfruits of the wheat harvest to the Holy Temple. The popular notion of Shavuot being the day on which all first fruits were brought to the Temple lacks strong support and appears to be a misconception which grew out of the holiday’s name, the Festival of the Firstfruits). The principal name of the Festival, though, is Shavuot (or, according to the Sages, "Atzeret," which carries the same connotation as Shavuot.) In other words, this holiday serves to conclude the Passover Festival seven full weeks after Passover itself. To use a later expression: The Shavuot Festival is a day of "Atzeret" which should rightfully have been situated at the close of Passover.

As far as the nature of these Festivals is concerned, each of them celebrates the appearance of the year’s long-awaited firstfruits. The tiring labor and inherent dangers of the agricultural season are behind us, and the time has arrived to begin to enjoy the fruits of labor. In its strict sense, the Festival of Spring announces the new barely crop, while Shavuot signifies the arrival of the first fruits of the wheat harvest.

These two festivals, though, do share one basic idea: they are festivals of thanks - thanks to the Almighty for having allowed us to view the fruits of all of our preparation and hard work during the past year. (It should be noted that the Festival of Spring is not a festival of "nature’s reawakening." Such a concept is only appropriate in Europe where the winter is truly a time of deep sleep, bordering on death for the vegetation. This is not true of the landscape and climate of the Land of Israel).

The two Festivals are a single continuum beginning with Passover and ending with Shavuot. They even posses a kind of ascent. On the Festival of Spring wherein the ripening of the barley crop is celebrated, the joy is not yet complete, for, in truth, barley is not food for humans. Though it is indeed possible to consume bread made from barley, such bread is generally eaten by the poorest of the poor, in times of famine and hardship. Usually "barley and straw are for the horses and steeds.." (I Kings 5:8). The bread which man eats, even course bread, is made from wheat. Hence, it is understandable that even when the barley crop was successful, there followed a seven-week period of apprehension before the ripening of the principal crop - the wheat. Only then was the joy complete: the "Atzeret" of Passover had arrived.

Positively Free
Each of these two festivals, in addition to their natural-earthly side, possesses general and historical significance. Passover is principally a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, a Festival of freedom from bondage. Shavuot, on the other hand, marks the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Even here, in their historical framework, they should not be seen as two separate, individual Festivals. Rather, they should be considered one continuous theme. Even here, they are, in a sense, "firstfruit" Festivals, for they are an expression of the first stages in the life of the Nation of Israel. Passover is the occasion of the Exodus from Egypt, an act which defined the Jewish people via negation - negation of assimilation, negation of the Egyptian exile, negation of the claim that the Jews were not a separate people but just another Egyptian caste. On Shavuot, on the other hand, we have the Giving of the Torah, the positive aspect of Israel’s definition, the establishment of Israel’s true inner essence, the establishment of Israel’s life goal and definitive direction.

Judaism does not accept detached abstraction, regardless of the field. Therefore, the physical redemption must come first. There must be a Jewish people to act as the body capable of receiving the Torah. The Exodus from Egypt and the general concept of freedom which it embodies are only the first tidings - they are the springtime of national life - this is the Festival of the barley meal-offering. Woe to the nation which does not advance beyond the level of consuming food which is only fit for an animal. Woe to freedom which contains nothing more than a flight from slavery, freedom which is no more than a negation of others, lacking any true personal content.

It should come as no surprise that the seven weeks of the Omer counting, in the Jewish tradition, contain an element of sadness and anticipation for what the future holds. National liberation, in its initial stages, awakens great excitement. This excitement is generated by the joy of freedom and the throwing off of the burden of materialism and all that comes with it. It thus fills one with a sense of complete victory. After this, though, a new period arrives - not necessarily a difficult one - in which one begins to sense that freedom is not the solution to all problems. Freedom offers opportunity, but brings in its wake a sense of "the counting of the Omer." "Today is the first..second..third day of the Omer." The first year..second year..third year of independence. This alone is not enough. It is impossible to be satisfied for very long with a crop fit "for the horses and steeds." Man, too, must demand his portion.

Therefore, with the counting, the counting of freedom, there must commence an additional counting - a counting of anticipation and preparation for receiving the Torah, since only with the receiving of the Torah do the firstfruit Festivals draw to a close. Only when the nation receives Torah and wholeheartedly embraces it for what it is - a guide to proper living - can they begin to walk in its ways.

Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsaltz)
Wrote an interpterion on the Talmud, Tanakh, Mishnah, Rambam and dozens of other books. Was the Nasi of the Shefa Institutions, the Tekoa Hesder Yeshiva, Makor Chayim, Shefa Yeshiva and more.
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