What Is Shavuos All About?

There is a popular explanation to the Four Questions that are asked at the Pesach Seder.

It is relatively easy to tell whether any particular occasion is a happy one like Sukkos or a sad one like Tishah B’Av. Pesach, however, may be somewhat puzzling to a child. We eat matzah, which is poor man’s bread, and Maror, reminding us of the bitter times. This seems to indicate that it is a day during which we remember sad and difficult times. Yet we turn around and dip our foods like kings and eat while reclining like wealthy people. This seems to indicate that it is a remembrance of good times. This contradiction is what is strange and leads to the questioning.

The assumption is that in regard to the other Yamim Tovim, there is a clear message of what they are about.

Now, however, we come to Shavuos.

In our tefillos we refer to Shavuos as “Yom Mattan Toraseinu — the day that we were given our Torah.” This would seem to indicate that Shavuos is a very spiritual Yom Tov, a time set aside to resonate with spiritual pursuits and to get away from the mundane and physical.

The Torah, however, gives Shavuos another name: “Chag Habikurim — the Holiday of the First Fruits.” Shavuos coincides with the harvest period of the fruits of the tree. It is a busy time in the field and a time that the farmers were literally celebrating the fruits of their labor. All their hard work was finally reaping profits. They now were able to take their produce to market and pay back the loans they had incurred.

The Torah instructs us to bring the first fruits to the Beis Hamikdash and express our thanks for the physical bounty with which Hakadosh Baruch Hu has blessed us. Shavuos, the Torah teaches us, is a time to express our appreciation for the physical wealth and resources with which we have been blessed. In fact, the Gemara teaches us that although regarding other Yamim Tovim there are those who say that one can celebrate Yom Tov in an entirely spiritual way, on Shavuos everyone agrees that one must eat and drink and celebrate physically.

What kind of Yom Tov, then, is Shavuos? Is it a Yom Tov in which we express our appreciation for our spiritual elevation through the Torah, or is it a Yom Tov to celebrate the physical bounty that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has provided? Or perhaps these are two non-related elements that just happen to coincide?

My son-in-law Rabbi Chaim Yitzchok Yudkowsky shared an interesting insight.

The Torah commands us to leave the peyos on our heads. The Rishonim explain that the priests of the avodah zarah used to put a bowl on their heads and shave everything below the bowl. The Torah admonishes us not to act like those idol worshipers but to leave the peyos on our heads.

The question arises, why did the priests have this custom? Was it just the style or does it have a deeper meaning?

He suggested that there are those who say that the hair represents that which grows from our actions. The hair on our head near the brain, the seat of the neshamah, represents our spiritual pursuits, whereas the hair on our face and near the mouth represents our physical actions. The peyos is the hair that joins the two.

The priests of avodah zarah preach that to be holy, one must separate from physical pursuits and dedicate one’s life completely to the spiritual. They, therefore, symbolically separate the hair on their head from the hair on their face by shaving off the connecting peyos. They leave only the hair that represents spiritual and separate themselves from all sensual and physical pursuits. If a non-Jew wants to bring a korban, he can only bring a korban olah, which is brought completely to the Mizbei’ach. A korban shlamim, on the other hand, where the Kohen eats the meat and the owners receive kapparah through that physical act, is beyond their comprehension.

We are taught by the Torah that for a Jew it is the exact opposite. The avodah of a Jew is to maintain the peyos, which are the connection between the gashmiyus and the ruchniyus. Our job is not to eliminate and suppress the physical. Our job is to sanctify and make holy the physical. The malachim can also be holy completely in the spiritual. Only man can make the physical holy.

This is what the Midrash explains to us when it relates how the malachim didn’t want to relinquish the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu. They demanded that it remain exclusively with them in Shamayim. Hakadosh Baruch Hu instructed Moshe to explain to the malachim why only man is the correct recipient of the Torah. Moshe explained to the malachim that only man has a father and mother to honor and the need to eat foods that are kosher. Bringing the Torah to Earth is what will allow the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of the Torah — the sanctification of the physical world.

Zman Mattan Toraseinu and Chag Habikurim are not two independent roles that the Yom Tov of Shavuos carries. Not only are they not contradictory; they are actually supplementary. We cannot celebrate Shavuos by fasting and davening all day in shul. The malachim can also do that. What we must do is to eat and drink and appreciate the many fruits that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has given us and sanctify them. That is the unique role of a Jew and that is the unique celebration that is Shavuos.

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, formerly the Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, currently resides in Israel and serves as a consultant to a number of major community initiatives.

The author can be contacted at rabbisbloom@gmail.com