By Israel Drazin
In my first essay on Shavuot, I pointed out that the Hebrew name “Shavuot” means “weeks,” and that the command to observe it as a holiday is in Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:9, 10, and 16; and Leviticus 23:15 and 16, where the Bible tells the Israelites to count seven full weeks after the Sabbath and states that the fiftieth day is Shavuot, when a prescribed sacrifice was to be brought. I explained that contrary to the widespread notion that the biblical Shavuot commemorates the day or season when the Torah or Decalogue (commonly called The Ten Commandments, even though it contains more than ten), the holiday is actually based on the fact that seven is an important number in Judaism. The Bible begins with the story of creation, that God created the world in six days and ceased creation (rested) on the seventh. Jews are instructed to observe the seventh day as Shabbat. Among other things, Shabbat reminds the Jew of God, that God created the world, and gave people certain laws.
To emphasize this important lesson, the number seven reoccurs many times in Jewish holidays and practices. Seven is used for days (the Sabbath), months (the holiday of Rosh Hashana occurs at the outset of the seventh month), years (the seventh year is the Sabbatical Year), Sabbatical Years (the fiftieth year is the Jubilee Year). What is missing in this constant reminder of the basic teaching is weeks. This was and is the purpose of Shavuot, which is called “weeks” because the counting of seven weeks recalls the message of seven, that there is a God who created the world and gave commands.
Unfortunately, most people, including rabbis, do not realize that the notion that Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah or Decalogue wasn’t given to the holiday until long after the Torah was completed. The famous mystic Rabbi Judah Loew, known as Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), is an example. He taught that the Israelites were commanded to count 49 days and not the full and rounded number of 50 days to teach them that people cannot reach perfection.
Beside the problem of a religious leader teaching a negative and not stressing that people should “be all that they can be,” he ignores or doesn’t know the true purpose of the holiday. Furthermore, the logic is faulty. One could argue the opposite, that Shavuot is celebrated on the fiftieth day to teach that people can obtain what they strive for if they work for it, the work is symbolized in the daily counting that leads to the holiday.