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Was Shavuot Originally an Agricultural Holiday?

I am somewhat perplexed about the holiday of Shavuot. The Torah describes it as an agricultural holiday, celebrating the harvest. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the giving of the Torah. Did Shavuot become associated with this at a later point in time?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the very good issue. It is true that the written Torah appears to describe Shavuot as an agricultural holiday, celebrating the harvest. See Exodus 23:16 which calls it “the holiday of the reaping of the first fruits of your labor,” as well as Exodus 34:22. Numbers 28:26 likewise refers to it as “the day of your first fruits.” Shavuot seems to be no more than an agricultural celebration, thanking God for the harvest which is just beginning to ripen.

Yet even the Torah alludes to the fact that it is more. First of all, there is a special mitzvah to count the days and weeks until Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15-16, Deut. 16:9) – implying we are anxiously anticipating a pivotal event. Also, the fact that Shavuot falls on the exact date the Torah was given cannot be viewed as a coincidence. (Fifty days after the second day of Passover falls early in the month of Sivan. The Torah writes that the Jews arrived at the Sinai Desert at the start of that month (Exodus 19:1). Several days of events occurred during that period until the Revelation – especially the three days of preparation beforehand (Exodus 19:10-11,15). Thus, although the Torah does not explicitly state the date was 6 Sivan, the day of the holiday, the timing is just about perfect.)

Another interesting point is that that both Passover and Sukkot are too described in agricultural terms (see e.g. Exodus 23:15-16), even though the Torah tells us explicitly that they commemorate much more profound historical events (see Leviticus 23:43 regarding Sukkot, and of course Passover is generally described in the Torah as the holiday of the Exodus).

R. Yehuda Loew of Prague, known as the Maharal, explains that the festivals are really both – agricultural events as well as spiritual ones. The notion behind this is that the spiritual events of the year are reflected on the physical plane as well. Because spiritually the spring is a time of renewal, it marks the birth of the Jewish people on the holiday of Passover – and likewise the world comes to life after the dormancy of winter.

Likewise, Shavuot falls out in early summer, a time when the growth begun in early spring just begins to mature. So too the Jews received the Torah – maturing into a developed nation, ready for a full relationship with God.

Lastly, Sukkot falls in the end of the summer, when our field work is done and we reap the benefits of our labor. On Sukkot we bring in our physical crops, celebrating the bountiful harvest. On the spiritual plane as well, Sukkot is the “holiday of our joy” (see Deut. 16:13-15) in which we celebrate the close relationship we have developed with God since our birth as a nation and our receiving of the Torah. We now dwell together with God in our sukkah, enjoying the fruits of our spiritual efforts as much as of our physical ones.

Based on the above, it is clear that although Shavuot is in part an agricultural holiday, this does not detract from its spiritual message – the celebration of the Revelation which occurred on the very same day. For these two celebrations are essentially the same – celebrating the full development of ourselves spiritually as well as of our produce physically.

It is still a valid question why the Torah never openly states the obvious – that Shavuot is held precisely on the day of the Revelation because it is celebrating that event. I heard R’ Yitzchak Berkovits explain that this is because how a person relates to the receiving of the Torah really depends on each individual. For some people, Torah wisdom is their entire lives, while others have no meaningful relationship with it. Thus, the Torah cannot state unequivocally that Shavuot is the celebration of the Torah because for some that is not a celebration at all. (In general, the written Torah speaks only in absolute truths, applicable to all people and in all situations.) That is thus the “hidden” message of Shavuot, which we must grow into when we are ready. But what the Torah can state explicitly is that Shavuot celebrates the harvest. Everyone needs to eat, and so at least that lowest common denominator is relevant to all.

By contrast, on Pesach everyone was freed from slavery – so that spiritual message can be stated explicitly in the Torah. It is meaningful to all, at least on some level. Likewise, on Sukkot, the Torah can write explicitly “for in booths I had Israel dwell when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). Here too, some saw the physical booths we dwelled in as their protection whereas others realized it was truly God’s Clouds of Glory. But at least on some level, everyone could relate to the non-agricultural message of the holiday. Not so Shavuot. We ourselves must grow into the spiritual message – and learn to appreciate the Torah.

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