The Three Mysteries of Shavuot

May 21, 1999
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In this Jewish Chronicle essay from 21 May 1999, Rabbi Sacks draws modern lessons from the bitter feuds of Temple times


Great arguments, like old soldiers, never die. Nor do they fade away. One of the most fateful arguments in Israel today, on which the character and identity of the state will ultimately turn, is itself a replay of one of the most bitterly contested questions of the Second Temple period.

On the surface, the terms of the debate are quite different. But the underlying issue is the same. Two thousand years ago, the subject at hand was Shavuot. But at stake was something more fundamental. To understand what it was, we need to undertake an historical investigation into the foundations of an ancient dispute about the meaning of the festival and of Jewish identity.

Even the most cursory reading of the Torah reveals something strange about Shavuot. Unlike the other festivals, it comes wrapped in three layers of mystery.

The first is the question of what it commemorates. The festivals each have a seasonal dimension, and in this respect Shavuot is no exception. Pesach is a celebration of spring, Succot of autumn, and Shavuot is described by the Torah as yom habikkurim, “the day of the first-fruits”, and chag hakatzir, “the harvest feast”. So far, so good. Shavuot, like the other pilgrimage festivals, marks a turning point in the cycle of the year – in this case, as spring ends and summer begins.

The problem arises when we turn to the historical dimension of the festival. About Pesach and Succot, the Torah is explicit. Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Succot recalls the booths in which the Israelites lived as they wandered through the desert. But what of Shavuot? Alone of the three, it has no explicit historical reference. We know it, of course, as zeman matan torateinu, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, which took place, according to the Torah, “in the third month” – in other words, during Sivan, the month in which Shavuot falls. However, the connection between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai is nowhere made in the Torah itself. It belongs, instead, to our Oral Tradition.

The second mystery is the date of Shavuot. Every other festival is given a calendar date in the Torah. Not so Shavuot. Instead, in a curiously roundabout way; we are commanded to count 50 days, “until the day after the seventh week,” and then bring an offering of new grain. Indeed, in early times, before the calendar was fixed by calculation, one could not predict in advance whether the months of Nisan and Iyar would be short (29 days) or long (30 days), and there was therefore no guarantee that it would fall on 6th Sivan, as it does today. One way or another, the silence of the Torah on the calendar date of Shavuot is conspicuous.

But it was the third mystery that created schism. We are commanded to count 50 days and then celebrate Shavuot. The question is: when does the count begin? The Torah uses the phrase, mimochorat haShabbat – literally, “the day after Shabbat”. The Sadducees interpreted the words literally. For them, if the Torah says, “the day after Shabbat”, it must mean the day after Shabbat. So they began counting the Omer on Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on Sunday, seven weeks later. The Pharisees, however, relied on an ancient tradition that, in this case, the word “Shabbat” meant “festival” – specifically, the first day of Pesach. That, of course, is the rule we observe today.

Stated this way, the argument sounds local, even minor. But arguments about the calendar are never minor. David Ewing Duncan produced a fascinating study of how the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar created mayhem throughout Europe for centuries.[1] Disputes about dates are even more fundamental for Jews, for a fascinating reason.

Since the Babylonian exile, Jews have never been concentrated in a single country. Thousands of years before the internet was invented, and the word “globalisation” was coined, the Jewish people became the world’s first “virtual community” – a community in time rather than space. Jews were a nation not because they lived in the same land but because, wherever they were, they kept the same laws and observed the same holy days at the same time. A split in the calendar, with some Jews keeping Shavuot on one day, some on another, was nothing less than a rift in the nation, as if a chasm had opened up between Jew and Jew.

What, then, was at stake between the Sadducees and the Pharisees? Historians have tended to concentrate on the obvious disagreement between them. The Pharisees believed in the Oral Law; the Sadducees did not. According to the Sadducees, only the written text of the Torah was binding. The Pharisees pointed out that the written text was full of gaps and ambiguities. From the outset, it had been supplemented by a set of unwritten traditions, passed down from teacher to disciple since the days of Moses.

So, when it came to the meaning of the word “Shabbat” in the context of Shavuot, the Sadducees, in effect, turned to a dictionary. The Pharisees turned to tradition. At this level, the debate was about the authority of the Oral Law. It was a theological rift.

But the argument, I suspect, went further. After all, in retrospect, the Pharisaic case seems overwhelming. Judaism is a religion of historical remembrance. To this day, we still commemorate such events as the assassination of Gedaliah, commander of Judea at the time of the Babylonian exile.

Is it conceivable that the calendar would not celebrate the anniversary of the greatest day of all in Jewish history – the revelation at Mount Sinai, our birth as a nation under the sovereignty of God? How could there not be a festival of “the Giving of the Law”? An anniversary – any anniversary – needs a fixed date in the calendar, which is precisely what the Sadducees denied. What, then, did Shavuot mean for them?

Well, who were the Sadducees? The late Louis Finkelstein made much of the fact that they were the land-owning class, the squires and farmers of Israel. For them, Shavuot was precisely what the Torah said it was: a festival of the harvest.

We have indirect evidence for this. The Talmud (Menachot 65a) records a debate between Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and a Sadducee, who gave a novel explanation why, in his view, Shavuot always falls on Sunday. What is the best gift you can give a farmer after seven hard weeks of gathering in the crops? Answer: a long weekend.

Moses, having compassion for the farmers, arranged for Shavuot to be on Sunday to give them a two-day break at the end of the season. So, argued Finkelstein, the debate was part of the class war between Sadducean landowners, with their harvest festival, and the urban Pharisees, who had no land to celebrate.

Maybe so. But I prefer the more profound distinction drawn by Professor Daniel Elazar, of Bar-Ilan University, in his studies of Jewish political theory. The Sadducees, he says, were the party of the State. They dominated the priesthood. They controlled most of the positions of political power. For them, Jewish identity was predicated on national institutions – the Temple and the seat of government in Jerusalem. For the Pharisees, by contrast, Jewish life rested on quite different institutions – the synagogue, the school, and the bet midrash (the house of study).

On the basis of this distinction, we can mount a large hypothesis. We know precisely the historical event Shavuot commemorated for the Pharisees: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. What event of comparable significance might it have represented for the Sadducees? The answer is obvious. If Pesach represents the exodus from Egypt, and Succot the 40 years in the wilderness, what else could Shavuot have meant for the party of the State but the arrival at, and conquest of, the land of Israel? It was the festival of national independence – the Yom Ha’atzmaut of biblical times. And what better time to celebrate it than at the end of the harvest, when the land flowed with milk and honey?

If so, what was at issue was not just a theological schism or a class divide but the most fundamental question of Jewish identity.

For the Pharisees, Jews were the people of Torah. For the Sadducees, they were the people of the land and State of Israel. Both celebrated their supreme value on Shavuot. But it was a different value in the two camps.

For one, it was a spiritual-ethical vocation that could be pursued even in exile. For the other, it was a matter of land and independent nationhood. To be sure, this was a matter of emphasis rather than exclusion. Both groups valued Torah. Both cherished the land of Israel. The question was: which was supreme? Israel, the State? Or Torah, the way of life? The Sadducees made their wager and lost. With the destruction of the Second Temple and the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion, Jews were left without a State for 1,800 years. The Sadducees disappeared, almost without trace. Had it not been for the Pharisees, their belief in the Oral Law, and their dedication to Torah, there would be no Jewish people today.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The debate did not die. It merely went into hibernation. Today, the Jewish people has a State again. The question is: what will become of Jewish identity? Professor Elazar estimates that some 80 percent of Jews worldwide are what he calls “neo-Sadduceans,” identifying with Israel and the Jewish people but not necessarily with the Torah.

Meanwhile, in Israel itself, the “post-Zionists” have taken Sadduceanism a stage further, arguing that statehood is enough. Israel requires no specifically Jewish character. If you have a land, what need have you of Torah?

This view was wrong 2,000 years ago, and it is wrong today. But the divide goes as deep now as it went then, and there is even less of a common language between today’s secularists and religious than there was between Sadducees and Pharisees, who at least had a written Torah in common.

We long for peace in the Middle East. But we know that peace is not entirely in Israel’s hands. It depends equally on Israel’s neighbours. What is entirely in Israel’s hands – and ours – is peace between Jew and Jew. We must begin a deep and urgent conversation about the nature of Jewish identity and the place of Torah in a Jewish State and the Jewish People. That will require openness and generosity on the part of religious and secular alike. It will take us back, inevitably, to Shavuot, and to a new understanding of the ancient covenant between God and the Jewish people.


[1] David Ewing Duncan, Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year: New York: Avon Books, Inc., 1998.