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Lu’ach Ve’Ru’ach -
‫לוח ורוח‬
The Hebrew Calendar, Shavuot,
Justice and the Earth
Dr. Jeremy Benstein
The Heschel Center, Tel Aviv
June 2008 ‫סיוון תשס"ח‬
The Jews’ catechism is their calendar .
–S.R. Hirsch
Judaism as a tradition deeply
affirms both our historical memory,
the events in time that have
constituted us as a people, as
well as our connection to land,
nature and natural cycles.
One of the cool things about the
Jewish calendar is that just about
every major holiday expresses both
of these sides.
So for instance – Pesach
(Passover) is both the Holiday of
Spring (‫)חג האביב‬, the spring
planting, as well as, of course, the
Holiday of Freedom (‫– )חג החירות‬
the Exodus from Egypt.
Similarly – Sukkot is both
the autumn harvest festival,
(‫)חג האסיף‬, and the
commemoration of the period
of the Wandering in the
Even the symbols of these festivals represent both sides:
•The matza is the unleavened
bread eaten hastily on the way
from slavery to freedom, as well
as representing the new grain of
the new harvest.
•The sukka is both the shack the
harvesters would sleep in during
the busy harvest season; and the
temporary dwelling during the
Desert wanderings.
Similarly, Chanukah brings
together the historical
victory of the Maccabees,
and the rededication of the
with the mid-winter
celebration of the return
of light, so prevalent in
many cultures.
Even Shabbat, the weekly
Sabbath, is both ‫זכר ליציאת‬
‫ מצרים‬- commemoration of the
Exodus from Egypt, and ‫זכר‬
‫ למעשה בראשית‬- remembrance
of the Creation.
Nature and History,
time’s cycles and time’s
arrows, bound into one.
Which brings us to Shavuot,
The Feast of Weeks, according
to the Torah – the Festival of
the First Fruits (‫)חג הביכורים‬.
We can make a chart like the following:
Natural Side
Historical Side
Darkness into
Spring planting
Slavery into
First Fruits
Fall Harvest
Desert Wandering
And we see there is something missing…
The Rabbis also noticed this – and later on, a long time
after the Torah, they decided that this early summer
harvest holiday, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt,
was when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, connecting
this previously exclusive agricultural festival to one of the
formative events in Israel’s sacred history.
So now Shavuot is ‫ – חג מתן תורה‬the holiday of Revelation
Natural Side
Historical Side
Darkness into
Spring planting
Slavery into
First Fruits
Giving of the
Fall Harvest
Desert Wandering
with one central observance being reading the Ten
There’s another place where putting Shavuot into its
calendrical context helps us understand it.
Remember those symbols? The Passover matza, and the
shack, the sukka of Sukkot?
Both of those central symbols are the ‘poverty versions’ of
the real thing: the flat unleavened bread of affliction, and a
thatched-roof temporary dwelling. These are both great
equalizers, that say that you don’t have to be wealthy to
celebrate the Spring and Fall Festivals of Freedom. In
these two central categories of food and shelter, everyone
is welcome, nobody is excluded.
What about Shavuot?
Not only is there no central symbol that says this, but the
Torah’s version of the holiday itself is based on the landowners’ bringing their first fruits, and giving thanks. If those
holidays focused on food and shelter, Shavuot is about land.
But what about the poor, and those who didn’t own land?
How were they to celebrate this festival?
The answer to these questions is found in the solution to a
puzzling text about Shavuot.
In Leviticus chapter 23, the holiday calendar cycle is given,
starting with Shabbat, then Pesach, then Shavuot, then
Sukkot (see here for the full text).
But between the descriptions of Shavuot and Sukkot (verse
22) is a commandment that is out of place: the mitzvah to
leave the corners and forgotten sheaves for the poor. What is
an ethical mitzvah doing here, among the holiday rituals?
This then is the missing aspect of the celebration of Shavuot
– it is not a ritual symbol like the matza, or the sukka, but a
social commandment that serves the same function:
Rather than split the people between landed and landless,
the unexpected verse about leaving parts of the harvest for
the poor (reinforced aggadically in the story of Ruth read on
Shavuot) is a reminder of our mutual obligation, a reminder
that the land should be a source of justice and not division,
that the holiday requires an ethic of care, and not just a
celebration of wealth.
This is a statement about holidays: gratitude for our
bounteous harvests of various types is best expressed
through compassion for those who have not been so blessed
-- not through closed, self-satisfied convocations of the
And it is a statement of our relationship to the natural world:
Justice, the Earth, and (what else?) - Food
What makes the Jewish approach to nature most distinctive is the
links it establishes between the human treatment of God’s earth and
social justice. Land-owners have the moral and religious obligation to
support those who do not own land, by giving them parts of the land’s
produce—the corner of the field (peah), the gleanings of stalks
(leket), the forgotten sheaf (shikhekhah)…
The person who obeys these
commandments ensures the
religio-moral purity necessary for
residence on God’s land. A
failure to treat other members of
the society justly, to protect the
sanctity of their lives, is integrally
tied to acts extended toward the
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson,
"Nature in the Sources of Judaism",
Daedalus, 2001.
Questions for further thought and discussion:
•Most of us don’t have fields for the poor to glean in. How
should we best express the values of the mitzvot of leket
and peah today?
•In general, how can we expand the circles of our holiday
celebrations to make sure that no one is left out?
•Justice and the Earth: Environmental justice is a leading
topic in social activism today. It usually focuses on one of
the 3 Rs: equal access to Resources (like food, shelter,
and land discussed above); equal protection from Risk
(health threats, pollutants); and equal Representation in
decision making.
What environmental justice issues exist in your community
that you can address?