More than any other festival in the Jewish calendar, Shavu'ot suffers from a peculiar identity crisis: There is no consensus about exactly what the holiday is supposed to commemorate.
The Torah associates Shavu'ot primarily with the stages of the grain crop. It occurs at the conclusion of the barley harvest--symbolized by the counting of seven weeks after the offering of the initial omer of barley--and at the start of the wheat harvest, which is celebrated with the offering of wheaten loaves in the Temple on Shavu'ot itself.
A secondary theme in the Bible associates Shavu'ot with the offerings of the first-fruits, bikkurim; though strictly speaking, the season for bringing first-fruits extends through the whole summer and well into the winter.
In the traditional liturgy, Shavu'ot is described chiefly as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This idea is not stated anywhere in the Bible, and is not emphasized before a relatively late stratum of talmudic literature.
In this connection, it is intriguing to read how Shavu'ot was understood by the book of Jubilees. This extraordinary work, composed some time during the Maccabean era, claims to record teachings that were revealed to Moses during his forty days on Mount Sinai. It retells the early narratives of the Torah according to a distinctive interpretation of Jewish tradition. Central to its doctrine is the idea that our sacred history can be divided into periods of forty-nine years--called jubilees.
An issue that was of vital concern to the author of Jubilees was the determining of the correct religious calendar. Rejecting the Babylonian lunar system that was adopted by mainstream Judaism, the Book of Jubilees advocated a 364-day solar calendar. It missed no opportunity to show that such was the calendar that had been followed by the ancient Hebrews.
As we have learned from the Dead Sea scrolls, the Jewish sect whose library was preserved at Qumran followed that same calendar, and held the book of Jubilees in great reverence. The author of Jubilees seems acutely conscious that he was in a minority and that the majority of the Jews had deviated from the true teachings of the Torah as he understood them. However, he was confident that this anomalous situation was about to change, that Israel would soon return to the authentic path, and thereby usher in an epoch of increased blessings. This belief lent much urgency to the book's mission of persuading Jews to adopt its interpretations of the Bible.
Surprisingly, Jubilees' main discussion of Shavu'ot occurs in connection with the story of Noah and the flood. According to its reckoning, Noah disembarked from the ark at the beginning of the third month, Sivan, and then proceeded to offer sacrifices to atone for the devastated earth. In response, God blessed Noah and his descendents with a covenant that guaranteed them continued survival in the future.
As in the familiar biblical account, Noah and his children were given a visible sign of this divine assurance: the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds. Jubilees concludes: Therefore, it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shavu'ot in this month, once every year, in order to renew the covenant in all respects year by year.
Thus, thanks to this ancient document, we learn of yet another reason to celebrate Shavu'ot. It is the anniversary of the divine promise to Noah, the festival of the Rainbow covenant. This holiday and the event that it commemorated were so central to the divine plan that Shavu'ot was being celebrated in heaven even before the time of Noah.
As we read the story in the Book of Jubilees, there can be no mistaking the author's conviction that the most critical element in the Noahide covenant was the prohibition of consuming blood. This universal law lies at the root of the more specific dietary prohibition that would be given to the Israelites in the time of Moses.
Although it is not emphasized very much in traditional Jewish interpretations, the theological centrality of this law is quite explicit in the biblical account of Noah's covenant. It is elaborated and repeated at considerable length in the book of Jubilees, which dwells on the grave consequences of violating the precept: And the man who eats the blood of cattle or birds throughout all the days of the earth, he and his seed shall be uprooted from the earth.
In fact, the entire institution of Israelite sacrificial worship, in which atonement is achieved by the pouring of blood on the altar, is understood by the book of Jubilees as deriving from Noah's covenant, which designated blood as the exclusive prerogative of the Almighty.
The Book of Jubilees goes on to explain how, in recognition of that primordial divine covenant with humanity, the month in which it occurred was established as a fitting season for subsequent covenants as well. God's covenant with Abraham was established on the same date, as well as the most important covenant of all--the one at Mount Sinai.
Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the author of Jubilees did not derive the name of the festival, as the Torah does, from the word Shavua, week, in reference to the seven weeks that are counted from the offering of the omer sheaf; but rather from the word sh'vu'ah, oath, which is closely associated with the concept of covenant.
I am particularly intrigued by the Book of Jubilees' emphasis on the prohibition of blood as a central theme of Shavu'ot. At first sight, this interpretation has no parallel in the mainstream Jewish traditions.
Nevertheless, it is tempting to venture, purely by way of speculation, that these forgotten associations might ultimately contain the solution to one of the most persistent puzzles in the history of Jewish observances: our custom of eating dairy foods on Shavu'ot. Although the practice is not attested until many jubilees--er, centuries--later, it might not be totally farfetched to ascribe it to the ancient connection between Shavu'ot and the covenant of the rainbow against consuming blood.
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