For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archives to the blog at May 2006.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
We continue here the teaching we began three weeks ago (HY X: Emor), the first part of which concerned the Counting of the Omer, in which the forty-nine days or seven weeks are compared to the seven pure days a woman must count prior to reuniting with her husband. In the next section of that teaching, Shavuot night is compared to the night prior to the wedding, in which the bridesmaids and the companions, and the bridegroom’s mother, prepare each of the partners for their joyous and festive uniting. This is seen as the inner, mystical meaning of the Torah study vigil conducted on Shavuot night. Zohar III: 97b-98b:
And one who reaches that day in purity and did not lose count, when he comes to that night it behooves him to labor in Torah and be connected therewith and to preserve the elevated purity he has attained on that night and to be pure. And we have learned that the Torah one ought to study on that night is the Oral Torah [seen in Zohar as the feminine principle], so as to be purified (cleave) from the flowing waters of that deep stream.
Thereafter, during that day the Written Torah comes and is connected to it, and they are one in a supernal unity [of “Abba” and “Imma”—i.e., Hokhmah and Binah]. Then it is declared above concerning him: “And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord: My spirit, which is upon you, and my words which I have placed in your mouth [shall not depart from you, nor from your children, nor from your children’s children, from now on and for ever more]” [Isa 59:21].” For that reason, the pious ones of old would not sleep on that night, but would labor in Torah, saying, Let us acquire a holy inheritance for ourselves and for our children in both worlds. And on that night the Congregation of Israel is crowned above, and comes to be united with the Holy King, and both of them have crowns upon their heads—may we merit to this.
Rabbi Shimon used to say, at that hour that the companions gathered together on that night: Let us go and prepare the adornments of the bride, so that she may be ready to appear before the king with her jewels and adornments as is proper. Happy is the share of the Companions when the king asks his Lady (Matrona) who has prepared her beautiful adornments, and made her crown radiant, and done all her preparations. For there is no one in the entire world who knows how to arrange the adornments of the bride like the Companions. Happy is their share in this world and in the world to come!
Come and see: On that night the companions prepare the adornments for the bride, and crown her with her crown to go to the king. Who prepares the king on that night, that he may be with the bride, to unite with the Lady? The deep holy Stream, deeper than all streams, the Supernal Mother [I am uncertain whether this is Imma=Binah or Shekhianh=Malkhut]. Of her it is written: “Come out and see, O daughters of Zion, the King Solomon [with the crown that his mother crowned him on his wedding day, and on the day of his heart’s joy]” (Song 3:11).
After she has prepared the King and crowned him, she goes to purify the Lady and those who are with her. [This may be compared to] a king who had a single son, whom he united in marriage with a noble lady. What did his mother do? She spent that entire night in her storeroom, and she took out a splendid crown adorned with seventy precious stones with which to crown him, and she took robes of silk and dressed him, and prepared him in royal fashion. Then she went up to the house of the bride, and saw how her maidens were preparing her crown and garments and adornments.
She said to them: I have prepared a house for her to bathe, a place of flowing waters and fragrant smells and perfumes to purify my daughter-in-law. May my son’s bride and her maidens come and be purified in that place of flowing waters, and afterwards they may afix her adornments and dress her with her garments and crown her with her diadem. Then let my son come and unite with his Lady. And a palace has been prepared for the bride, and let them live there as one.
When the Holy King and the Lady and the Companions are in this way, and the Supernal Mother has prepared everything, we find that the Supernal King and the Lady and the Companions dwell together, and do not separate for ever…
Rav Hiyya said: If we had not merited to come to this world except to hear these words, it would have been enough. Happy is the portion of those who labor in Torah and know the pathways of the Holy King, those whose desire is in the Torah….
Thus, Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the widespread custom of studying Torah on Shavuot night until dawn, has its origins in Kabbalah, in this Zohar passage. The words of Torah studied by Israel are all crowns and adornments of the Bride. The earliest historical account of such a vigil concerns one held in the 1520’s or early 1530’s, involving several personalities from what was later to become the mystical circle of R. Yitzkak Luria in Tzfat, such as R. Yosef Caro and R. Shlomo Alkabetz. This occurred before they came up to the Land of Israel—somewhere in the Greek islands, or perhaps in Bulgaria. This account is best known from its citation in Shenei Luhot ha-Berit, the great compendium of Kabbalistic practice and homily by R. Yeshayahu Horowitz written in the early 17th century. The group—which did not include a full minyan—studied Mishnah. At a certain point during the night a Heavenly voice, a Maggid personifying the Mishnah, such as R. Caro was often wont to hear, spoke to them, praising their activity and stating the great joy it caused in Heaven. May our involvement in Torah be a source of joy and renewed vitality, both above and below.
Why Do We Eat Dairy on Shavuot?
It is an almost universal custom among Ashkenazic Jews, to eat milkhikh—i.e., dairy food—on Shavuot: blintzes, cheese cake, quiches, every conceivable kind of cheese. Weeks before the holiday, Israeli newspapers are filled with dairy recipes. Indeed, some mothers tell their children, “If you count Sefirat ha-Omer every night like good children, you’ll get cheese cake on Shavuot!” But why?
Interestingly, one of the best known Talmudic texts about the celebration of festival days emphasizes the earthly side of Shavuot, specifically. Even those who assert that festival days should be wholly devoted to God (כולו לה') acknowledge that Shavuot, precisely because its focus is on something as spiritual as Torah, is to be celebrated in a carnal way, with the pleasures of the table taking a prominent place. Thus, Rav Yosef used to make a point of eating the choicest calf on Shavuot, to celebrate (see b. Pesahim 68b).
One of the explanations offered for the custom is that, when the Israelites received the Torah with its laws of separating milk and meat, they did not have immediately at hand the cooking vessels needed to cook meat, and to perform hagalat kelim would take time and effort, so they ate dairy, which is simpler and more ready to hand, and may be eaten uncooked. But I must admit that this explanation does not make a great deal of sense to me.
The Shulhan Arukh (Rama at Orah Hayyim 494.3) states that “It is customary in some places to eat dairy food on the first day of Shavuot, and it seems to me that the reason for this is similar to that for the two cooked dishes [on the Seder plate] on Pesah night… One eats dairy foods and then meat foods, and hence needs to place two [loaves] of bread on the table, which is in place of the altar, and this is reminiscent of the two loaves of bread that were offered [in the Temple] on the day of First Fruits.”
Yet other explanations see this custom as based on the verse in Song of Songs, “honey and milk beneath your tongue” (4:11). A third, anthropological explanation, based in the two-fold repetition of the verse “The first fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God; do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milks” (Exod 23:19; 34:26) suggests that the pagan Canaanites used to eat milk and meat together at their first-fruit festival; we cannot do so, but to approximate this we eat dairy, followed by meat.
Given that minhag (customary practice) is a form of mythic or symbolic language, I believe that it must carry its meaning in a manner that is intuitively grasped. If an explanation is too round-about, complicated, or sounds far-fetched, it was probably invented after the fact, to explain it. The most obvious thing about milk is that it is the most elemental food, that with which mothers suckle their children at the breast. I would conjecture that eating dairy on Shavuot symbolizes a connection to the Torah as a maternal figure, much as the figure of the Supernal Mother found in the Zohar passage we brought for Shavuot. Perhaps Israel at Sinai are compared to infants suckling at their mother’s breast (do the two tablets correspond to the two breasts?).
After writing the above I came across a passage in R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Me’or Einayim on Parshat Hukat which expresses a similar idea: he begins by speaking about that level of Torah which transcends any type of rational of or subject-object understanding, which he calls Ayin: that which derives from the Divine “Nothingness.” He then goes on to say that this aspect is called parah, “cow,” being connected, not only to the red heifer which is the subject of that parashah, but also to the mother cow, as in the Rabbinic saying, “More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle” (Pesahim 112a)—i.e., the act of the Divine in giving Torah is seen as analogous to that of a mother sustaining her young.
Two Images of Revelation: Exodus 19 and Exodus 24The following is based on a shiur I delivered at Kehillat Yedidyah on Shavuot night.
On the Festival of Shavuot we read in the synagogue Exodus 19 and 20, the account of the Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, with thunder and lightning, and God hidden behind dark clouds: Moses ascends the mountain, and the people hear the voice of God declaiming the Ten Commandments. But a few pages later, in Exodus 24, there is another chapter that seems to describe the events at Sinai in a very different manner. What is the function of this chapter, and what is its relationship to the account in Chapters 19 and 20? In what follows, I wish to explore this chapter, and draw a comparison between the two readings.
But I must begin with a methodological comment. The late Rabbi Mordechai Breuer had a unique method of studying the Torah. As we know, 19th-century Biblical critics claimed that the Torah is composed of a number of different documents or strands written by different authors, identified by them as P, E, D and J. Breuer’s had a unique response to this challenge to traditional Jewish faith. He accepted the critics’ observations about the text as correct, but added that the reason why the Torah, for example, tells the story of the Creation twice—once in Genesis 1 and a second time in Genesis 2—was in order to provide a full picture of these complex events, which could not possibly be recounted in a single linear account. The Creation of the Universe, the creation of man, the questions about what it means to be a human being—all these are issues that can only be dealt with in an allusive, indirect manner. Moreover, Breuer saw these differing accounts as stemming from different Kabbalistic sefirot.
For example: are man and woman more similar to one another or more different? How central is gender in determining the identity of the individual? (In current jargon: is biology destiny or not? Are gender differences “essential” or not?) The answer given by the Bible, according to Breuer, is both “yes” and “no.” Man and woman are simultaneously created as two similar, equal beings—“male and female He created them”; and are created in a manner which involves mutual dependence in relationship and profound importance to sexuality: i.e., the creation of Eve from Adam and “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”
I would like to suggest a similar manner of reading Exodus 19 and Exodus 24 in juxtaposition with one another. The classical commentators differ in their readings of these chapters. Rashi reads the first part of Chapter 24 (vv. 1-4), in which Moses goes up to speak to God and asks the people whether they will do all the things that God has commanded, as a kind of reiteration of the events that preceded the Revelation itself, on the sixth day of Sivan,. Likewise, the covenant ceremony involving the slaughtering of animals, the sprinkling of the blood on the people and on the twelve altars, and the vision of the Divine figure seated upon a throne all occurred prior to the epiphany (vv. 5-11). On the other hand, that which is recounted in the last seven verses of the chapter, in which Moses goes up and disappears behind “the cloud where God was” for forty days and nights, happened thereafter. Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides) differs from this view. Consistent with his own well-known approach that the Torah always presents events in chronological order, he insists that everything related in Chapter 24 took place after the Revelation, perhaps during the afternoon of the day, and indicates a kind of a transition to Moses’ ascent of the mountain a second time to receive the detailed laws and regulations of the Torah.
I would like to suggest another way of reading, in which Exodus 24 is read as a parallel, even alternative account of the Revelation; both chapters are in fact an account of the same events. Just as the Creation cannot be adequately described in a single, linear account, so too God’s Revelation to humanity through the people of Israel—surely the greatest, most significant event in history next to Creation—can only be conveyed by means of symbols, of hints, of allusions, of metaphor, whose full complexity and subtlety is better grasped through two different accounts. These two chapters thus represent two different approaches to the Divine epiphany, which together provide a total picture.
In Exodus 19 and 20 one is struck, first of all, by the sheer pyrotechnics of the event: kolot u-verakim, loud sounds, thunder and lightning, thick cloud—all convey an overwhelming sense of God’s frightening and awesome presence. So much so, that after it is done the people turn to Moses, saying: “Speak with us and we will hear, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod 20:16). In other words, God’s Otherness, His uncanniness, the overwhelming nature of the experience. As Maimonides puts it, the thick cloud behind which God is hidden represents the ontic distance between ordinary human beings and the Godhead. But the Sinai experience is not only an epiphany of the Divine, but also, and perhaps primarily, a direct revelation of at least the quintessence of the Torah: the entire people (at least in a literal reading of the text) hear the Ten Commandments, the most basic principles upon which all the rest is based. Interestingly, too—at least as I read peshat—during the Revelation Moses is not at the top of the mountain, where God as-it-were dwells, is manifest in His fiery Presence; rather, he is down below, with the people. As if to say: the holiest, purest, most spiritual-developed human being, namely Moses, and the ordinary person are in some sense on the same level.
The description in Exodus 24 is more matter-of-fact, and more narrowly focused on Moses alone. The people are not described as hearing God’s voice at all. Everything they know or are told about the Revelation is through the medium of Moses. God commands Moses to ascend to the mountain, and the latter tells the people that God will give them commandments, to which they answer “Everything that God has said, we will listen and we will do”: na’aseh ve-nishma. Thus, they do not really experience the Revelation at all. Moses functions here as the prophet, as God’s emissary. There is then a ceremony of making a covenant, in which the priests and the elders, “the nobles of Israel,” act as surrogates for the people per se. They slaughter animals, they pour the blood into a container, they set up twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes: half the blood is sprinkled on the people, and half on the altar—but God himself does not manifest His Presence to the entire people. Only later, a small élite group ascend partway up the mountain: Moses, Joshua, Aaron and his children, and the elders. We then read an astonishing thing: they see the God of Israel, literally, as a figure enthroned upon a seat, while beneath Him is a sapphire stone, whose color is like the the pure blue of the sky (suggestive of the azure of tzitzit?). Moreover, “they saw God and they ate and they drank.” They were somehow able to combine together the most exalted experience of Presence, with their physical lives as human beings, with the activity of eating and drinking.
The final section of Chapter 24 also presents difficulties. It states that Moses ventured up in the mountain near the cloud, where he was for seven days, and thereafter he was there for forty days and forty nights. When exactly were these seven days? If they are distinct from the 40 days, then there were not 40 but 47 days between the Revelation and the event of the Breaking of the Tablets, when Moses came down from the mountain—which would inter alia completely upset the traditional calendar in which the 17th of Tammuz, Rosh Hodesh Elul, and Yom Kippur are forty-day landmarks in the process of Moses’ receiving Torah, seeking forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, and receiving the second tablets. Rashi suggest that these may have been the seven days between the New Moon of Sivan and the day of the Revelation—but that presents its own difficulties. Or perhaps the seven days are counted within the 40 days. Whatever way you slice it, it is a rather difficult passage.
Finally, it seems to me that the scene at the very end of the Account of the Golden Calf (Exod 34:27-35), in which Moses descends the mountain with the second set of tablets, is a kind of rounding off of this chapter, reiterating many of the same themes. Here, Moses is radiant, in the literal sense: his face shines (perhaps like the blue stones beneath the Divine throne in 24:10?) with the reflected radiance of the Divine, so that the people cannot bear to gaze upon him, and he must wear a veil. What are we to make of all this? What is the essential difference between these two accounts of Revelation? I would suggest that the central issue that exercises the Tanakh is the nature of revelation: is it, in essence, a democratic experience, undergone in at least some minimal way by the entire people, or is it an elitist one, accessible only to those with a higher kind of consciousness. In Ch. 19 it is essentially an overwhelming experience of the entire people; in Ch. 24 it is, in the final analysis, is limited to prophecy to one individual—perhaps with a certain limited involvement of the priests and the elders. Moses alone is able to go beyond the cloud and speak with God, because he is a unique human being with radically different capabilities and of a radically different nature.
In several major non-Jewish religions, the focus is on the prophecy of one particular individual; the holy texts are revealed through the belief and inspiration of the prophet. Thus in Buddhism (albeit the Buddha was more a wise man than a prophet—albeit in later, popular Buddhism, he was effectively deified), in Islam, and in Mormon. (Christianity is not in its essence a religion of revelation and text, but is built around the mystery of the life of a single individual, Jesus, whose life in its belief bridges the Divine and the human.) In Judaism, the experiencing of the revelation by the entire people is crucial. Indeed, Yehudah Halevi argues in Sefer ha-Kuzari (I.87) that the strongest testimony to the truth of Judaism is the fact of revelation, witnessed by the 600,000 people who were at Sinai. And yet, it would seem that Judaism holds by this idea and at the same time does not. On another level, Moses alone received the entire Torah from God and conveyed it to the people; hence it is known as Torat Moshe.
This motif is particularly central in Rambam’s teaching. In no less than three separate places (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 8; Guide II.33; Hakdamah le-Perek Helek, Yesod ha-shevi’i), Maimonides dwells at length upon the difference between Moses and the rest of the people. He talks about the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy and explains that the revelation was primarily intended for the people to know that Moses was the chosen prophet of God, and that those things which he would tell them afterwards—the laws and commandments and admonitions and the interpretation of what they had experiences and what they had undergone and the prophecy of what was to come in the future—were all true and had come from God. (See what I wrote about this in HY I: Shavuot). On the other hand, as noted above, Yehudah ha-Levi has a different view, emphasizing the more popular aspect of Sinai, as experienced specifically by the entire people.
Comparison of these two chapters, and the schools in Jewish thought that emphasize one or another of them, open up a whole series of questions about the nature of the encounter between man and God. To what extent are special preparations or innate qualities and faculties needed to receive even an inkling of the Divine Presence? Or may one say that, since the whole notion of revelation is a miracle, a breaking through of what are ordinarily impenetrable barriers (“A handmaiden at the Sea saw more than Ezekiel at the River Perath”), all stand equal at Sinai? Moreover, since the contents of the Revelation—practical commandments pertaining to ordinary life—relate to all human beings, or at least all Israelites, did all needed to receive them directly? But these questions take us far beyond the boundaries of our present discussion.