Secrets of Shavuot
The inner meaning of 50 and why Shavuot has no date.
Every Jewish holiday falls on a specific day of the month, with one exception: Shavuot, the day on which we accepted the Torah. Shavuot is always the 50th day following the beginning of Passover. Under the essential Jewish calendar in which the rabbinical court determined the beginning of a month through witnesses who saw the new moon, it could technically fall on any one of three dates since the number of days in a Jewish month could vary from year to year. The name Shavuot alludes to its independence from the standard calendar. The name means "weeks," demonstrating how the holiday marks the culmination of seven weeks regardless of the date. What is the essence of that dateless day? Hints to the answer lie within the process that leads to Shavuot, the book we read on Shavuot, and the number 50 itself.
The key to understanding Shavuot lies within the process that leads up to it. We start counting the days from our exodus from Egypt, our birth as a people, and continue to count until Shavuot, the 50th day. That count marks a period of national metamorphosis. The Jewish people had been so entrenched in Egypt that the Torah described the Exodus as the extraction of one nation from amidst another. As a child just born, we were in our spiritual infancy and in just 50 days we achieved the lofty stature that enabled us to receive the Torah. Our count begins with a simple sacrifice of barley, food regarded as animal fodder. It culminates with a special sacrifice of the finest bread, human food, signifying our national arrival at a new level of existence.
The progression from a fledgling people to a mature nation is also reflected in the story of Ruth which we read on Shavuot. Ruth was a Moabite princess who married a Jew. When her husband died, Ruth, still young, could have easily returned to her people and been a celebrity in the royal set. Instead, she tenaciously clung to Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, and was determined to convert and embrace Judaism despite attempts to dissuade her. She joined the Jewish nation penniless with only her mother in law as a friend. Yet her self sacrifice and quality was noticed by a wealthy landowner and prominent judge named Boaz from whose field she would collect leftover grain for herself and Naomi. He eventually married her, and that relationship gave rise to the scion of the Jewish monarchy and King David ultimately descended from her. Our tradition teaches that the Mashiach, the future king of the Jewish people, will come from that line as well. Since David was born on Shavuot, we read the story of his ancestry on that day.
The irony of the Jewish royal family's origin is remarkable. Moab was the lowliest of nations, known for its cruelty, especially to the Jews, and overt promiscuity. Moab's own ancestry itself was of questionable nature. Not only did it stem from an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter who got her father drunk with a specific purpose in mind, but the nation's very name announced the act. That daughter called her offspring "Moab" which literally means "from my father." Yet David nonetheless came from the family of that Moabite princess who, at least in title, represented everything that Moab stood for.
Ruth, her re-birth as a Jew, and the transformation which made King David, born on Shavuot, parallels our national march from Passover to Shavuot. We begin on the lowest of levels just as Ruth did, but work our way up to the point at which we can receive Torah.
The Meaning of Fifty
Looking deeper, we can find this very theme reflected in our counting toward Shavuot, and the day's identity as the 50th day of a count we initiate. The secret lies in the number 50 itself. According to Jewish tradition, the natural world is predicated on systems of seven. In time, there are seven days of the week. In space, a central point can expand in six opposite directions: right and left, up and down, forward and backward, the point itself being the central theme around which all is situated. The word sheva, seven, has the same characters as the word savea, meaning satiated, indicating a realm which represents full expansion of the possibilities.
Fifty symbolizes the ability to transcend all the details and enter a new and higher realm.
It follows that anything beyond seven represents a world that transcends nature -- a higher realm. The word for eight, shmoneh, comes from the word shamen, fat, indicating something that goes beyond its own borders. A brit, circumcision which marks entry into a covenant with God, therefore, takes place on the eighth day, a day that goes beyond all worldly matters and connects the human with the Divine.
Taking this theme to the next level, the fullest expansion of the realm of nature is found when one multiplies seven by seven. The result is 49. Going one beyond brings us to 50, which symbolizes the ability to transcend all the details and enter a new and higher realm. But how does that 50th level correlate with a nation's march from infancy to maturity? What connection is there to Ruth's growing from the most degenerate of Moab to the mother of Jewish royalty? The key to unlocking the meaning of the 50th level lies within a biblical story concerning our forefather Yaakov.
En route to Israel, Yaakov met up with his brother Eisav who was coming to "greet" him with an army of 400 soldiers. Considering Eisav's earlier resolution to kill Yaakov, Yaakov prayed, prepared for war, and, also sent waves of gifts to appease his brother. At first Eisav refused the bounty, and responded with "yesh li rav, I have many things." However, Yaakov insisted and responded with "yesh li kol¸ I have everything." Yaakov prevailed, and Eisav accepted all the gifts.
What was the dialogue really about? How was Yaakov's possession of "kol," everything, the factor that determined that Eisav would accept the gifts after all?
Yaakov fused everything he owned to a larger whole, a transcendent oneness.
Eisav's initial protests flowed from his saying that he had rav, many or much. Indeed, Eisav represents a world predicated on multitudes, on many and on quantity. When Eisav's family numbered only a few people, the Torah referred to them as nefashot, souls, in the plural. In contrast, when Yaakov's family numbered 70, the Torah called them nefesh, soul, in the singular. The power of Yaakov and the meaning of his having kol is that Yaakov was not one who simply amassed wealth. Instead, there was a unifying theme in everything he owned, and every individual unit he had fused to a larger whole, a transcendent oneness. Yaakov truly had everything, and the gift was appropriate for Eisav, for whom more quantity was always a good thing.
In our countdown toward Shavuot, we strive to reach the level of Yaakov. We count 49 days, representing the world of Eisav, the realm of multitude in the full expansion of the number seven representing nature. We reach the maximum of a world of quantity. Not surprisingly, Moab, Ruth's mother nation, is 49 in gematria, representing the world of all that is physical, of amassing quantity. Yet we go a step beyond, and reach the 50th, represented by the kol possessed by Yaakov described. The numerical value of kol is 50. Our kol enables us to go beyond the details and to fuse them into one whole unit, to transcend the word of quantity and reach a unified whole. It is that lofty level that brings us from infancy, from our newborn status to maturity, and transforms every experience we have along the way into a single theme. It enables us to come from the lowest depths, for the Davidic line to come from the humblest origins, and to reach the highest places.
We received the Torah on the 50th day, not on a calendar date. It is the product of our counting through every natural level, and achieving transcendence to the point that we don't even count the fiftieth day – a date which is not quantifiable. Instead, we arrive at it. On that day, we stood under Mount Sinai as one person with one heart. We were not millions but simply one. In a parallel manner, the Torah addresses every aspect of life, and provides guidance for any conceivable circumstance. It unifies every detail, fuses every disparate component. It is the ultimate kol. It enables us to take our most base experiences and our humble origins and to unite them to a larger cause.
To this day, that power survives. Through the process of Shavuot and the days that lead up to it, we can transcend our past, and unite all the details of our prior experience to bring us to the point that we transcend what we were and become something greater.