The Shavuot Holiday in Israel: Joy in the Law, Joy in the Land

The holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, falls this year on Wednesday in Israel and on Wednesday and Thursday in the Diaspora. It falls every year exactly seven weeks after Passover. The latter holiday celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt; Shavuot (which means “weeks”) celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, which followed some arduous trekking through the desert.

Shavuot, though, has a whole other, agricultural dimension. Also known as the Festival of the First Fruits, in ancient Israel Shavuot marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. Theorists of these matters believe the agricultural layer of the holiday is the older, original one, and the commemoration of Sinai was added later.

In any case, the Sinai dimension of the holiday is more portable and can be practiced in synagogues anywhere; the agricultural dimension is more tied to the land of Israel. In fact, growing up in a secular Jewish family in upstate New York, I didn’t know about Shavuot at all. We had a Passover meal every year, and I thought it pretty much ended with that.

It makes sense, then, that during the period of Zionist resettlement of the land of Israel, the agricultural aspect was intensely revived. In fact, it was revived particularly by the kibbutz movements — which, at the time, were doctrinally socialist and mostly atheist, but seeking roots in the soil of the land.

This is a corny propaganda video, plagued with the churning, bombastic background music that seems to have been obligatory for documentaries of the period. But it also offers fascinating glimpses.

It’s 1934 — fourteen years before the rise of modern Israel, seventeen years since the Balfour Declaration gave a big push to the Zionist project. The Yishuv (prestate Jewish polity) numbers somewhere over 300,000. The ancient towns of Jerusalem and Haifa are being rebuilt, the brand-new city of Tel Aviv is thriving, and numerous smaller and agricultural communities dot the land.

The narrator refers to “Haifa, at the head of  the Valley of Jezreel” — the valley that even then was full of farms and today is a sort of breadbasket of Israel. He also calls Shavuot the “Palestinian Thanksgiving” — the Jews of the Yishuv at that time having been routinely referred to as Palestinians.

The music reaches a crescendo as the scene shifts to Haifa. The streets and balconies are thronged with people come out to watch the first-fruits parade. One senses the tremendous pride and joy over the revival of Jewish farming in the land.

The Hebrew sign starting at 1:38 says “Meshek Yagur” — referring to Kibbutz Yagur, founded in 1922 a few miles from Haifa and still around today. The video, while stressing the ancient origins of the holiday, doesn’t mention that most of the communities displaying their wares are probably secular-socialist ones, and that their attachment to such religiously derived customs and symbols was probably unique — if not bizarre — among the many socialist movements of the time.

Fast-forward almost eighty years to the present. If you search the word Shavuot in Hebrew on YouTube, you get numerous videos of Shavuot celebrations — mostly in kibbutzim but some in urban communities too. The sheer thrill of Jews farming the land may have dissipated, but something of the joy of those days has unmistakably been kept.

The video on this page is from Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva in 2009. The orange letters on the stage say Shavuot. Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva is in northern Israel and was established in 1949 by the far-Left — but Zionist — Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard) movement.

Both young and old are enjoying themselves. Costumes aren’t as outlandish as in 1934, but the wreaths in the children’s hair, and the girls’ and women’s white dresses, are longstanding Shavuot traditions that have come down from those days and earlier. The stage in the background — sometimes peopled, sometimes not — is also a clear descendant of the teeming stage at the end of the 1934 video.

The songs in the medley, all with folk and biblical sources, are “Land of Milk and Honey,” “A Stalk in the Field” (0:48), “The Flowers Appear on the Earth” (1:18), “Our Granaries Are Filled with Grain” (1:52), and, just before a few strains of “To You Jerusalem” (2:44),  the beautiful and joyous Shavuot song “Baskets on Our Shoulders” (2:17):

Baskets on our shoulders,

Our heads adorned,

From all ends of the land we’ve come,

Bringing the first fruits….

Too bad the guy at 1:16 can’t catch the spirit.

As a sort of postscript, this video is from a state-secular elementary school in the town of Lod, beside Ben-Gurion Airport and not far from Tel Aviv. Clearly the agricultural magic makes its way into more urban settings, too. The girls, in full Shavuot regalia, are dancing to “Baskets on Our Shoulders.” The strip of paper on the wall reads “And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks”; the smaller letters to the left, visible at 0:41, mean “Exodus 34.”

One could say these girls are getting socialized into the Israeli traditions and ethos.

Some say that, apart from kids and people living in rural communities, Shavuot has lost meaning for secular Israelis. But something is being done about that, too, with more and more of them latching onto the giving of the Torah, synagogue-centered side of the holiday — in the form of all-night study sessions, a centuries-old Shavuot tradition now increasingly practiced by secular Israelis as well.

Ultimately the giving of the Torah and first fruits themes are, of course, reconcilable. The Torah allows life to be lived in the light of moral law, to be civilized; the fruits of the land allow it to be lived at all. Both come from the same source. Shavuot, a profound celebration of life, is thriving and putting forth new buds in modern Israel — in a region still notable for death and destruction, no small feat.

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