Hag Symptomatic – Shavuot Invites A Question

“Nowhere in The Bible is any link made between Sinai and Shavuot.” – Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays Harper Row 1985 Cambridge p.69

     As the annual Shavuot holiday begins again shortly, I offer into the mix a simple question: why do Two-Testament (“Messianic”) Jews practice Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all night study of Torah on Erev Shavuot) and eating of dairy foods in honor of the kabbalistic, numerological superstitions and revisions that distract from the holiday’s actual identity and focus?

     Ostensibly, our Two-Testament faith has a few bedrock stones in its foundation; and surely, Isaiah 8:20’s concept is among them: “To the Torah and the Testimony (of the Deut. 18 ratified prophets)! If they (any purveyor of allegedly sound religious ideas) do not speak in accord with that word, there is no dawn (actual inspired truth) in the them.” Even someone as invested in Jewish practice as Rabbi Strassfeld of SAJ here in Manhattan, had to admit in the oxymoronic opening page of his Jewish Holidays book’s chapter on Shavuot – subtitled, “Revealing The Torah” – that “Nowhere in The Bible is any link made between Sinai and Shavuot.” It appears many of us, as “People of The Book,” have not bothered to take a look at the book, much less adhere to it.

     Strassfeld goes on to say, “The nature of Shavuot began to change after the destruction of The Temple in 70.c.e. Without The Temple, neither of the two agricultural rites of Shavuot could be observed. At some point in the rabbinic period (post 1st-century), connection began to be made with the Revelation at Sinai, which the Biblical text tells us occurred in the third month, or Sivan (Ex. 19:1).” (Strassfeld p. 71) Again – even a committed practitioner of the Matan Torah emphasis feels compelled in conscience to admit that before the removal of the 2nd Temple, there is no evidence of Jewish practice linking Shavuot observance to receiving the Torah at Sinai. That receiving-Torah emphasis developed as an artifact of The Temple’s absence, the same way Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai substituted charitable deeds for sacrifice with his out of context, partial quotation from Hosea (see Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5), and virtually created non-Messianic Judaism by that complete avoidance of the letter and spirit of Daniel 9:24ff and Isaiah 53.

     There is a significant body of Torah and Prophetic content – as well as New Testament content – on the concept of “firstfruits” and “the harvest.” Shavuot is, in the Scriptures, called Hag HaBikkurim (Feast of The Firstfruits) in Exodus 23:16 and 34:22, where it is also called The Feast of Weeks – Shavuot.

     Two-Testament (“Messianic Jewish”) congregations could be holding ceremonies in which the congregation stands to make the firstfruits statement in Numbers 26:5 with all first-born children at the bima – and perhaps donate five shekels (the amount for which they were redeemed in their pidyon ha-ben as first-born infants) to their shul or some worthy Jewish cause. We could, in accord with the commandments regarding harvest, bring a portion of our income for that year thus far to be given to the widow and orphan – as Torah commands, and which allowed Ruth (whose book is read on Shavuot) to survive long enough as a poor sojourner to become the great-grandmother of King David. We could ponder the implications of Yeshua, the Suffering Messiah risen from the dead, as what 1Cor. 15:32 calls “firstfruits” of resurrection from the dead, and Believers as what Yaacov/James 1:18 calls “firstfruits among his creations.” We could hold all-night prayer vigils in the spirit of the 1st Century Yeshua-followers, seeking outpourings like their Acts 2 outpouring, but for our era.

     I have always believed our People have as much to learn from what we Two-Testament Jews do not do in line with historic Jewish custom, as what we do. What we abstain from mimicking or passing along to the next generation speaks eloquently of our values, as well as what we do absorb and pass on from the body of Jewish practice in line with the Acts 21:18-24 directive.
     I was made a media topic in Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper because I, as a rabbi, do not keep dairy/meat separation. I do not observe it because it has nothing genuinely to do with genuine Judaism – if, by Judaism, you mean a Jewish faith expression consonant with the standard of Isaiah 8:20, and not some post-Biblical, medieval contrivance that has been absorbed across time as definitively “Jewish” in the same way the black coats and kaftans of the arch-Orthodox now seem so quintessentially Jewish, but were actually an attempt by European Jews hundreds of years ago to blend in with standard non-Jewish fashions of that era. My picture appeared in Yediot Achronot in a two page spread, with a caption next to my face reading in Hebrew, “HaRav ochel cheeseburger!” (The rabbi eats cheeseburgers!) It went on to explain in detail why I do. There is nothing non-Jewish, or anti-Scriptural about a cheeseburger – and certainly, in chicken parmesan, there is no chicken that ever gave cow’s milk in such a way that there is danger that the cheese on the chicken contains its mother’s milk.

     Shavuot is The Holiday of the Firstfruits.
Shall we not treat it as such?
Shall we not cease merely “going with the flow” of a manner of observance that cooperates with avoidance of the doings of Heaven and all their implications? The Temple is gone by Heaven’s own doing – and the sacrificial system with it. We cannot practice Shavuot as it is written in the Torah. Messiah has come and died at exactly the time Scripture said he would (Daniel 9:24ff): between Cyrus of Persia’s decree to start rebuilding of The Temple (445 b.c.e.) and that rebuilt Temple’s subsequent destruction (70 c.e.). The need for an offering on Shavuot BEGS contemplation of that reality – and “Matan Torah” reformatting avoids it entirely.
I am all for healthy observance of the Acts 21:18-24 mandates that we observe Torah and hold to the customs of our ancestors: and as rabbi of a synagogue in the capital of the Jewish world outside Israel for nearly twenty years now, I am keen to be authentic and authoritative in our Jewish observance.
However, during Passover, I do not allow the post-Biblical total focus on the Exodus to obscure The Lamb to complete invisibility. “The Pesach” actually refers to the lamb sacrificed to insure the survival of the Jewish household. The Afikomen (“I have arrived.” in Greek) ceremony now embedded nearly ubiquitously standard Passover observance, is surely an artifact of 1st and 2nd century Messianic Jewish fulfillment of the Yeshua’s commands about the Passover matzah and wine, “As often as you do this, do it henceforth in remembrance of Me.” Two-Testament Judaism needs to be diligent in regard to its stewardship of The Book (Matt. 5:19).

     What does Two-Testament Judaism have to bring to observance ofShavuot?
Heaven only knows. But – the key is in The Book.
In this rabbi’s opinion – an authentic, sound, and authoritative Shavuotwill not be found going along with the “Matan Torah” reformatting of the holiday, and the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, dairy and greenery purchases, and all other amplifications of that emphasis, which even the most committed of Jewish traditionalists admits “is nowhere in The Bible.” The words “nowhere in The Bible” should not describe the foundation of any of our practices in my opinion.

     So – while I wish all a “Hag Sameakh” – I feel more compelled to point out that Shavuot right now is more of a “Hag Symptomatic.” It is symptomatic of a great need among our People – and in Two-Testament Jewish faith also – to stop reading past the words on the page, adopt more caution in regard to desiring to “act Jewishly” – and become erudite in the actual content of Biblical Judaism, and its expressive practices.

     Let’s sit down over a nice cheeseburger and milkshake, and set to work on the recovery of The Holiday of The Firstfruits for our own, and following generations? May our children’s children see a Shavuot observance in their era that cannot even remotely be described by the words, “Nowhere in The Bible.”

Rabbi Bruce Cohen
19 May 2010 + 9 June 2016