Rabbi's Message

Rabbi Charlie’s Mahashavoth – June 2024

When we think of Shavu’ot, we generally think z’man matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah; the holiday commemorates the b’rith (covenant) between God and Israel enacted on Mt. Sinai. However, that connection was actually made in post-biblical times – in the Torah, Shavu’ot is a purely agricultural festival, marking the bringing of the bikkurim, the first fruits to the Temple. Indeed, the Mishnah devotes an entire tractate, Bikkurim, to this celebration.

Most of the tractate covers the various laws of bikkurim, but the final chapter is a delightful narrative describing the process from the farmer separating the bikkurim to the pomp and circumstance celebration of bringing them to Jerusalem and the Temple. (I encourage you to read it!) But even within this narrative, there are some important lessons for our contemporary appreciation of Torah and our tradition.

Those who lived near [Jerusalem] would bring fresh figs and grapes, while those who lived far away would bring dried figs and raisins. An ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them until they would draw close to Jerusalem. When they drew close to Jerusalem they would send messengers in advance, and they would adorn their bikkurim. The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to greet them, and according to the rank of the entrants they would go forth. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, “Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.” (Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3)

A few things to note: (1) the concern for convenience – the Mishnah specifies what is brought based on the distance pilgrims must travel, and, presumably reveals a desire to make observance of the mitzvah as easy as possible. This concern for “convenience” is present in many places in Jewish law, and illustrated by the concept of “tirha d’tsibbur/burden on the community,” – avoiding practices that would be inconvenient for the community.[1] And (2) the welcoming nature of the community: even the leadership would make a point of greeting people.

One more text:

Originally all who knew how to recite would recite while those who did not know how to recite, others would read it for them [and they would repeat the words]. But when they refrained from bringing, they decreed that they should read the words to both those who could and those who could not [recite so that they could repeat after them]. (Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7)

As the farmer offered his bikkurim in the Temple, he would recite a declaration (Deut. 26:1-10 – that we know as the core of the midrash in the Haggadah), in Hebrew. Even in 2nd Temple times not everyone knew Hebrew (particularly, according to our tradition, when they returned from Babylonian exile). Out of embarrassment that everyone would recognize their lack of knowledge, people would avoid performing this mitzvah! To avoid embarrassment, the rabbis ruled that this declaration be dictated to everyone, regardless of their background. Today, of course, we recognize that Jews in any community come with a variety of backgrounds and experience. Therefore, the contemporary Jewish community does make great efforts (if not always perfectly) to enable everyone to comfortably participate in Jewish life.

I think it should be obvious that these are important lessons for contemporary synagogues. We are all aware that many have distanced themselves from participation in Jewish life and observance. If we want Jews to feel comfortable in our synagogues and to involve themselves in the beauty of our tradition, there is a need – that our tradition long ago recognized – to make our tradition accessible. I am happy to say that Or Hadash has been working hard in this area, and we have seen tremendous success in bringing in new members and encouraging old members to become more involved. As we celebrate Shavu’ot and our commitment to Torah, let us continue our wonderful efforts and fulfill the words of Deuteronomy:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut. 30:11-14)

Rabbi Charlie Popky

[1] There is also the principle, Ein gozrim gezerah sherov hatsibbur lo yekholim la’amod bah, “We do not enact an enactment that most of the community could not observe.”