Culture At Large

Shavuot and the Christian significance of Jewish holidays

Brandon Ambrosino

I’m not entirely Jewish, but my Twitter rabbi is. I was speaking with her on the phone about Shavuot, the Jewish Feast of Weeks that this year runs from May 14 to 16.

What’s a Twitter rabbi and why do I have one? Well, a Twitter rabbi is exactly what she sounds like. As for my interests in Judaism, most of my closest friends are devout Jews and I’ve spent much of my life lighting candles with them on Shabbat, discussing the Talmud with them, sharing Kiddush with them and eating too many carbs with them. Most of my theological education has been in Judaism too, so it’s fair to say my interests in Judaism go far beyond those of many other Christians.

So what is Shavuot? Along with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, Shavuot is one of three Shalosh Regalim, or pilgrimage festivals, during which all Jews were to report to the Temple in Jerusalem to present offerings to God. Shavuot is directly connected to Passover. On the second day of Passover, an omer of grain was to be offered in the Temple, thus officially beginning the Sefirat HaOmer (the counting of the omer). This counting lasts for 49 days or seven weeks and culminates in the festival that commemorates the birth of Israel. On Passover, the Israelites were given freedom from Pharaoh; on Shavuot, they were given the Torah.

Growing up in a Pentecostal tradition, I was taught to hate legalism. We believed that we were living under grace, which was antithetical to the law under which the Jews lived. This belief was reinforced by some of my seminary education, which helped solidify the Lutheran binary I set up between law and grace.

But the more I studied and participated in Judaism, the more aware I became of this question: What if the law of Moses is the grace of God?

What if the law of Moses is the grace of God?

One of the great prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures looks forward to the day when God writes His law on the hearts of His people. After this prophesy is given, Jeremiah records the following words of the Lord: “And I will be their God, and they will be My people.” Contrary to what I grew up learning, law and relationship with God go hand in hand; they aren’t opposed to each other, as some of us misinterpret Luther to be saying.

Several times in Proverbs and Deuteronomy, Israel is charged to bind God’s words within their bodies and hearts and souls. The word “religion” actually comes from a Latin root meaning “to bind fast.” In its purest form, religion is what happens when we bind together with God in union and service and love. I’ve heard from some Christian friends that Jesus wants to save us from religion, but I understand Jesus to be teaching us how to bind ourselves to God and to our neighbors. When we consider the rich imagery of binding the Torah upon our hearts, the hip axiom “spiritual but not religious” seems to ring a bit hollow.

There’s a beautiful Jewish tradition dating back to the 12th century. On a child’s first day of school, she would be taught to repeat every letter of the alef-bet after the rabbi reads them from a slate. This slate would then be covered in honey and the child would be asked to lick the golden sweetness from the Hebrew letters she just learned. In this way, Jewish people teach their children the truth of Psalm 119: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

According to this tradition, the child’s first day of school would be on the holiday of Shavuot, since that is when God first gave His people Torah. Or, understood in a different way, that is when He gave Torah to a group of desert wanderers, thereby choosing them to be His special people.

On Shavuot, we meditate on the Torah and on the merciful God who reveals Himself to people who aren’t really looking for Him in the first place. On Shavuot, we remember that the commandments are acts of grace, intended to remind us that God has called us to holiness and obedience. On Shavuot, we remind ourselves that the law of God sets us free - by binding us to Him, to Christ and to each other.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, Other Religions