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  • Paul Kolberg

Shauvot & Christian Pentecost

Image: Adobe Stock. Shavuot : Firstly marks the wheat harvest in the land of Israel.

Whilst in Tel Aviv, Israel with my wife, I had the good fortune to attend an all-night vigil known as ‘Shavuot’.

Shavuot commences at sun down on the forty ninth day after the day of Passover and ends at sun rise the following day.

What is Shavuot?

Shavuot marks two important events. Firstly, the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel [see Exodus 34:22] and secondly the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah* to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai.

*[In Hebrew, the word ‘Torah’ is derived from a root ‘yareh’ - that was used in the realm of archery. Yareh means to shoot an arrow in order to hit a mark. Torah is therefore the arrow aimed at the mark. The mark or target is of course God. It is for this reason that the word ‘sin’ derived from the Hebrew word ‘hata’ is used since its derivative is also taken from archery and means to miss the mark. You cannot hit the mark if you are not directing your arrow towards God. But note also that there are at least two other words related to the Hebrew ‘yareh’. Moreh – is teacher – someone who imparts knowledge and instruction. Horeh - is parent - who teaches and instructs a child. The Torah.]

Image: Adobe Stock. Shavuot: The anniversary of the day God gave The Torah to the entire nation of Israel.

In Israel, Shavuot is a national holiday (‘holy –day’).

Whilst I was there, the entire country came to a virtual standstill. Shops closed and public transport ceased to operate from 4.00pm. Most of the restaurants, bars and cafes also closed, essentially corralling people into their homes, encouraging those of friends and family to meet and eat together. A wonderful silence fell upon the city. The roads and streets became almost entirely devoid of people and traffic until lunch time the following day.

I believe without any doubt that Shavuot is the most important spiritual day in the Judaic and Christian calendar - and indeed in the world.

Why do I say this?

Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled on Mount Sinai. However, for Kabbalists it is not simply a remembrance of the giving of the ‘Ten Commandments’ - a set of laws by which humans are supposedly compelled by God to live. It is in fact an opportunity to make a profound connection with the Light or energy that emanates from God for the benefit of the individual, and mankind.

When we celebrate any anniversary event such as a wedding, birthday or the day of someone’s death, we are in fact trying to recapture on the same day each year, the positive energy and feelings that were present on the original day.

If we fully celebrate or honour the day in question then we remember the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and emotions.

Life is cyclical

If the day of meeting or marrying your partner was on the 1st June, it would only be ‘special’ on the exact same day the following year. Not the day before or the day after - nor any other day.

The same is also and especially true of the anniversary of Shavuot. This is after all, the day when God ‘handed down’ the Ten Commandments which form the fundamental basis of Judaism and Christianity.

Without the Ten Commandments - there would not be Judaism, Christianity or Kabbalah to reveal the true spiritual meaning and purpose of the events set out in the Torah.

But why an all-night vigil?

The custom of staying up all night to study the Torah, known as, ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’ (the Rectification of Shavuot Night), has its source in the Midrash. In Judaism, the midrash is the genre of rabbinic literature that contains early interpretations and commentaries on the written and oral Torah.

The Midrash states that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. They overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was waiting on the mountain. To rectify this perceived flaw in the national character, Jews stay up all night to learn the Torah.

In Kabbalah however, this Midrash interpretation is itself a metaphor for something more profound. It points to a flaw in all of humanity but it also points to an opportunity for all of humanity to fix or rectify (Tikkun) its relationship with God – with benefits beyond our imagination.

What happens at the vigil?

Given its true significance (about which I will explain more below), Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holy days in that it has no prescribed mitzvoth (Torah Commandments) other than traditional observances of meals and merriment together, the saying of special prayers and abstention from work. This is not unlike the Shabbat of each week.

However, Shavuot is also characterised by ‘customs’ that include;

  • The reading of a liturgical poem.

  • The consumption of dairy products.

  • The reading of the Book of Ruth.

  • The decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery.

  • Engaging in all-night Torah study.

In keeping with the custom of engaging in all-night Torah study, the Arizal, a leading Kabbalist of the 16th century, arranged a special service for the evening of Shavuot. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot consists of excerpts from the beginning and end of each of the 24 books of Tanakh (including the reading in full of several key sections such as the account of the days of creation, The Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Shema) and the 63 books of Mishnah. This is followed by the reading of Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Formation) the 613 commandments as enumerated by Maimonides, and excerpts from the Zohar, with opening and concluding prayers. The whole reading is divided into thirteen parts, after each of which a Kaddish di-Rabbanan is recited when the Tikkun is studied in a group of at least ten Jewish, Bar Mitzvahed men.

In fact, this special service is what we did in Tel Aviv.

But what is the significance of Shavuot for us today?

In-fact the significance of Shavuot is just as important today as it was when Moses came down from the mountain - and as I shall now explain - it applies to Christians and everyone - not just observant Jews.

When God handed down the Ten Commandments he was not just handing down a set of do’s and don’ts on how to live life. He was handing down true and eternal life itself. God was offering an energy that was directly connected to Him - he who is eternal.

The Torah and the Bible describe how:

“Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him”.

[Exodus 34:29 New Standard Revised Version]

In Kabbalah, the Light or energy that emanates from God is not God, but has as its source God. To all but a few people, that Light is so powerful it cannot be directly ‘seen’ or ‘experienced’. Even when viewed as a reflection from someone that can have direct contact with God, its intensity and power is too much to handle.

This is what the above passage from Exodus is explaining.

However, there is more. The midrash relates how the Jews over slept and were not therefore ‘awake’ when Moses came down from the mountain. They were not ‘awake’ - that is to say, alert, receptive, ready to receive the energy that God was willing to offer to them.

That energy is of course eternal. What God was offering was the opportunity for the Jews to become fully enlightened and therefore ‘live’ in the fullest possible way, that is to say, in full communion with (or connected to) God, and for eternity. Literally – eternity.

Thus, the celebration of Shavuot on the same day is the most important day of each year for the following reasons:

  • We were not one of the Jews present on the day but the energy of that day is still available on its anniversary.

  • The energy may have been filtered through the passage of time – but that is good since it would not be too much for us to handle.

  • To be available we must be awake or receptive to receive it.

  • That energy is available to Christians and all people – not just Jews.

Pentecost – the Fiftieth Day

In early Judaism, the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: שבועות‎‎, Shavuot) was a harvest festival that was celebrated seven weeks after the beginning of the harvest or seven weeks after the Sabbath.

A week is seven days and seven weeks is forty-nine days. Hence Festival of Weeks.

Counting both the first and last days, it is "fifty days" from the day after Passover Sabbath to the day after the Pentecost Sabbath. The fiftieth day was known as the Festival of Weeks.

This feast eventually received the name Pentecost, from the Greek word ‘pentekoste’, meaning "fiftieth day."

All Christians know what happened at Pentecost. It is described in The Acts at 2:1-16.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs - in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”.

[Acts at 2:1-16]

What is being described here is what happened on Shavuot this week. It is important to remember that the group of people gathered together were all practicing Jews. They were assembled together then just as I was in Israel, to remember the handing down of the Ten Commandments – the very energy that emanates from God. For those willing and ready (awake) to receive that energy on that anniversary day, the transformatory effects are potentially miraculous. In this case, the energy is not light but

“a sound like the rush of a violent wind…the Holy Spirit”.

We cannot know whether the events described in The Book of Acts actually occurred as an historical event. But if we are to believe it did then we should note the following:

Peter, an Israelite and Jew, standing with the eleven [disciples of Jesus], raised his voice and addressed the crowd as his

“fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day”.

that is to say - the

“devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem”.

In short, the Christian celebration or honouring of Pentecost is directly linked with Judaism’s Shavuot. Indeed, it is Shavuot. They are really one and the same.

It is devout Jews gathered together to remember both that;

  1. Moses had received the energy given to him by God, and

2. that he did not succeed in passing it on, because the expectant Jews were asleep.

But is it available to non-Jews? What is a Jew?

The short answer is yes. Indeed, you will recall that one of the customs I refer to above is the reading of the Book of Ruth.

Ruth was not born a Jew. She converted. Judaism and Kabbalah, make it clear that the energy that emanates from God is available to all who make themselves available to receive it.

A Jew is not only someone who is born of a Jewish mother (though they might be), but rather someone that is conscious of God/the Creator/the Ultimate Source and respects and appreciates all that has been created.

This issue concerning who is a Jew is rehearsed in the Gospel of John.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

[John 3:1-10. New Revised Standard Version]

Being born a Jew is according to the Gospel of John a spiritual birth.

Likewise, in Kabbalah, a Jew is someone that has a spiritual connection with both God and his creation. Such a person

  • Loves God; and

  • Loves his neighbour as himself.

Indeed, it will be recalled that Jesus himself confirmed this. He was asked by a Sadducee who was a lawyer:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”.

He responded;

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

[Matthew 22:36-40. New Revised Standard Version]

For Kabbalists and Christians, it is not therefore necessary to be a practising Christian, Jew or indeed a practicing anything to be in communion with God - although practicing either or both may help.

It is sufficient to simply follow the two greatest commandments.

Happy Shavuot.

Paul Kolberg

October 2017

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