Counting the Moments

| Shavuot By :  Shuly Rubin Schwartz Chancellor and Irving Lehrman Research Professor of American Jewish History Posted On May 14, 2021 / 5781 | Main Commentary
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Among the many ways that the pandemic has impacted us this past year has been our relationship to the passage of time. On the one hand, time felt like a blur, with one day bleeding into another. Save for Shabbat, each day looked like the day before and the day after. We wore the same clothes and interacted face-to-face with the same few people in our pods. We sharply curtailed, cancelled, or postponed the life-cycle celebrations, sporting events, live performances, and travel that would normally punctuate our year. Our lives constricted dramatically, as did our hopes and dreams, and even if we were fortunate enough not to suffer illness, death, or job loss, many of us experienced a sense of monotony or diminishment.

On the other hand, in some ways, our relationship to time’s passage was heightened. We experienced minute changes in spring’s unfolding previously missed; memories of the last day in our office space remain etched in our minds; and we wistfully recall the last time we indulged in previously mundane activities like haircuts and in-person clothes shopping. We were painfully aware of just how many months and days had passed since we last saw close relatives and friends who live a distance from us, and when we last hugged our grandchildren and/or our parents.

Shavuot is a holiday that is defined by marking time. Its very name, the “Festival of Weeks,” highlights its temporal relationship to Pesah, as we count the Omer each day until we reach the fiftieth day and celebrate Shavuot. This period, called ספירה, literally means “counting,” and shares the same grammatical root as the word for “story,” ספור, reminding us of the many meanings Jews have ascribed to this time.

For example, some interpreted the Omer as tracking the transformation of the Israelites from slaves to free people who could willingly receive Torah. When Jews counted the Omer each year, they were enacting their growing preparedness to receive the Torah anew each Shavuot. Sefirah is also a sad period in which we recall painful episodes in the Jewish past ascribed to this time, beginning with the Talmudic recounting of the death of 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples because they did not respect each other (BT Yevamot 62b).

Although Jews today observe Shavuot beginning on the 6th of Sivan, there is no mention of a specific date in the Torah. On the contrary, the Torah commands us to count fifty days from Pesach and then observe Shavuot (Lev. 23:15–16, Deut. 16:9–10), but it does not specify when to begin the count. According to the Talmud, this was a point of controversy between the Rabbis and the Boethusians (a group associated with the Sadducees), and the Rabbinic interpretation has prevailed: We count from the second night of Pesah, not the day after the Shabbat following the start of Pesah, i.e. Sunday. To prove the rectitude of their view, several Rabbis parse the biblical text to quell any doubts (BT Menahot 65a–66a).

Before the Jewish calendar was fixed, the date of Shavuot also varied based on the testimony of witnesses: Shavuot could fall on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Sivan. In rabbinic literature, the variability of Shavuot stemmed from varying opinions concerning the actual day on which the Torah was given to the Israelites in the desert. In the Talmud Bavli (Shabbat 86b), Rabbi Yose says that the Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan, while the other Rabbis disagree, stating that it was given on the 6th of Sivan. A third opinion, found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 9:3), contends that the Torah was given on the 6th day of the week, i.e., on a Friday.

From the perspective of the Torah, the Rabbis, and the old system of a variable calendar, the celebration of Shavuot was embedded in temporal ambiguity. Jews could strive for the moment when they would commemorate receiving the Torah, feeling once again that they themselves were accepting it, but they could not be sure when this peak (Sinai) moment would occur.

In the year 2021/5781, numerous online calendars and reminders guarantee that we always know exactly when Shavuot falls. Yet, in this pandemic year, we can viscerally identify with the uncertainty of the calendar that Jews contended with centuries ago, because the pandemic has completely upended our relationship to the passage of time. As a result, we experience the power of counting the Omer this year with renewed appreciation. Though we’re still counting pandemic time, we’re also starting to count differently—with excitement, with hope: the date two weeks after vaccination when we achieve full immunity; the number of meals we enjoy with friends; the moment when we hug our loved ones tightly; the number of people we see in person.

Unlike Omer counting, we know that the pandemic will not end on a specific date. And yet, after a year of “languishing” with few special moments to plan for, the process of counting toward the approaching end, of embracing every milestone and marker of normalcy, lifts our spirits and propels us toward restoring treasured activities and relationships.

As we continue to count, may we do so deliberately and meaningfully in anticipation of a brighter, safer future in the months ahead.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).