top of page
Study and Theory/

Prof. Rachel Elior

S.Y. Agnon and the Mystical Tradition of Shavuot

“Even if there is no full account here of what befell them, there is certainly a remembrance of their souls. And it is all fine and good that a name and remnant has been given them in Hebrew script and in the holy tongue.”

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, The Fire and the Wood, p.337


Ad Olam (Forever) is the name of the story with which Shmuel Yosef Agnon completes the eighth volume of all his stories, The Fire and the Wood. On its final pages he evokes the memory of the witnesses who raise from the forgotten what was and is no more, and recall in their mind’s eye that which was laid to waste, and set a gravestone for it in heaven and on earth, against all odds:  “How great are the deeds of writers. Even with a sharp sword at their throats, they do not put down their work; rather, they take from their blood and in the script of their souls they write what their eyes have seen”[1]

It seems that this reverberating sentence, on the substance of literature as testimony written by survivors or their tormented relatives, struggling to salvage the fragments of memory from oblivion, revolves around Agnon. A sharp sword was placed at his throat when he wrote the story The Sign (Hasiman) during the Second World War, when he learned of the destruction of all the people of his city.

Agnon heard of the annihilation of Buchach in Galicia on the eve of Shavuot 1943, as he tells in his story The Sign, first printed in volume 14 of the literary magazine Moznayim in 1944. Agnon scholar Dan Laor wrote: “In mid-June 1943, the Germans liquidated the last remnants of the Buchach (Buczacz) ghetto, executing them in the city’s Jewish cemetery. Around that time, the labor camp adjacent to the city was liquidated too. Jews found hiding within the ghetto and in the surrounding forests were brought in groups to the cemetery and murdered there. When the Soviets recaptured the city in July 1944, fewer than 100 survivors were found there [2].  Before the Holocaust, the city had 3858 Jewish inhabitants.

Agnon’s story of the vision revealed to him on the eve of Shavuot, in which he learned of the sign made in heaven for the city destroyed on earth, was first published during the Second World War in the single page story titled The Sign in Maazanim Literature Magazine, spring of 1944.   The story was printed again in 1962 as a comprehensive story dealing with questions of memory and forgetfulness, beyond the limits of time and place, and is known as the final story (alongside Ad Olam) of the volume with the profound name The Fire and the Wood. The latter refers to the Sacrifice of Isaac and other sacrifices associated with martyrdom, persecution and torment throughout the exile. Published for the third time as the final story of A City and All its Inhabitants (Ir Umloah), “this is the story of the city Buchach; the Buchach that I wrote of in my anguish and grief” [3]; a mystical experience the author experienced on the eve of Shavuot, when the magnitude of the disaster became known to him on the eve of a holiday on which it is forbidden to mourn, when sitting in the synagogue shack, reading the Warnings (Azharot) of Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol for the Shavuot holiday. The powerful contradiction between the joy of the eve of the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah, the time of the covenant between G-d and his people, remembered in connection with Mt. Sinai consumed with fire and the fire blazing around it, and the unbearable mourning for the terrible annihilation of the community, destruction of the Torah world and demise of the B'nai B'rith, all the city’s Jews, in the fire set by “the abomination that causes desolation and the defiled and madmen with it and destroyed it” [4] announced on the eve of Shavuot, gave rise to a powerful mystical experience in the consciousness of Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

The author begins by describing the circumstances explained above:

“I did not eulogize my city nor call for weeping and mourning for the society of G-d destroyed by the enemy; since word was received of the city and its dead on the eve of Shavuot, after midnight. Hence, I canceled my mourning for the dead of my city, for the sake of the joy of the time of giving the Torah” [5]


Agnon, who grieved for the destruction of his city and all those killed in it, had to cancel his morning in the face of the sanctity of the holiday, and rejoice in the holiday, despite a heart stricken by sorrow and grief. This great tension between the joy of the mitzvah and sanctity of the holiday on the one hand, and the unfathomable depth of sorrow and horror of death on the other hand, gave rise to a cognitive dissonance that aroused in him a spiritual experience in which all boundaries of time and place were crossed. In his vision he saw the greatest poet of Spain, R. Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058) compose the liturgical poem of warnings for Shavuot, entwining in rhyme the precepts on which the covenant was signed:

“Once on the eve of Shavuot I sat alone in the beit midrash and said warnings. I heard a voice and looked up. I saw a holy man of G-d standing over me...” [6]

This is what Agnon wrote in the first version, in 1943, whereas in the second version he gave a detailed description:

I returned to my book and read in G-d’s precepts, as I have done throughout the years on the nights of Shavuot, written by our Rabbi Solomon may he rest in peace... No one was in the shack. I alone sat in the shack... The house was full of good smells, and candlelight lit up the house. I sat and read the holy words G-d had given the poet in order to praise the precepts he had given to his people, Israel... The doors of the Holy Ark were opened, and I saw what appeared to be the image of a man, standing with his head placed between the scrolls of the Torah, and I heard a voice come out from between the parchments of the trees of life. I lowered my head and cast my eyes down, for fear of looking at the Holy Ark. I looked at my prayer book and saw that the voice emanating from among the parchment of the tree of life were gradually being engraved in my prayer book. The letter were those of the precepts of G-d, in the order established by our Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol may his soul rest in peace. And the man I first saw between the Torah scrolls was standing over me, his appearance as that of a king... How do I know he saw me? Because he spoke to me... he did not speak face to face with me. Thought became engraved in thought, the thought of His Holiness in my own thought.” [7]


The man of G-d revealed to the storyteller described by the expression “image of a man”, influenced by the language of the vision of Ezekiel where it is said: “face of a human being” (Ezekiel 1:10) is the tormented poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, author of the Warnings for Shavuot, with whom he speaks of the Shavuot holiday and the destruction of his city, about remembrance and forgetfulness, and asks him to remember all that the enemy’s fire has consumed, and make him a sign in heaven; since against man’s cruelty and the annihilation and oblivion involved, of which the storyteller tells with heart rending conciseness, all that can be done is to leave a sign in heaven, in eternity, in poetry, in stories, in tales, in legends, and in memory. The memory written in heaven and on earth is the metamorphosis from extinction to eternity, from oblivion to written testimony, and the story or poem, vision or ‘sights of G-d’ are what create the change that elevates what has been lost and annihilated on earth [lethe - forgetfulness in Greek] to eternal existence in heaven [aletheia - eternal truth in Greek], and transforms death into immortality and an eternal covenant:


“Rabbi Solomon said, I shall make you a sign to keep me from forgetting the name of your city... Again we hear a sound like a rhyme... And he said, blessed you are of all cities, Buchach; and thus, he would make a rhyme with all seven letters of the name of my city, with metered verse and faithful rhymes. My soul has slipped away from me, and I have forgotten the six lines of my city’s poetry.” [8]

'He did not speak face to face with me. Thought became engraved in thought, the thought of His Holiness in my own thought.” And all the words  of the speech were engraved in signs of letters, and the letters became joined into words and the words made the speech. It is these things I remember word for word... It was not in words that he spoke with me. Just the thought that he thought became engraved before me, and it created words.” [9]

...My throat was choked and my voice was hoarse and I wept bitterly. Rabbi Solomon saw and asked me, why are you crying? I answered and told him, I am crying for my city, that all of its Jews have been killed... I raised my eyes and saw that he was whispering.  I lent my ear and heard him mention the name of my city. I looked and saw him whispering again. And I heard him say I will make a sign to keep me from forgetting its name... Once again he whispered. I lent my ear and heard him speaking in a poem, in which each line begins with one of the letters of the name of my city. And I knew that the poet made a sign for my city in a poem he wrote in nice, even rhymes in Hebrew.

My hair stood on end and my heart melted and I became as if I had ceased to exist. And without the memory of the poem I would be like all the people of my city who perished and died at the hands of an evil, cursed nation who cursed my people out of existence. But the power of the poem caused by soul to leave my body. And if my city has been wiped off the face of the earth, its name still exists in a poem written by the poet who made a sign for my city. And if I can’t recall the words of the poem because my soul has slipped away due to its power, the poem is still being sung in the heavens along with the poems of the poets of holiness whom G-d loves”[10]


As against the horror of the war in which all the Jews of Agnon’s city “who perished and died at the hands of an evil, cursed nation who cursed my people out of existence”; whose lives were sentenced to extinction and oblivion with neither name nor remnant, and as against the horror of the terrible destruction of a community that lived for hundreds of years in a land that became a death trap and a pit of oblivion, the author raises the memory of the city that lived for generations heavenward while crossing the boundaries of time and space, and entrusting the memory to the high heavens. Solomon ibn Gabirol’s poem, which marks an eternal sign for a lost city in the lines of a poem engraved in heaven, and the story told of it written on earth, are an act of defiance against sinking into the depths of oblivion. The poem, the story, the mystical memory, the dream, the vision and the documenting record, transform the death and oblivion into immortality and eternity, and transfer that which was destroyed on earth to eternal existence in heaven.

Agnon took upon himself, perhaps in wake of this visionary experience described in “the sign”, to raise that which was lost through his imagination, from the depths of the written tradition, in the sense of a living, memory-bearing continuum, and preserve for future generations ways of life sentenced to extinction, and said: “I have made great efforts to preserve the legacy of this name, that it shall not be lost... From those letters that I have treated with such care I have written my book The Fire and the Wood. [11]

Elsewhere, Agnon interprets what he did in order to “preserve the legacy of this name, that it shall not be lost”, and attests to his way of writing, which combines diving into the well of the past of the language, and excavations in the fields of written memory, with the metamorphosis created by the sorrow for the loss:

“Out of a love for our language and regard for religion I blacken my face over words of Torah and starve myself for the words of wise men and preserve them in my belly in order to express them together on my lips... I deal in the Torah and the Prophets, writings of the Mishnah and Jewish law, books of chronicles, interpretations of the Torah and scholarly writings. When I read their writings and see that of all the riches we had in ancient times, all we have left is just a memory I am filled then with sorrow. This sorrow makes my heart tremble, and from this trembling I write stories.” [12]


Agnon who attests to raising the memory of his city heavenward to the eternal world of poetry and poets, before publishing its earthly memoir in his book A City and All its Inhabitants (Ir Umloah), he walks the ancient path paved by the creators of the mystical tradition that turned the ruined temple on earth, in which the chariot of cherubims in stood in the Holy of Holies until the destruction of the First Temple, to a chariot of cherubim revealed in a heavenly vision to the prophet-priest Ezekiel (son of Buzi), who attested to memorialization of the temple in heaven.  The vision of Ezekiel who raises the sanctified place destroyed on earth to heaven and gives it eternal life with affinity to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is called the Chariot Vision and is read as a haftorah on Shavuot.

Yordei Merkabah, "descenders of the chariot", were bearers of the secret (Sod) from among the priests and circles of sages who continued this metamorphosis, in which a sign in heaven was made for that which was annihilated on earth, and turned the shrine destroyed in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple into seven eternal shrines in heaven, described in the religious poetry called the Hekhalot Literature and Merkava Tradition. Bearers of the Hekhalot and Merkava Tradition (attributed to R. Ismail Cohen and R. Akiva ben Yosef, among the Ten Martyrs) turned the priesthood, serving in the Temple and consumed in the fires during the destruction of the Second Temple, into the ministering angels burning the fire, serving in the seven shrines in the heavens.  Through the generations of mystical literature, that which was lost on earth, subject to harsh changes within the bounds of time and space, was engraved in the heavens in eternal shrines. Furthermore, in the mystical tradition, those who died in Kiddush Hashem (the sanctification of God's name through martyrdom) get eternal life in heaven. Their names and memory are written on the divider at the entrance to the seventh shrine, or written in memorial on the purple royal garment of G-d flushed, according to the tradition of the Zohar, by the blood of the slain.  The creative memory, which transfers the theater of discussion to an unexpected place, from earth subject to the bounds of time and place, from cruel tyranny and force that make their imprint on history, to the timeless and merciful space of poetry, story, dream and vision or the skies of eternity, totally free of these bounds, existing in the superhistorical space reserved to language and in art – the metamorphisis from destruction on earth to eternal existence in heaven, and from oblivion to written testimony, from death to immortality. The Greek word aletheia which means ‘truth’ consists of two words: Lethe which has to do with forgetfulness or oblivion and a- the Greek negative prefix. In other words, truth means not forgetting. The truth is a written memory struggling against oblivion by force of poetry and story, or a sign eternally engraved as witness to what was lost and destroyed on earth, struggling against the attempt to erase the bygone past.

In the following, I wish to note some of the written memories that Agnon would have found in the mystical tradition on Shavuot, linking between sanctified time, sanctified place and sanctified memory; between destruction on earth and eternity in heaven, promising a timeless continuity of existence to what has been condemned to destruction on earth.   Agnon, known to have looked all his life for books from the Hebrew library which he had not yet read, most probably wrote the story of the vision he experienced on the night of Shavuot, inspired by some of the traditions of the Shavuot holiday mentioned in the following, that tell of visionary moments in days of destruction and disaster, as revealed to visionaries and poets, prophets and Kabbalists on the night of Shavuot or on the holiday itself.


In ancient history, Shavuot was connected with the cyclic eternal Jewish time, indicating cycles of cessation from bondage over which the covenant of Sinai was made, time that in Biblical language was called G-d's appointed festivals, the sacred assemblies. The time that begins in the transition from bondage to freedom, details of which became known at the giving of the Torah in which G-d was revealed and in the covenant made in it, is connected with counting in seven-year cycles that establish a covenant. Exodus 12: b The first month head of months is the month of transition from slavery to freedom, from which counting of the Sabbaths begins and the seven appointed festivals of G-d. The sanctified seven year cycle in which work is stopped, details of which were heard from heaven on Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, is noted on Sabbaths and on the seven appointed festivals, all falling within the first seven months of the year between Nisan and Tishrei, during which the seven species that the land was blessed with grow; in the Shmita every seven years and on Jubilees every seven times seven years, marking the covenant in sanctified seven year cycles.  This seven year cycle is known as “these are the appointed festivals of G-d, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them (Leviticus 23:4) and detailed in Leviticus chapters 23 and 25, and know in the Dead Sea Scrolls as “appointed festivals of freedom”. These seven eternal festivals and the regular cycles of Shmita and Jubilees involved in them in seven year shutdown cycles, indicate the sanctity of the cessation, the freedom, and forfeiting any human sovereignty, are connected to the precepts (Mitzvoth) that became know in the eternal covenant made in the third month, on the holiday of Shavuot, at Sinai when receiving the Torah.

In priestly traditions written before Christ found in the Judean Desert scrolls and external literature parallel to them, the Shavuot festival held a central place as the holiday of renewal of the covenant, guarded by the angels in heaven (Hayovlim 6, 18) and the priests on earth.

Thus for example it is said in the Book of Jubilees (Sefer ha-yovlim, written in the 2nd century BC) of the covenant made with Noah in the third month after the flood: “And his rainbow he gave in a cloud as the sign of an eternal covenant... Therefore it had been established and written on the tablets in heaven, that you shall make the festival of Shavuot in this month, once a year, to renew the covenant each and every year: And he made this entire festival in heaven, from the day of creation until the days of Noah...” (Jubilees 6, 16-17). Aside from the covenant of the rainbow in the clouds, the  rainbow is mentioned in the Bible only in the vision of Ezekiel, the latter belonging to the tradition of covenants in the third month as shall be explained in the following. In the Book of Jubilees the holiday is called holiday of the renewal of the covenant, a name derived from the above command: “that you shall make the festival of Shavuot in this month, once a year, to renew the covenant each and every year.” It is also called Day of Testimony and Holy Day (Jubilee 6, 12, 36-37) and Mishne Hag (There, 6, 21) and many traditions from the lives of the fathers linked to covenants and angels makers of the covenant in the third month are connected with it (Jubilee 14 18-20; 15 1-15). The name of the holiday, connected with the counting of seven Sabbaths, was interpreted in the meaning of oath (shvu’a) and covenant as in the words of the Prophet-Priest Jeremiah “he reserves for us the appointed weeks of the harvest” (Jeremiah 5:24) (Ezekiel 16:8) and in the meaning of the word sheva in the Bible, associated with oath and covenant (Genesis, 31-33). As mentioned, the matter of the oath was observing the seven year shutdown cycles called “festivals of G-d, the holy convocations” and “festivals of freedom” in regular eternal pre-calculated cyclic order, as it became known in the covenant made in Sinai on the festival of Shavuot, and observing the precepts dependent on them. The meaning of these shutdown cycles, that keep the cycles of days of liberty and freedom at the foundation of the covenant between G-d and his people, is that man takes an oath to waive his sovereignty, hold and ownership every seven days, every seven festivals, all falling within the first seven months of the year, every seven years, and every seven seven-year periods. On these appointed times, in cycles of seven, the community would assemble for ‘holy convocations’ as mentioned above: “These are the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times” (Lev. 23:4) in order to read and listen to the common memory on which the covenant between G-d and his people is founded; a memory that begins with the transition from bondage to freedom, the substance of which is an eternal covenant involving shutdown in cycles of seven, sanctifying liberty, freedom and holy convocations.

The giving of the law at Mt. Sinai in the middle of the third month (Exodus 19:1; Yuvalim 1:1) is the appointed time of the Bikkurim (First Fruits) festival, the wheat harvest, the Shavuot holiday, i.e., establishment of the covenant and vow on the shutdown cycles (of seven) commanded by G-d. The pinnacle of these cycles is Shavuot – the day of testimony and the holiday observed by the angels in heaven, known as the Holiday of G-d’s giving of the Torah.

As is well known, the section of the Torah read on Shavuot is At Mount Sinai beginning at the “the third month” verse (Exodus 19:1) and continues in the mountain becoming a holy place which is forbidden to touch or enter due to the divine presence expected there (ibid. 12-13;23). It reaches a climax in the reading of the Ten Commandments ending at the “the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear and stayed at a distance” (ibid. 20:1-14). The Shavuot festival, a festival of pilgrimage celebrated in the Temple, is associated with the tradition of winged cherubim in the Holy of Holies, shown to the pilgrims from a distance: “When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another...” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a). Many years before that, the cherubs in their heavenly form became known to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 25:40) in the middle of the third month, and to David on Mt. Zion (Chronicles 1:28, 18-19) at an unknown time. In addition, they were manifested in the the Prophet Ezekiel’s Merkava (chariot) vision, seen by him on Shavuot.

The haftorah of the Torah reading on Shavuot is the Vision of Ezekiel, son of Buzi the priest (Chapters 1, 10) describing the Vision of G-d revealed to the prophet on the Kebar river, including a vision of winged animals described as cherubs, and associated with the image of the Lord enthroned between the cherubim, linked to the description of the event at Mt. Sinai: “The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it.  The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.” (Ezekiel 1:13-14). The tradition of seeing the sights of G-d on the Shavuot holiday, associated with burning fie, cherubim and angels and sounds of heavenly voices, words of anger or the holy spirit, is an ancient tradition, as mentioned in the various sources. “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet” (Exodus 20:18); “...the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1) “You who have received the Law ordained by angels” (Acts 7:53) The Jewish-Christian sect in Jerusalem in the 1st century AD too, was witness to the holy spirit on the 50th day, as the Shavuot holiday has been called since the days of the Book of Tuvia that tells of the holiday and pilgrimage, calling it the 50th day, celebrated after counting seven Sabbaths (counting of the Omer). In the New Testament in Greek it is called Pentecost, the name of Shavuot in Christianity, in which the covenant we reestablished with those entering the new covenant in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 1-4).

In the following is a description of the visions of G-d seen by Ezekiel on the Shavuot holiday in the beginning of the 6th century B.C. According to the mystical tradition it is said: “Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man.” (Ezekiel 1:26) in relation to the description at the end of making the covenant at Mt. Sinai: “... and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.”  Chapter 10 of the book of Ezekiel, describing the vision of events in the Temple in Jerusalem (Ibid. 8:3), and retelling the vision on the Kevar River, gives an explicit description of the vision of the holy creatures in chapter 1: “I looked, and I saw the likeness of a throne of lapis lazuli above the vault that was over the heads of the cherubim” Ezekiel 10:1) and it is said twice more: “Then the cherubim rose upward. These were the living creatures I had seen by the Kebar River” (ibid. 10:15)  The sights of G-d seen by the Prophet Ezekiel on the night of Shavuot, describing a complex vision of cherubim and angels, wings and torches, creatures and sapphire, and told in several versions, in the Qumran version referred to as follows: “The vision that Ezekiel saw... the glow of a chariot and four creatures” 13, and referred to in the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. In the words of the priest Joshua Ben Sira as the vision of the chariot: It was Ezekiel who saw the vision of glory, which God showed him above the chariot of the cherubim (Ben Sira 49:8).

In the language of the chariot of Ezekiel, seen by the prophet at the time of the Sinai covenant in the middle of the third month 14, there is reference to previous covenants and mentions of previous divine revelations that occurred at the appointed time of the covenant made in the third month, according to the tradition of the jubilees. In Ezekiel’s vision are mentioned, among other things, the rainbow from the covenant made with Noah, the torches from the Covenant between the Pieces and the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, and the lapis lazuli from Mt. Sinai. The verse linking the reading in the Torah (Mt. Sinai) and the haftorah (Ezekiel’s chariot vision) is the verse that preserves an ancient tradition associated with the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, the chariot of G-d and the angels: “The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary” Psalms 68:18). This verse echoes that which was written in Deuteronomy: “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; he shone forth from Mount Paran. He came with[a] myriads of holy ones from the south, from his mountain slopes” Deuteronomy 33:2). [15]


According to the mystical tradition of the Middle Ages, Ezekiel’s vision occurred on the Shavuot holiday, and the opening verse of the Book of Ezekiel is interpreted as follows: “Rabbi Eliezer opened by saying, “In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River...” (Ezekiel 1:1) [Passage in Aramaic...] [Translation: on the fifth day we have already clarified; however, this day is the holiday of Shavuot, the day on which Israel received the Torah on Mt. Sinai]. 16 This tradition connects the renewal of the covenant in the sense of “I saw visions of G-d” (Ezekiel 1) or renewal of the divine voice from heaven heard on the holiday of Shavuot with acute crisis, despair, helplessness, destruction and unbearable disaster in the Land of Israel. Ezekiel, the exiled prophet, saw “visions of G-d” known as the Vision of the Chariot or saw the vision of the chariot of cherubim in the sky (Ezekiel Chapters 1, 10) when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, took the Temple implements and robbed the Holy Ark, on which the chariot of the cherubim stood in the Holy of Holies.

It could be that the cognitive dissonance in the mind of Ezekiel, the prophet-priest from among Tzadok’s sons who served at the Temple at the end of the First Temple, between the memory of the main priestly holiday, Shavuot—holiday of the covenants, the day on which the covenant was made and day of testimony to the moment in which the written Torah was revealed and was celebrated with great festivity in the Temple in Jerusalem on the pilgrimage of the celebrators who brought first fruits of the wheat harvest and received a festive priestly blessing (Birkat Kohanim) 17—and the experience of the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem—described in all their horror by his contemporary the prophet Jeremiah in the Book of Lamentations, and the intensity of the experience of exile and mourning experienced by the exiled prophet-priest on the holiday which became a day of mourning in the middle of the third month, in Babylon, on the day it is forbidden to mourn—are what gave rise in Ezekiel’s mind to the Vision of the Chariot in the heavenly temple. A similar connection of terrible destruction on the one hand, and a holiday on which it is forbidden to mourn on the other hand occurred 2000 years later on the night of Shavuot in 1533, and gave rise to a religious experience  among the community of Kabbalists led by R. Joseph Karo in Adrianople. Twenty four hundred years later, the concurrence of the celebration of the renewal of the covenant, and the day of being informed of the disaster of the destruction of his city and the murder of all its sons and daughters, triggered Agnon’s vision on the night of Shavuot.  In 1533, on the night of Shavuot holiday, came the bad news of the death of Messianic Kabbalist Shlomo Malcho, who was burned alive at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition. The news arrived as his fellow Kabbalists were engaged in the Shavuot Night Service as ‘honeymoon night’, night or renewing the covenant according to the Zohar tradition.  Malcho was born as a Marrano in 1500, lived as a Christian until his twenties, rose to greatness in the court of the King of Portugal and openly returned to his Jewish roots. He chose the name Malcho based on the verse “Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed” (2 Samuel 22:51). He tried to advance a political-messianic move and was caught by the Inquisition and executed at age 32.
The Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal believed in the possibility of redemption for the Jews and yearned for it, and it was Malcho who tried to advance it, with his record as a minister in the court of the King of Portugal. Thus, his execution at the stake in Mantua, Italy in November 1532 put an end to these hopes. The dissonance between the joy of the festival of renewal of the covenant and giving of the Torah, and the deep mourning over the terrible death of the last messianic Kabbalist who personified realistic hopes of redemption in the first third of the 16th century, experienced by those engaged in the Shavuot night service, but which could not be expressed owing to the sanctity of the holiday, made R. Joseph Karo conscious of the voice of the exiled Daughter of Zion from the Book of Lamentations, who appeared before him on the night of Shavuot, in the image of the Torah/divine spirit/crown/Mishnah/and told him and his companions in a voice that came out of Karo’s throat, speaking in first person female, in a dramatic voice combining the destruction [of the Temple] from the Book of Lamentations and the redemption connected with the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, the following words:

Joy unto you and the woman that bore you... That you have seen fit to decorate me on this night a few years, as I have been grieving for several years now, with no solace and I am thrown in the dust in the rubbish. But you have now restored the original splendor... And you have been granted the privilege of being in the king’s palace, and the voice of your Torah and your mere words have risen to the Lord and broken through several heavens and skies until rising. Angels fell silent and seraphim were hushed, the creatures stood still, and all the armies of heaven and the Lord hear your voice... And here I am the Mishnah... I have come to speak to you... And through you I have ascended on this night... And you have adhered to G-d and he rejoiced in you. Therefore, my sons, be strong and rejoice in my love and my Torah and my reverence... Therefore, be strong and of good courage my sons my friends and do not cease from study... Therefore, stand on your feet and elevate me and say out loud as on Yom Kippur, Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever, as we have been commanded. And he reiterated, rejoice my sons, return to your studies and do not cease for a moment, and make Aliyah to the Land of Israel... And know that you are the salt of the earth... And you stick with me, and a thread of grace has been drawn over your.  And had he not given the eye permission, you would have seen the flames surrounding this house.” [18]


The divine spirit, the bride in mourning, the Mishnah or the soul (neshama), speaking through the mouth of R. Joseph Karo on the night of Shavuot, in language reminiscent of the descriptions of Mt. Sinai, “And angels fell silent and seraphim were hushed and the creatures stood still and all the armies of heaven and the Lord hear your voice...” On the day he was informed of the terrible death of Malcho, whether engaged in the Shavuot Night Service or preparing the bride for her wedding according to the Zohar tradition, its origins are in the esoteric tradition in the hazal commentary on the Song of Songs.

In the Kabbalistic tradition based on ancient traditions, the holiday renewing the giving of the Torah and the covenant of Sinai is known as the matrimonial bond between G-d and the divine spirit, an appointed time known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Service of the Night of Shavuot), on which the bride is prepared for her wedding. This description is based on the description of the covenant of Sinai as a matrimonial bond between G-d and the Jewish people, associated with the descriptions of a wedding day in the Song of Songs, which according to the tradition of the Tannaim was recited on the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai (Song of Songs Rabbah 81:2), and that Rabbi Akiva called the Holy of Holies, who said:  “The entire world would be worthwhile if only for the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. If all the scriptures are holy, then the Song of Songs is the holy of holies (Mishnah, Yadayim, chapter 3:5).  The Song given on Mt. Sinai revolves around the day of the giving of the Torah as a wedding day, between the groom who gives the Torah, and his bride, the Jewish people.

“Go out maidens of Jerusalem and look on King Solomon and on the crown his mother crowned him with on the day of his wedding and on the day of his rejoicing. The day of his wedding is the time the Torah was given, and the day of his rejoicing means the building of the Temple.” (Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:8) “On the day of his wedding is Sinai which is his marriage, as it is said, sanctify them today and tomorrow; and on the day of his rejoicing is the giving of the Torah, as it is said, And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him” (Numbers Rabbah 12:8).


The Shavuot festival is associated with the wedding descriptions in the Song of Songs, focused on the groom giving the Torah and the Jewish people as the bride, receiving it. Talmud scholar Saul Lieberman commented on the interpretation of the Song of Songs on the esoteric (Sod) level, connected with the tradition of the cherubim and the merkava in the Tannaim tradition, and brought a later version of it based on the words of Kabbaist R. Joshua ibn Shuaib, who wrote in the Middle Ages: “For the words of this poem are highly unclear and blocked; hence, it was judged to be the Holy of the Holies, for all its text is secrets of the merkava... for the groom is G-d and the bride in the Jewish people... And according to the Kabbalah these are esoteric matter that should not even be thought of; they are the supreme merkava ascendent to Ezekiel’s merkava, and these are the spheres.19 According to the Babylonian Talmud tradition, they would show the pilgrims the cherubim “entwined in each other”, that were on the Holy of Holies, connected with the verse “and gold for the pattern of the chariot of the cherubim, that spread out their wings, and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:18) and they would say to them that “their affection was like that of a male and female” (Yoma, 54a).

The Zohar, written in Spain at the end of the 13th century, in wake of the horrible destruction wrought by the Crusades on the European (Ashkenazi) communities over the period of 1096-1296, tied the Shavuot holiday, holiday of the covenants, in a bond of matrimony and divine wedding celebration between the groom, G-d, and the bride, the divine spirit. The author describes the origin of the custom, hinted at in various midrash sources, of staying awake the night of Shavuot, and associated with the preparation of the bride entering her wedding ceremony:

“Thus, the earlier pious ones did not sleep on this night, and they studied Torah, saying: let us acquire a holy inheritance for us and our children in two worlds.” “Rabbi Shimon would say, when the Hevraya (group) gathered around him this night: let us array the jewels of the Bride, so tomorrow she will appear before the King suitably adorned and bedecked” (Zohar 3:98a).


The Zohar connects the Shavuot festival with Idra Rabba, the appointed time when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s students would gather, interpreted as the time of receiving a new Torah and as a wedding celebration. 20 In the Zohar, the night of Shavuot is called “the night when the bride unites with her husband”, and is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Service of the Night of Shavuot) (Zohar 1:8a, 9a; Zohar 3:98a). It contains hopes for renewal of the covenant and a new revelation of the Torah from heaven (the written Torah, the groom) along with renewal of the covenant and beginning of redemption, associated with the oral Torah (the holy spirit, the bride) for the people who violated His covenant and was exiled from its land for hundreds and thousands of years.

The Zohar tradition was written at the end of the 13th century, at the end of the Crusades, at a time when destruction and annihilation befell many European Jewish communities, and difficult questions arose with regard to the substance of the oath and covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, steadily dwindling under pogroms and decrees. It was designed to create a new designation between the memory of the written Law (G-d, the groom) and the creating memory of the oral Law created over generations, connecting past and present (the bride, the Jewish people) with the following description written on Tikkun Leil Shavuot, by the author of the Zohar, R. Moses de León, who gave the Ten Martyrs of the Tannaim generation eternal life a thousand years later, in the Zohar tradition, thus transcending the limits of time and place.

The secret of the Shavuot holiday... The men of ancient times of blessed memory, pillars of the world, who knew how to attract grace from heaven, would not sleep on these two nights of Shavuot. And the whole night they would read in the Torah, the Prophets and scriptures, and from there would skip over the Talmud and legends and read from the secrets of the Torah until the morning light, and the Kabbalah of their fathers in their hands... And in the days of the Omer when the bride is being adorned and entering into high status, and that fiftieth night this night with G-d to connect the Written Law to the Oral Law, and her special sons in the Land bring her to the wedding ceremony and they are registered and written in the book of memory because they are happy and joyful with the joy of the Torah on the night of the bride’s joy... Therefore, there have no reason to be silent when rejoicing for the Torah, since they have been written before G-d... Hence, G-d will listen and a memory shall be written before him with joy. [21]


The mystical tradition from which the night of Shavuot was formed as a night of preparation for the holy mating that takes place on the holiday – wedding day of heaven and earth, G-d and his people, groom and bride, Oral Law and Written Law, splendor (tiferet) and kingdom, G-d and holy spirit or, the masculine and feminine aspects of divinity, symbolized in the description of the intertwined cherubim who would be shown from a distance to the pilgrims on Shavuot (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a-b), thus creating an abundance of mystical symbols for the idea of the mating of the king with his matronita or the designation of G-d and his holy spirit; the covenant between the groom, giver of the Torah and the bride, and the mystical Knesset Yisrael (Jewish people), receiver of the eternal Torah that continues creating it. The mystical tradition that discusses the imagery of this designation and mating of G-d and holy spirit throughout thousands of pages in the Kabbalah literature and Kabbalists’ poems, and saw the souls of the sons and daughters of Israel as the fruit of this mystical designation, also created versions of the ketubah, between the “holy groom blessed be he” and the “virgin bride of Israel”.22 and described the ceremonies for the reading of this mystical ketubah on Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

The mystical tradition describes different opportunities in which manifestations of the holy spirit were generated on the Shavuot festival, while reading the description of the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai in the third month chapter and Ezekiel’s merkava vision; from the Idra Rabba description in the Zohar at the end of the 13th century, the manifestation of the holy spirit/Mishnah in R. Joseph Karo’s circle in the first third of the 16th century, and culminating in the move to the Land of Israel in 1535 and establishment of the Kabbalist community in Safed, as described in the introduction to his book Maggid Meisharim, and in Yeshayahu Leib Horwitz’s book, Two Tables of the Law in the chapter called Shavuot Tractate, and in Nathan of Gaza’s circle where on the night of Shavuot in 1665 the holy spirit descended on him, and when he fainted he prophesied in strange voices interpreted by his listeners as a prophesy about renewal of the covenant and the Kingdom of the Messiah King Shabtai Zvi, who shall lead his people to redemption in a way similar to Moses. This prophesy of the night of Shavuot had decisive influence on the growth of the Sabbatean movement in the 17th and 18th centuries, as described in Gershom Sholem’s books: Shabtai Tzvi and the Sabbatean Movement in His Lifetime, 23and Studies on Sabbateanism, 24 in which he brings the vision whose author is disputed, some seeing him as a pseudepigrapha of the writings of Nathan of Gaza; however, there is no dispute with regard to his link to Nathan’s vision on the holiday of Shavuot, beginning in a sentence echoing other texts from the Book of Ezekiel: “It is the night of Shavuot and I am here with friends studying in my home in Gaza. After midnight I heard a sound from behind the curtain of the Holy Ark, saying to me: Get up and go out to the outer yard, there I shall speak to you. I became agitated and went out the yard, where I saw a man wearing a white cloak. His appearance was that of an angel of G-d, very awe-inspiring, and he told me...” [25]

Revelation of the holy spirit in the month of Sivan also occurred in the circle of Kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) at the end of the first third of the 18th century in Padua, Italy, where the Maggid angel was revealed to him near the Shavuot holiday. The Ramchal’s Maggid angel, influenced by the Shavuot night vision of R. Joseph Karo, dictated to Ramchal Torah from heaven in the book called: Zohar Taneina or Adir Bamarom. Ramchal describes the beginning of this revelation as follows:

“On the first day of Sivan, 1727, while I was praying, I fell asleep and when I awoke I heard a voice saying: “I am going down to discover hidden secrets of the Holy King. I stood trembling for a little while, and then regained my strength: And the voice did not cease and said that what he said was a secret... Later on, he told me one day that he is a maggid sent from heaven. And I cannot see him, but I can hear his voice speaking from within my mouth” 26.


Ramchal describes here not just his maggid angel but rather R. Joseph Karo’s maggid angel who is revealed on the night of Shavuot, an echo of the ‘man of G-d’ description in the Shavuot night vision of Agnon noted above.

The mystical innovation of the Kabbalistic tradition was that the union took place between the groom G-d – founder of the eternal covenant, the Tiferet sphere and the written Torah and the bride – the Holy Spirit, the Jewish people maker of the covenant, the Kingdom sphere and the Oral Torah. The Kabbalists, writers and poets of the Middle Ages and early modern period, who participated in the covenant renewal ceremonies called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Service of the Night of Shavuot) and LeShem Yichud Kudsha Berich Hu Ushchintei (For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah), whose entire purpose was reading out loud the description of the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai and old and renewed traditions connected with it, integrated in the description of the wedding ceremony between groom and bride, G-d and holy spirit, while breaking the boundaries of time and place and delving into the ‘well of the past’ of the initial making of the covenant and revelation of the Written Law, at the moment of taking the vow and the covenant and the common memory, attained from time to time an experience of renewing the covenant as reanimation of the divine voice, speaking in the spirit of figues such as Zohar author R. Joseph Karo, Nathan of Gaza, Moses Chaim Luzzatto, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon.  Some of them identified with Moses, The Man of God, giver of the Torah, and internalized his image (Karo, author of the Zohar, the ARI, Shabtai Tzvi, Ramchal, the Seer of Lublin); some identified with other written traditions (Malcho, Nathan of Gaza, Agnon); however, the divine revelation was always preceded by a written tradition, read out loud in a liturgical context, while undergoing a change and metamorphosis in the spirit of the seer of a new vision in the ears of his spirit, and “sees the voices.”

The exalted Biblical text describing the making of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, many generations prior to building the Temple, and renewal of the covenant in the vision of Ezekiel, during the destruction of the Temple, in majestic language read out loud in Kabbalist circles on Shavuot Night Services, led to a mystical awakening in which the divine voice was heard, presented as speaking over the curtain covering the tablets, between the wings of the cherubim, and presented as the voice of the divine spirit, a voice calling to return and make Aliyah to the Land of Israel, while speaking through the mouth of the reader of the Bible and the Zohar tradition on the mystical wedding, portraying it in its spirit in the picture connecting the past and the present. The holy spirit was described with the expression of an angel changing from male to female, similar to descriptions of the cherubs and holy creatures in bi-sexual form in the vision of Ezekiel and in the vision of R. Joseph Karo; hence, the voice of the maggid angel is sometimes heard, as described in the expression ‘talking voice’ (kol midbar) inspired by the verse: “When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him” (Numbers 7:89) and sometimes the voice of the exiled daughter of Zion thrown to the dust, languishing in the gutter; and at times the voice described in the expression from the Song of Songs “my beloved is knocking” or in the expression “maggid meisharim” learned from the verse: “I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

An event of this kind in which the divine voice is heard once again, and in which the covenant between the exiled holy spirit, the heavenly Knesset Yisrael associated with the Oral Law, and the Torah students, creators of the Oral Law, occurred as stated in the circle of the author of the Maggid Meisharim, R. Joseph Karo in Adrianople on the night of Shavuot 1533 when he was informed of the horrific death of Malcho at the hands of the Inquisition, causing him and his companions to make Aliyah to the Land of Israel and establish the Kabbalist community in Safed in 1535. The community of Safed, which renewed rituals in order to hasten redemption and unite the holy spirit and G-d in the Shavuot Night Service, and wrote poems, stories and visions in order to renew the covenant of Mt. Sinai, spread the Kabbalistic-messianic consciousness in the diaspora and had a decisive influence on cultivating the yearning for and return to Zion, and making Aliyah to the Land of Israel.

As previously mentioned, the name of the Shavuot holiday is derived from the word shevu’a (oath) and eternal covenant, and from the number sheva (seven), referring to the seven Sabbaths or seven weeks from the lifting of the Omer until the appointed time of the first fruits of the wheat harvest, interconnected through the circles of righteousness: The covenant or eternal oath, referring to the eternity of the divine promise, depends on keeping the eternal cycles of righteousness of G-d’s appointed times holy convocations kept in the multiple-of-seven shutdown cycles, every seven days and every seven holidays, every seven Sabbaths between harvest of the barley and harvest of the wheat; every Shmita and every Jubilee, from the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai until this Shavuot holiday. The cycle of holy convocations of memory, consciousness, truth and justice described in an ideal divine plan as written in heaven in service of the burnt offering of the Sabbath, describing “the spirit of knowledge of truth and justice in the Holy of Holies”, relating to the multiple-of-seven cycle and the laws contingent upon it which establish the covenant and blessing beginning at Mt. Sinai on the Shavuot holiday, including their different revelations throughout the changes of history and on the pages of books, connected with the last sentence said by R. Shimon Bar Yochai in the Zohar when taking his last breath: For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore (Psalms 133:3). This verse is connected with the eternal promise made to those who walk the path of justice, who remember and keep the continuity between past and future, beyond the bounds of time and place: Then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:7). Ad Olam (Forevermore) is the name of the story with which Agnon culminates the volume titled The Fire and the Wood, dedicated to the perished and the forgotten, martyrs and victims of blood libels, keepers and violators of the covenant, those murdered in the holocaust and victims of the torments of exile, whose memory in the visible world has been connected in a wonderful web, woven by the hands of an artist, with their existence in the esoteric world. On the last pages of the book devoted to the vicissitudes of memory beyond the boundaries of time and place, and thoughts on knowledge of truth and justice over the course of time, and their manifestations in the mystical tradition connecting the revealed and the esoteric, Agnon elevates the memory of the witnesses to the covenant. He thus raises from oblivion that which was engraved on the tablets, preserving the memory of burned parchment and letters floating in the air, and remembering the forgotten things buried in the depths of language and in the wellspring of the past, concealed in the depths of the Jewish library for generations. The storyteller-poet who raised the memory of the perished people of his city and murder victims of his people ends with harsh words directed both to himself and his fellow writers and poets, the ‘rememberers’ and visionaries of generations:

“How great are the deeds of writers. Even with a sharp sword at their throats, they do not put down their work; rather, they take from their blood and in the script of their souls write what their eyes have seen. . A covenant has been made between wisdom that does not cease from its wise men, and they do not cease from it... He would sit and reveal secrets hidden from the sages of generations, until he himself came and uncovered them. And since the writings are numerous and the wisdom great, with much to research and study and understand, he did not desist from his work and did not leave his station; rather, he remained there forever. [27]

[1] The Fire and the Wood, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 1974, p. 332

[2] Dan Laor, ש"י עגנון: New Aspects, Tel Aviv 1995, p. 71

[3] A City In Its Fullness, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 1974, pp. 695-716.

[4] A City In Its Fullness, title page.

[5] The Sign, האש והעצים, תל אביב תשל"ד, עמ' רפג.

[6] ‘The Sign’, Moznaim vol.18, 1954, p.104.

[7] The Sign, האש והעצים, תשל"ד, עמ' שח.

[8] 'The Sign', מאזנים, כרך יח, אייר תשי"ד, עמ' 104.

[9] The Sign, האש והעצים, ירושלים ותל-אביב תשל"ד, עמ' שח-שט.

[10] There, pp. 311-312.

[11] From Myself To Myself, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 1976, p. 75.

[12] Sense of Smell, the secret to writing anecdotal stories, אלו ואלו, ירושלים ותל אביב תשל"ד, עמ' רצז-רצח.

[13] 4Q385; Qumran Cave 4 XXI,  DJD, XXX, (ed. Devorah Dimant), Oxford 2001, p. 42

[14] See: Rachel Elior, Temple and Merkava, Priests and Angels, Shrine and Shrines in Ancient Hebrew Mysticism, Jerusalem 2003, pp. 162-173

[15] See elaboration on Shavuot holiday in the ancient tradition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which the holiday falls in the middle of the third month. Elior, Temple and Merkava, Priests and Angels, Shrine and Shrines in Ancient Hebrew Mysticism, Jerusalem 2003, pp. 142-173; the above, Memory and Oblivion: The Secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 2009, pp. 220-230.

[16] Book זוהר חדש, פרשת יתרו, לז ע"ג (מהדורת ראובן מרגליות), ירושלים תשל"ח, עמ' 74.

[17] See wording of blessing:  Memory and Forgetfulness (note 15 above) pp. 291-292.

[18] Letter of Solomon Alkabetz in: Joseph Caro, Magid Meisharim, Jerusalem 1960, pp. 18-20; on the sequence of events, see: Aharon Zeev Eshkoli, The Messianic Movements in Israel, Jerusalem 1955 second edition, sixth chapter; Rafael Zvi Verblovsky, Joseph Caro Halachic Scholar and Kabbalist, translated by Yair Tzoran, Jerusalem 1996; Rachel Elior, R. Joseph Caro and R. Israel Baal Shem Tov, Tarbitz 65 (1996) pp. 671-799.

[19] Shaul Lieberman, Theory of the Song of Songs, above,  מחקרים בתורת ארץ ישראל, ירושלים תשנ"א, עמ' 36-44.

[20] Yehuda Liebes, The Messiah of the Zohar: The Messianic Figure of R. Shimon Bar Yochai, in: The Messianic Idea in Israel, Jerusalem 1982, pp. 87-218.

[21] Shocken Manuscript 14, page 87 71-72, in Y.D. Wilhelm, Sidrei Tikkunim. עלי עי"ן, מנחת דברים לשלמה זלמן שוקן אחרי מלאת לו שבעים שנה, ירושלים תש"ח-תשי"ב, עמ' 126.

[22] Gershom Scholem, פרקי יסוד בהבנת הקבלה וסמליה, ירושלים תשל"ו, עמ'  132.

[23] Gershom Scholem, שבתי צבי והתנועה השבתאית בימי חייו, תל אביב תשכ"ז, א, עמ' 178-177.

[24] Gershom Scholem, Shabtaism Studies (edited by Yehuda Liebes) (Tel Aviv 1992, pp. 310-320).

[25] There, p. 310.

[26] Letters of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and sons of his generation, Simon Ginzburg edition, Tel Aviv 1936 p. 39.

[27] The Fire and the Wood, pp. 332-334.

More >
bottom of page