Shavuot is a holiday without a specific date. Contrary to Jewish holidays whose date is noted in the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy does not determine the holiday as a day on the calendar; rather, in relation to the agricultural season. “Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).”
After the weeks of harvest, the season of the bikkurim with the ripening of the summer fruits. The Mishnah in Bikkurim Tractate brings a vivid, colorful description of the custom of bringing the first fruits to the Temple: Inhabitants of the villages and towns ascend to Jerusalem with the bikkurim, led by a bull whose head is decorated; residents of Jerusalem go out to greet them.
In the period of the Second Temple, the sages determined the counting of the Omer shall begin on a fixed day, a day after the first day of Passover. Thus, the day of the Shavuot festival was determined too, seven weeks later, on the 6th of Nisan. As with the day of the Shavuot festival, the Torah does not indicate the exact day on which it was given; rather the time passed since the exodus from Egypt. With the destruction of the Second Temple and the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, the custom of bringing the bikkurim ceased. Without a Temple and with no farming and first fruits, hazal determined a new tradition, according to which the Torah too was given on the 6th of Nisan. Thus, the holiday of the giving of the Torah was added to the Shavuot holiday. Thus, new spiritual content was added to the Shavuot holiday of a people exiled from its homeland. In the 16th century, the Kabbalists of Safed created a custom called Tikkun, according to which the night of the holiday is devoted to study of the Torah, as spiritual preparation for marking the receipt of the Torah on the holiday.
With the renewal of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, farmers sought once again to mark the agricultural festival, and revived the custom of bikkurim. First fruits of their produce were delivered as a donation to the Keren Hakayemet LeIsrael.
> The Story
The Torah of Israel is a Torah of life. It is designed to guide real life, rather than draw the outline of an unattainable ideal. When the Torah sets forth the agricultural precepts, it also includes guidelines for a just society, as well as an expression of the freedom of the people that came out of Egypt: When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) A vivid description of the harvest period—the harvesting laborers and the poor gathering the sheaves left behind by the harvesters—can be found in the Book of Ruth, which is customarily read on the Shavuot holiday.
In Deuteronomy 26:1-10, even before the people of Israel’s entry into the land, a description is given how to fulfill the precept of bringing the bikkurim. After delivering them to the priest, the farmer must say: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation...” (Deuteronomy 26:1-10). These verses are the basis for the Magid in the Passover Haggadah.
The precept of bringing the bikkurim is the precept of celebrating the ability to realize the Torah, transform it from a precept given on Mt. Sinai to a concrete act in the Land of Israel. Realize the exodus from bondage and slavery in Egypt to a life of freedom and labor in the land. In order to live a life of freedom in the land, a just society must be built in it, a society of free people; otherwise, the Torah will cease being a Torah of life and become just a Torah in the heart.
> In Zionism
When the pioneers in the Jezreel Valley renewed agricultural settlement in the country, they no longer wished to observe Shavuot as they knew it in exile, just as the holiday of the giving of the Torah. In 1925, Joskowitz, a member of Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, wrote: “Hence the secret of our zealousness for this young holiday, when we say should be celebrated as we want, and as our hearts desire. We say: What we have done with our day to day lives, so shall we do with our festivals. […] It is no coincidence that we have been destined to restore the festivals of nature their original character, and return the festivals of the soil to the people returning to its land.” The pioneers who created the big Shavuot festival presenting the bikkurim of the various farm branches, did not do it in order to renounce their connection to the giving of the Torah; rather, in order to adapt it to their spiritual world, and their endeavor to build a just society.
In the bikkurim ceremony held on Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1937, Shlomo Lavie, one of its leaders and builders said: "A glorious yet innovative past. A fresh, vibrant holiday we celebrate in continuity with the past... have we learned to appreciate the existing foundation, because without it we are dust in the wind. On this day we shall appreciate the great value of this fund, which has given us the valley around us, and is destined to give and redeem us many more lands in the future... This Torah has given us the human conscience, it too seeing without being seen... it has given us the Sabbath, a day of cessation of work and rest for worker after six days of work. A Torah that has liberated slaves whoever and wherever they may be [...] it requires one law for foreigner and resident.”
The pioneers knew how to connect the current renewal with past traditions, donated the bikkurim to the Keren Hakayemet, which they saw as the main instrument for redeeming the people, and thus once again expressed the connection between the morality of the Torah and its realization in building the society in the country, and restored the Torah to be a Torah of life again.
As Israeli society has grown and developed, the role the farmers play in it has diminished, and the nature of agricultural work has changed too. The great Shavuot celebrations on the moshavim and kibbutzim often seem like shows of nostalgia for a bygone past, and once again raise the question of the place of Shavuot in the life of the community. The changes made in the way of life calls upon us to once again amend the nature of the Shavuot holiday. Israeli society seeks new ways of expressing its gratitude for the opportunity given us to build an independent society, and the commitment to build it as a just society based on the existence of a moral philosophy: Organization of social instruments that promise social justice and assistance to weaker members of society. Will we succeed in reviving the Shavuot holiday with significant content? Perhaps the answer will arise from the renewed Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the participants of which gather for a night of independent common study that applies both to Jewish tradition and life in our times.