The Perfect Holiday for a Jew-loving Pagan
Today is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Hebophile that I be, I just learned about this recently. According to my research, this festival is very old, and tied to the land. I love the traditions described - they are very pagan, and as the milennia marched on, changed to fit in with traditional Judaism. Eventually, as most Jewish things did, this morphed into a Christian holiday: Pentecost. The progression from Pagan to Judaic to Christian is so clear to see, with a very strong through line harvesting, first from physical labor, and later from spiritual labor. There are also classic Numerologic facets, as well as the earthy worship of sacrificial death and rebirth.
I just think this kind of thing is so damn cool. Dig my research. I found all of this on the internet in one morning before lunch, G-d bless Google.
First of all, the Torah (Which I learned is not just the Old Testament, it's just the first few (I think 5?) books of the bible) refers to Shavuot by other names:
1) Hag ha-katzir, (Exodus 23:14-19) the feast of the harvest
2) Hag Hashavuot, the festival of weeks, and as Yom ha-bikurim, (Leviticus 23:9-22) the day of first fruits
According to EverythingJewish.com:
Shavuot is the holiday Jews universally accept as the day when G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah following Moses' descent from Mount Sinai. However, nowhere in the Torah is the holiday of Shavuot actually linked to Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.
Instead, the Torah refers to Shavuot as an agricultural festival. It marked the transition between the barley harvest, which was brought to the priest in the Temple in Jerusalem on the sixteenth of Nisan and the start of the wheat-ripening season, which began the first week of Sivan.
Nisan and Sivan are months, but wouldn't they make lovely names for twin girls?
Wait a minute. Harvest? Agriculture? How pagan is that!?
As stated on www.holidays.net/shavuot:
Shavuot is known also as Yom Habikkurim, or "the Day of the First Fruits" The farmers of Israel would begin their spring harvests with the barley crop at Passover. The harvest continued for seven weeks (Note the number 7, the importance of which I will discuss later.) as the other crops and fruits began to ripen. As each fruit ripened, the first of each type would not be eaten but instead the farmer would tie a ribbon around the the branch. This ribbon signified that these fruits were Bikkurim, or the first fruits.
Here we have a classic pagan celebration of the sacred land, and reverence of its fruits.
The celebration became a mini-pilgrimage, or chag, where they would stay at their region's shrine, bringing with them grain loaves and young livestock for sacrifices.
Basically, a tribal community ritual. However:
As the Jewish kings started to centralize religious activity into Jerusalem (a process that took several centuries), this pilgrimage and sacrifice was brought there, with all the songs, processions, liturgies and pageantry that Jerusalem did so well.
Holidays.net explains this in greater detail:
At Shavuot the farmers would gather the Bikkurim into baskets and bring them to the city of Jerusalem where they would be eaten in the holy city. The farmers living close to Jerusalem would bring fresh fruits, while those who had to travel a long distance carried dried raisins and figs. This joyful occasion was celebrated with the music of fifes, timbres, and drums. As the pilgrims approached the city walls they were greeted by the inhabitants of the city. Sometimes the King himself would join the procession to the Temple Mount.
The Bikkurim ritual is no longer practiced in present day Israel.
Far too pagan for modern times, I'm sure. Also the violence in the area might preclude large numbers of Jewish Farmers from rolling into Central Palestine with fruit. Also after the biblical events of slavery in Egypt and the Exodus into the desert, I'm betting there weren't a whole lot of first fruits being cultivated for awhile.
Now: The Numerological aspects. Shavuot is part of a trilogy of ritual pilgrimages:
Shavuot is the second of the shalosh regalim, the three annual pilgrimage holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when Jews from all over Israel and beyond converged onto Jerusalem to celebrate and bring temple offerings.(EverythingJewish.com)
Here we see the emergence of the number three - sacred in many religion traditions. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost being the most obvious. The Number 3 has always been huge in my personal life as well. I see the number 3 most strongly in the 3 faces of the Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone, and reminds me of the 3 great laments sung by bereaved women in the celtic mythological histories, one of whom I am named for. I also connect strongly with the geometrical 3 - the triangle or pyramid, nature's intrinsically strongest form. I grew up in households of threes: I am the only child of my parents, and so was my mother. I myself will feel completely fulfilled if I only have one daughter. I even had three cats growing up, and thanks to my roomate, have three cats in my apartment now!
Ok, tangent there. Anyway.
I found an especially fun little tidbit on SpiritHome.net that implied that there was more going on in the early Yom Bikkurim celebrations than just bringing fruits and grains to temple and being thankful. We've already seen that there was music and celebrating accompanying this festival... there's only one thing missing from this Springtime rite.
The Celtic Spring festival of Beltane is well known for its sexual connotations, but most importantly, it was a fertility celebration, having to do with the birth of the land and its ability to bear the fruit which sustained human life (crops, livestock, etc). It was also a time of gathering of the community. People ate early-harvested fruits and grains. Instead of tying ribbons around their crops, women and men tied them in their hair, along with flowers There was music and dancing. There was a centralized spot in the tribal location for the festivities where everyone would gather with their goodies. (potluck!) The fertility part comes in when the Great Holy Union of God and Goddess was celebrated, bringing forth new life in the land after the winter. This was acted out ritualistically by druids in the British Isles, and centuries later by couples getting married in Celtic Free Gaul. Even today, the vast majority of couples choose to marry in the late spring. Just cruise by David's Bridal in May and you'll see what I mean.
Now, Beltane's timing is a little off from Shavuot - Beltane is the Spring Equinox, usually around April 21st. However, according to SpiritHome.com, Yom Bikkurim was celebrated very similarly:
In very ancient Palestine, this first-fruit sacrifice was tightly tied into the religions of the gods of power and fertility (both in farming and in sex).
Hey - they said Sacrifice! Not just offering! Very powerful from a Pagan point of view. We have not only a thanksgiving for prosperity, but the recognition of death leading to new life. The principle of re-birth is recognized. Winter to Spring. Old God impregnates the Goddess and dies. New God is born. Old ways of living give way to new. Etc, etc, etc.
By the way, there is another number strongly associated with this particular festival: The number 7.
The Torah commands that Shavuot be celebrated exactly seven weeks after the second day of Pesach, the day of the first Omer, the early barley harvest offering. (EverythingJewish.com)
Ah yes - Omer! From www.jewfaq.org/holidayb.thm:
According to the Torah (Lev. 23:15), we are obligated to count the days from the second night of Passover to the day before Shavu'ot, seven full weeks. This period is known as the Counting of the Omer.
Another tie to the earth!
An omer is a unit of measure. On the second day of Passover, in the days of the Temple, an omer of barley was cut down and brought to the Temple as an offering.
Every night, from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavu'ot, we recite a blessing and state the count of the omer in both weeks and days. So on the 16th day, you would say "Today is sixteen days, which is two weeks and two days of the Omer."
The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu'ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It reminds us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah.
Here we see how the holiday changed over the years. As referenced at the beginning of this article, the harvest festival of Yom Bikkurim was replaced with the religious holiday of Shavuot. To me this seems like a natural evolution of thought, as virtually all civilizations moved from the earth-bound faiths to the more esoteric deistic religions. As SpiritHome.net states, "As the Jews grew to understand themselves as followers of the one and only true God, they created ways to be thankful to God for the first harvest, without the pagan trappings." Exodus happend. Exile. So much for harvesting. Then, God appeared, and Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain. A Harvest of God's love, after the people's long laborious exodus from Egypt. Proof that they had not been abandoned. That even though their old way of life may have died out, there was a new life and new future awaiting them.
Which brings us to the Christian holiday of Pentecost. SpiritHome continues:
The word 'Pentecost' comes from the Greek; it simply means 'fiftieth'. Pentecost Sunday ends the season of Easter; it is the sabbath day after a week's worth of weeks (7 x 7 = 49).
Here we have the Numerological analysis of the holiday. According to www.enchantedspirit.org:
The energy of Number 7 is that of the mystic, the recluse, the solitary thinker, the spiritual seeker, and the scientist. It carries the energy of philosophy, contemplation, privacy, reflection, isolation, seclusion, research, profound thought, and eccentricity. This number virtually craves solitude and silence ... with plenty of time to think, meditate, and dream.
How perfect - to count the time between the Exodus and the giving of the ten commandments for 7x7 weeks. To contemplate that journey, its meaning, and our place in the universe as children of God. And after that: Shavuot. Giving thanks, pilgrimage, and in the pagan times, party!
I'd be remiss not to discuss Pentecost just a bit. From SpiritHome.net:
As Luke reports it, the believers had gathered together after Jesus returned to the Father. (That would be Easter.) Not just the 12 disciples, but about 120 of them. They were talking, remembering, praying, wondering what was next. (They had just been through several of the strangest months there ever were.) On the morning of Pentecost, they... started telling the people they met about Jesus. The streets were full of people from many places, mostly there for the holy day, some still hanging around from Passover. When each of them heard the witnesses speak, they heard it in their own language! (That is, if they were allowing themselves to listen; otherwise, they heard babbling, as shown by the remarks about drunkenness.) (Hm. Some leftover Pagan partying?) What was being told, for the first time in full form, was the good news of Jesus and what it means for all people. But more than words : the words were being carried with power and authority by the Holy Spirit into the ears and the hearts of those who are listening. About 3000 new people join their ranks. This is the first fruits of a new kind of harvest, and the giving of a new covenant of grace that fulfils the covenant of the Torah.
Wow. That's one hell of a story. Basically God spoke through about 120 people to about 3000, telling them that everything was going to be different from here on out. Sacrifice. Re-birth. Change. The wheel turns again, and we're in a whole new place theologically.
That was 2000 years ago. I wonder how many thousands of years passed between the first Yom Bikkurim and the Ten Commandments. How many thousands between Moses and the death of Jesus. And how many thousands will pass before this wheel turns again?
And will my granddaughters be there?
If so, I hope they write the new gospels.