Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Don't blink or you might miss it

Shavuot, or the "Feast of Weeks", is possibly one of the least appropriately named festivals in the Jewish calendar. Rather than lasting for weeks, as its name suggests, this pilgrim festival, arriving hot on the heels of the last one, is all over within 24 (ok, 25) hours. That's it. Not weeks then, but rather one day, give or take a few minutes on either side. That is, unless you live in the Diaspora (TM), in which case, you get to have two days, because that fits in much better with non-Jewish people's impressions of what Jewish holidays are supposed to be.

Shavuot occurs seven weeks (ah ... that's a hint) after Pesach (or "Passover", for the Hebraicly disinclined), being roughly the time it takes to count out the 49 days of the Omer, which is an ancient Hebrew word meaning 'the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot which must be counted so that you count seven full weeks, of seven days each, from 1, yea even unto 49." (I say 'roughly', by the way, because there's usually a lag somewhere in the middle of the Omer where people who have never before held a bow or an arrow start trying their hand at archery, while the more pyromaniacal tend to attempt to light anything that doesn't move away fast enough. The lag in the Omer is generally considered a good time for firefighters to demand a raise. Fortunately, the lag doesn't last too long.)

Anyway, seven weeks is also, roughly, the time it takes to get from the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds, or that bit of lake that was there before they built the Suez Canal) to Mount Sinai, when following a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night (thought not a pillar of salt at any time, since that can lead to hypertension and heart disease). This is apparently the only way to find Mount Sinai, since no-one seems to have found it since. (The mountain on the Sinai Peninsula popularly called Mount Sinai cannot in fact be Mount Sinai since it is crowned by a Catholic Monatery - St. Catherine's. It wouldn't make sense for St. Catherines to be Mount Sinai since even the Catholics agree that Moses was not a Catholic, so why would he have gone to a monastery? As you may have noticed, this is a story full of mystery and intrigue.)

And so, it came to pass, for this would not be a Biblical story if it didn't, that the offspring of Israel had left their bondage equipment, and Miriam's cacophonous timbrel playing, in Egypt, and after holding hands and singing Ashira Ashira Ashira!! in American accents by the Red Sea whilst Pharaoh and his legions drowned in the no-longer-quite-so-parted waters, turned their collective back on the land of the Pyramids, and headed off for a much better future in either the Promised Land, or an inhospitable desert, whichever came first.

After counting 49 days, and complaining for about 48 of them, and having traipsed variously through the wildernesses of Paran, Kadesh, Sin, Transgression and Minor Traffic Violation, they arrived at the eponymous Mount Sinai. No sooner had someone shouted "50! Coming ready or not!" that Moses - by this stage at once both Charlton Heston and Mel Brooks - started to climb the mountain in order to receive The Law.

Now, the people weren't too happy about this law thing, apparently. They were saying things like - "hang on, we've just come out of bondage, anarchy rules!" and, "pass the fermented manna", and "has this tent got cable, dad?" Really, after 49 days of traipsing, and having been promised a holiday, they just wanted some time to rest.

And rest they may have, had not the mountain, and the deity who had chosen to call it home, had other ideas. For the mountain started to shake, with colors that could be heard and sounds that could be seen. Trees and flowers sprouted on the mountain, and there were thunder, lightning and all kinds of pyrotechnics. And all of the offspring of Israel stood and gaped at the spectacle and did cry out "wow!", and a single voice did say: "ok, this is better than cable".

And then did the Lord spake the ten speaking things of spakingness - otherwise known as the Ten Commandments (not the movie) - and the power of the spakingnesses engraved the words, in a fetching sans-serif font, into two tablets of stone (which is really a bit of a misnomer for a couple of whopping great slabs of granite), which Moses then had to lug back down the mountain, since Amazon.com didn't deliver to wildernesses at that time.

But by the time he got down there, the offspring of Israel had gotten bored again. They'd discovered that the remote didn't work, there was no other entertainment to be had, they were stuck in a desert and no-one was due to invent a jacuzzi for around 3,000 years. Therefore, they decided to hold an orgy - an extremely logical decision for a people who had just personally heard their omnipresent deity actually say that orgies were not a good thing, but there you go.

In order to give their orgy some desperately needed style, they collected all of the gold that they had (which was apparently quite a lot, despite their having been slaves in Egypt and all that) and gave it to Moses' brother Aaron who was, you might note, the Chief Priest and told him to melt it down and make it into a golden statue of a young bull, which they might worship. Aaron had apparently already forgotten the injunction - mentioned only moments previously - not to make graven images, not to mention the one about not coveting your neighbor's ass, for instead of saying "hang on, people. Moses'll be down soon. Go home and eat some more blintzes," he decided to have a go at abstract sculpture, and made them a golden calf, which they then went on to worship, the ingrates!

Well, Moses was furious when he saw this, and cast the tablets of stone to the ground smashing them at the feet of the frolickers, who, it should be said, were not expecting such dramatics. He then put all the people responsible for this sin to death, except for (or including) those whom the earth promptly swallowed up, oh, and except for Aaron, who apparently claimed that he had been acting under duress. Not one of the people's finer moments.

Fuming, Moses sat the remaining people down and made them watch reruns of question time in parliament, whilst he went back up the hill. In this way, they learnt all sorts of other laws, including the entire book of Leviticus - a significant punishment. Moses meanwhile trudged back up the mountain, only to be mooned by god and told that he too would be punished, and would now have to write the ten commandments out by hand. In stone. With a feather. (ok, not really with a feather, but he wasn't allowed to use any magical or god-given powers and he'd left his chisel down at the base of the mountain).

Finally, after rewriting the ten commandments, sending them for editing, receiving them back with revision markings, making the appropriate corrections and lodging them with the various authorities, and noting that the one-day festival of Shavuot had ended months earlier, Moses returned to the people and spake thusly: "Ok, you lot. On your feet. We've got 40 years to make a couple of weeks' journey, so we'd better get started."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, Judaism commemorates the giving of the Torah (and the smashing of it, and the regiving of it, etc.) on Shavuot. It is customary, in certain Jewish traditions, to eat milk products on Shavuot. The usual explanation for this is that the offspring of Israel, wandering through the desert as they were, were told that when they reached the mountain, they would be given a copious set of laws. They knew, it is claimed, that some of the laws would be dietary (apparently, even God, and not just the State Comptroller, had problems with information leaks), but they did not know what the dietary laws would be. The tradition has it that since one of the laws would be dietary (though not, in fact, one of the Ten Commandments that were actually said to have been given on this day, but rather, one - or several - of the other commandments given at some other time), they would abstain from eating anything that might be problematic, and would limit their food intake on Shavuot to milk products only. This is presumably because they were traipsing through the desert with herds of milk-giving ruminants at their disposal - just the sorts of animals that your average grass-free wilderness can support in large numbers, as evidenced by the existence of the reclusive, though prevalent species of the common, or desert, cow (bos esuriens).

The story of Ruth, the Moabite women who went on to become the grandmother of King David, as told in the aptly named "Book of Ruth", is read on Shavuot, by those who are that way inclined. This is despite the fact that there are no Moabite women in the entire Shavuot story. It is presumably to make up for that unfortunate lapse, that this tradition came about.

Shavuot is also a harvest festival. It is the time of bringing of the first fruits. It is a time for Israeli children to dress in white and put leaves in their hair, for some inexplicable reason. It is a time to rediscover why you should only put guavas in your fridge if they are in airtight containers. It is a time to eat lots of icecream and to hope that the summer won't be too hot.

And it is a time to keep an all-night vigil, presumably because, with so many things to commemorate and eat and do, and so little time to do it all in, if you blink, you might miss it.

10 Comments:

Anonymous noorster said...

Darling, brilliant, as always! Thank you! How did Mel Brooks get into the mix?

Can't wait for the next holiday... What *is* the next holiday anyway? Tisha b'Av? (That should make for some fun posting.)

22 May, 2007 07:09  
Blogger Kiwi Boy said...

You had me rolling on the 'better than cable' part.. it was crazy imagining an Israelite teenager saying that.

I once read that the reason why dairy products are eaten on Shavu'ot is because when the Israelites went to the foot of Mt Sinai to receive the Law, they left their milk in their tents, unattended and it turned to yogurt [or cheese, I forget] so when they got back, they had lots of nice cheese to munch on as they read through the commandments.

22 May, 2007 13:22  
Blogger Nobody said...

oh flowers !! oups, sorry ..

i thought it was about flowers .. i was training myself for flowers all last week ..

22 May, 2007 15:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

poor Mel Brooks, i mean Moses. editing and corrections without a word processor...poor, poor dear.
K. of I.F.

22 May, 2007 16:54  
Blogger nominally challenged said...

Noorster - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082517/

Really, darling, wasn't this required viewing in ze Motherland?

kiwi boy - the mind boggles about that cheese story. I really, but really, don't want to go there.

Nobody - man, you're out of synch. That was last week's exercise on emotional intelligence. But you're improving though :)

K of the IF - not to mention the feather ...

23 May, 2007 04:31  
Blogger Nizo said...

You little sneak, surreptitiously cooking up another wonderful post such as this.

As Patsy would tell Edina: Absolutely Fabulous Dahling.

In the honour of Shavuot, I shall slay a large watermelon.

23 May, 2007 19:03  
Anonymous Lisa said...

Truly an Ab Fab post!

Only one small quibble: nothing about Miriam, the sexy sister who danced around the golden calf whilst tinkling her timbrels - or was it a tambourine? I don't know why, but I always had a soft spot for Miriam and her joie de vivre.

23 May, 2007 23:32  
Blogger bullfighter6.2 said...

I find it hilarious that more people don`t find it absolutely insane that the first thing the Israelites do when Moses disappears up the mountain is have an orgy and parade their wealth.

Maybe that`s what will happen to the U.S. now that Jerry Falwell is dead.

One can only hope.

24 May, 2007 23:57  
Blogger nominally challenged said...

Nizo - Mea maxima culpa :) But if I'd let on, you wouldn't have been surprised.

"Yes, but is it art, Eddy?"

Lisa - Not so sure about the "sexy" part of your description - I think we're talking about a woman in her 60s at this stage. I mean, of course, 'sexy' is very subjective ...

Apart from that, I imagine that Miriam did not let very many opportunities go by of whipping out the old timbrel. One can only presume that by the time they got to Mt. Sinai, the Israelites would have had quite enough of that particular instrument, so in deference to them, I left it out.

Bullfighter - Not to mention how insane it is the number of people who falled Falwell ... orgies and wealth notwithstanding :)

26 May, 2007 03:20  
Blogger nominally challenged said...

Crikey - that was supposed to say "who followed Falwell". What a strange typo to make ...

26 June, 2007 02:39  

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