This weekend we will celebrate the Festival of Shavuot, a many layered holiday which brings to mind mouth-watering platters of hot blintzes, thick cheesecake, and accompanying all-night Torah lectures.
Shavuot also evokes scenes from the agrarian origin of the holiday: streams of Israelites with baskets on their shoulders of their first season’s fruits ascending to Jerusalem to the music of flutes, an ox leading the procession wearing wreathes of olive branches and beaten gold on his horns, the song of the Levites greeting the procession as they reach the gates of the Temple.
And then there are scenes of a poor young woman gleaning sheaves of grain in a wealthy man’s field, who is often quiet and modest, yet when she speaks the world listens.
Even earlier images also appear of the Torah being given on Mount Sinai amid thunder, lightning, the piercing blare of the shofar, the voice of G!d, the sight of an entire mountainside bursting into blossom.
(In Florence, I was told by a friend of mine, they still crown their Torah Scrolls with fresh white roses on Shavuot in honor of the flowers of Sinai. And many Jewish communities have the custom of bringing fresh greens into homes and synagogues for Shavuot.)
In all its many layers, the theme of speaking is strong in every aspect of the Shavuot: in the way G!d spoke to us at Sinai, in the way we speak to G!d when offering bikkurim or blessings, and in the way we speak to one another as exemplified by The Book of Ruth.
Shavuot is one of three main regalim, pilgrimage festivals, along with Pesach and Sukkot, and yet the peace offerings and bikkurim (first fruits) brought by our ancestors to Jerusalem on Shavuot were not just harvested, carried to the Temple, and handed to the Cohanim (priests). Each and every person would make a special declaration before they made their offering:
הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כִּי-בָאתִי אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ
“I declare today to the Lord, thy G!d, that I have come to the Land that the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.”
The Cohen would then take the basket of first fruits, lay it beside the alter, and the supplicant would speak the second declaration:
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה
וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ
וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה’, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים
וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ
‘וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה
“An Arammian nomad was my father,” or the alternate translation:
“An Aramean attempted to destroy my father,
and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation great, mighty, and populous:
and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage:
and when we cried to the Lord G!d of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression:
and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs and with wonders:
and He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
And now, behold! I have brought the first fruits of the ground, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me.”
Then the one bringing the offering would bow low before HaShem, depart from the Temple, and enjoy the holiday festivities with friends, families, and strangers alike.
This ritual of bringing bikkurim with a verbal declaration is quite moving to read – not only because of its theatricality and drama, but also because the declaration expresses a profound gratitude to G!d as the guide of Jewish history and the shepherd of a people once enslaved, now brought to a good and bountiful land of freedom.
Perhaps the reference within the second declaration to the Land of Milk and Honey is one of the origins of our custom to indulge in dairy delights on Shavuot!
Today, as alas our Temple is not standing, we have substituted Temple sacrifices with Torah study. But the first fruits still grow up from the ground each year. And in Israel today, there are wheat, barley, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and dates ripening in Jewish fields, vines, and trees.
Together with the joy of the first harvest, we also celebrate the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at this time of year- an event marked by a thunderous voice from on high.
The Creative Power of Words
G!d gave the Torah by declaring it before all of Israel from the mountaintop – and G!d’s voice uttering the first commandment was so overwhelmingly powerful, says a Midrash (ancient commentary on the Torah, often in narrative form), that the entire nation simply fell over and died at the sound of it. G!d revived them, and uttered the second commandment. Again the nation died at the sound of the Voice. At that point, the people begged Moshe to be the one to listen to G!d directly and give the rest of the commandments to the people so they would be spared the intensity of the experience.
While at first blush this seems like quite a far-fetched interpretation, this Midrash introduces us to the very real concept that words can be lethal.
G!d’s speech was so incredibly powerful at the revelation at Sinai that there is even an interpretation that the Jewish people actually saw the divine words in the midst of all that fire and smoke (read more about “Seeing the Revelation” here).
Before giving the Torah with 10 Commandments at Sinai, G!d created the world with 10 utterances by speaking the universe into being (Pirkei Avot 5:1; Genesis 1:3). The former caused death (albeit accidentally!) and the latter brought life to the world.
Words can bring destruction. Words can create.
Wrote King Solomon, the wisest of men:
מִפְּרִי פִי-אִישׁ, תִּשְׂבַּע בִּטְנוֹ; תְּבוּאַת שְׂפָתָיו יִשְׂבָּע
מָוֶת וְחַיִּים, בְּיַד-לָשׁוֹן; וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ, יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ
“A man’s belly shall be filled with the fruit of his mouth; with the increase of his lips shall he be satisfied.
Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue, and those who love her will eat of her fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)
King Solomon’s couplet is profound. We usually say “life and death”, listing living before dying as is the natural order of things. The King turned this phrase on its head, putting death first, serving to shock the reader from her stupor and contemplate first and foremost the destructive power of the spoken word. Only then can we turn our mind to think on the positive potential of words. After that we can contemplate the consequences that follow in each case: the bitter fruit of bitter speech, and the sweet fruit of kind speech.
The Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains that negative speech is even worse than a sword since evil speech kills many people, even at great distance. A sword is limited by the reach of one’s arm, yet the reach of one’s tongue extends far beyond oneself. This is especially true in today’s world, where a single tweet, text, post, or utterance can reverberate across the entire world instantaneously to be seen and shared by billions through the mighty power of technology.
By comparing the tongue to the sword, the Talmud classes both as weapons.
How can we learn to wield our weapon well? What power is there in speech?
How We Wield Speech
The Torah is made up of two components: Written texts and Oral tradition. We can’t truly understand one without the other. Our laws, customs, stories, and values are written down but are also given over from teacher to student, from parent to child, in a verbal chain that stretches back for millennia.
The time between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot is marked by the counting of the Omer. Each of the 7 weeks of this period are identified with a different Middah (character trait), as are the days of each week:
There is a custom to refine one’s character over the Omer period according to these Middot in order to become worthy of receiving the Torah at Shavuot. This is just as our ancestors–the slaves who emerged from Egypt– had to work on themselves in order to become worthy of becoming a free people who would choose to accept the Torah on them and their children forever.
This, the final week of the Omer, is associated with the aspect of Malchut – which can be translated as kingliness, majesty, nobility, and more universally, as leadership.
Each Middah is in turn associated with characters from TaNaCh (The Hebrew Bible), and kabbalistically, with a particular color, element, and physical part of the human body.
The Middah of Malkhut corresponds to King David and Queen Esther. Malchut also corresponds to one’s mouth, the Peh.
“Who is truly a king? One who governs over his mouth.” – Rabbi Shlomo Katz
If we learn to govern our mouth, our company becomes a place that’s fitting for even a king or queen to dwell. If not…
To attain mastery of any kind requires effort. Discipline. Drive. A little talent doesn’t hurt, either. There is a theory that masters attain their high level of practice only after 10,000 hours of dedicated work.
To achieve mastery over one’s own tongue is not as straightforward as, say, practicing piano, painting, or learning a trade. Our instrument, the tongue, is built-in, but how often do we think of normal, everyday speech as a performance to be honed and perfected?
How often do we think before we speak, at all?
The Letter with Two Mouths
The Peh Lefufah, or Doubled Peh, appears 191 times in the Torah, says the Sefer Tagin. Over my years of searching for this letter, I have noticed a pattern. The occurrences of the Doubled Peh are not random. Rather, the letter with the ‘doubled mouth’ shows itself over and over again in words containing a select number of Hebrew roots. Of these, two are relevant here:
.פ.ת.ח P.T.CH – Petach: open
פ.נ. / פנים P.N. – Pen: face / facing
The letter Peh began its life as a pictogram of the mouth. That icon became the wrapped letter that we know and love today, but it still carries its original meaning, “mouth”, in both its name and in its appearance.
When the Doubled Peh appears in the words “Open” and “Face” (particularly face to face), the letter is urging us, the reader, to doubly think before we open the mouths on our face. It’s also urging us to think of the person before us – who stands “Panim el Panim“, face to face with us.
Think twice of the person whom we face. Our weapon – the tongue – is pointed at them.
Groucho Marx once said to a man facing him with a particularly pointy beard, “Don’t point that thing at me – it might go off!”
If our tongue is our weapon, our words are our bullets. If our tongue is a sword, our words are the cutting edge. How will our words affect the other? How will our words affect ourselves? Is there a gentler way to put something, or might we all be better off if we sheath our tongue, and not utter those words at all?
One character in TaNaCh who inspires by her speech is the woman Ruth. There is something elemental about her story. The study of Megillat Rut (Book of Ruth) is often overshadowed by other aspects of Shavuot, though it is always publicly read on the holiday.
What was it about Ruth, a Moabite woman who was not even born Jewish, that she merits to have her story read on the same holiday in which we commemorate the giving of the Torah?
Ruth: A Positive Role Model of Speech
Ruth is a beautiful example of a human being who has mastered her speech. Let’s look at the very first words she uttered that were recorded in the Megillah (Ruth 1:16-17):
This is a young woman who has recently lost her husband to disease and with him any chance at an inheritance from a once-wealthy mother-in-law, Naomi.
This is a woman who has been urged by Naomi to go back to Moab and find a new husband, instead of trekking to a strange land with an old lady who is far past her child-bearing years.
Naomi had no hope, and wanted to send away her daughters-in-law to give them some chance at a future. Orpah left. Yet Ruth would not desert her. And Ruth’s words ring out in their loyalty, earnesty, lovingkindess, alacrity, warmth, and positivity for all time.
This Shavuot, pay attention to the moments when Ruth speaks. Also to the moments in which she remains silent. You will notice that for a woman who has an entire narrative story of the Torah named after her, she does not have that many lines. And yet, when she does open her mouth, the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Rabbi Etshalom teaches that language is quite important in The Book of Ruth. Just as the Doubled Peh appears on only a certain number of Hebrew words to emphasize a particular message, certain words in Ruth repeat 7, 14, or even 21 times per chapter. That is the Megillah telling us to pay close attention to that particular concept.
For example, the word shem – ‘name’ recurs often in Ruth, as does the word go’el – ‘redemption’. Rabbi Etshalom explains that these recurring words express how important it was for Ruth to perpetuate the name of her family by keeping alive the memory of those who were no more. She did this initially by sticking by Naomi’s side, and later on by marrying Naomi’s nearest willing next of kin, Boaz, and having a son, Oved who was the father of Yishai, who was the father of David, who would become king of all Israel.
Ruth began life as a Moabite, a nation of idolators. But she became the first Moabite convert to Judaism, and was such a righteous woman that she actually was the cause of a legal amendment which allowed Moabites to convert to Judaism – a conversion that was not allowed at all until then.
Once wealthy, Ruth was forced to become a gleaner – essentially an agrarian beggar – and lived with her aged mother-in-law as one of the lowliest of the population of ancient Israel: a poor convert. But Ruth maintained her composure. She maintained her character no matter what obstacles life threw her way. Ruth had a deep and profound respect for the people around her, be they family, benefactor, or stranger (other gleaners and harvesters).
How did Ruth merit to become the mother of kings? Because she herself attained the level of Malchut by mastering her own speech.
Nobility in Mastering Speech
Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the new moon of the month of Sivan, marks a new beginning. Shavuot is a fresh start this spring as we move towards summer. We create our relationships with others, and with ourselves, through speech, words, and conversation.
If G!d created the world by speaking the universe into being, if G!d gave us our core book of laws, the Torah, through speech, how careful should we then be with our own spoken and written words?
Death and life are in the power of the tongue. The fruit of our speech can be bitter or sweet. We can choose to live lives as commoners with untrained mouths that govern us, or to rise up as leaders who govern our own mouths.
There is majesty in mastering speech.
Our weapons are sharp. Our fellows stand before us.
Let us be mindful of how we discharge the firearm of our tongues at our friends, our families, and the strangers whom we meet every day.
Let us be mindful, too, not to turn this weapon against ourselves, but use it instead to uplift others and uplift ourselves.
Chag Shavuot Sameach. A Joyous Shavuot to all.
Thank you to my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, who taught me to speak words of kindness.
Thank you to Rabbi Aleph-Bet for help with sourcing sources.
Many thanks to Mark, who gave over Rabbi Etshalom’s lecture to me.
Fine, Larry. “Shavuot, the Festival of the First Fruits.” The Jewish Magazine. April, 2010. http://www.jewishmag.com/143mag/shavout_bikurim/shavout_bikurim.htm
Katz, Shlomo. Day 42 of the Omer: Malchut in Yisod. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/263978
Savran, George. “Seeing the Voices: Some Thoughts on the Nature of Revelation”. The Shechter Institutes. May, 2012. https://schechter.edu/seeing-the-voices-some-thoughts-on-the-nature-of-revelation/
Hebrew text from Mechon Mamre. English translations from the Koren Tanach and the Stone Edition of the Chumash. Any errors are my own.
Want to learn more? Explore:
“We Are All Letters and Words,” https://sixdegreesofkosherbacon.com/2019/06/05/we-are-all-letters-and-words-by-marc/
Torah Shelemah, Menachem Kasher. Published by Hotzaat Beit Torah Shelemah. (Also accessible at HebrewBooks.org)
Torah Q’duma, Published by Shaul ben Shalom Hudayfi, Beit Dagan, 2005.
Resources on Correlating Biblical Women with Middot
Your treat for scrolling all the way down, a song for Shavuot from Israel! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mJene6zNOA