Shavuot is called a harvest festival in the Torah, since it happens at the beginning of the harvest of the most precious grain: wheat (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). Together with Passover and Sukkot, it is an agricultural festival that, unlike them, the Torah does not explicitly relate to any historical event. However, in the Talmud (b. Shabbat 86b-88a) it is associated with the giving of the mitzvot (commandments) by God to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
During both, the First and Second Temple periods, Shavuot was the time when farmers thanked God for the fruits that were developing in the fields and on the trees. Since the first fruits were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot is also known as the Feast of the First Fruits, Chag Habikurim. When offering these first fruits, the specific prayer found in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 was recited. This prayer reminded the farmers rejoicing over the good harvest that it was God who gave the land to their ancestors, and that ultimately the land belongs to the Almighty Creator. This prayer known in the Talmud as Mikra Bikurim also reminds the people of Israel of their ethical responsibilities.
There are many mitzvot in the Torah that exhort generosity toward the needy, including with regard to harvesting the crops. For example, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field (peah), or gather up the leftovers of your harvest (leket). You shall not pick the vineyard bare (olelot), or go back and pick up the fallen grapes (peret); you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10). Similarly, every third year (of the cycle of the Shemitah) a special tithe of the harvested crops was to be set aside (maaser ani) so that “the stranger and the fatherless and the widow … shall come and eat their fill, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). Indeed, the land itself was to be cultivated across the generations by extended families, who, according to the Torah, followed particular legal procedures in order not to lose the land through indebtedness (Leviticus 19:23-28). All these commands sought to reduce poverty in Israelite society and maintain basic minimal standards of living.
Although once the people of Israel lost self-governance over the land and the significance of Shavuot focused more on God’s gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the tradition of reading aloud the scroll of Ruth nevertheless continued because that biblical book illustrates many features of the referred Torah ethical principles.
According to the renowned 18th-century Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (the Vilna Gaon) in his proposed version of the end of the Talmudic tractate Peah, the ethical norms mentioned above (leket, peah, peret, olelot, etc.) are all encompassed by Deuteronomy 16:20: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdoph” (“Justice, justice you will pursue.”) with which this tractate would end.
The biblical terms tzedek and mishpat both relate to “justice,” as in Deuteronomy 16:18: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns … and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment (mishpat tzedek). The 19th-century Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (the Malbim) wrote that mishpat is the blind imposition of law that does not fully consider specific circumstances, whereas tzedek is a justice that applies the law in the context of the realities of social existence (HaTorah VeHaMitzvah, Kedoshim19, 22). Tzedek wants to do the right thing before a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (ḥesed) and faithfulness (emet)” (Exodus 34:6). Therefore, an act of justice in the sense of tzedek is called Hebrewtzedakah, righteousness, which also involves charity and mercy. Righteous societies are those in which those who are comparatively weak are genuinely respected. Tzedakah demands not merely giving leftovers to the poor, but the establishment of a system of justice in which everyone has dignity and prosperity.
And there is still another lesson to be learned from the reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. If tzedakah is preferred in God’s sight over mishpat, then ḥesed is greater still. Sometimes translated as “steadfast love,” “loving loyalty,” or “covenantal devotion,” the Book of Ruth speaks of the interpersonal virtue of ḥesed with regard to the dead as well as toward the living (1:8; 2:20; 3:10). Tzedakah can be impersonal, ḥesed cannot be (b. Sukkah 49,b). God’s gracious ḥesed for the people of Israel must be reflected in the solidarity and friendship practiced among the people themselves. Shavuot reminds us of all these things.
This time of the coronavirus pandemic has vividly demonstrated the urgent need for solidarity as a fundamental aspect of all human society. Current social polarization is meaningless in the face of a disease that levels the differences among human beings, regardless of whether those divisions are economic, geographic, national, or ideological. The enormous and growing number of fatalities we presently experience could likely have been reduced had human solidarity been stronger.
This, perhaps, is the message of Shavuot for the pandemic year of 2020. We thank the God of tzedakah and ḥesed for the gifts of land and food we have received, and we recall that these qualities are urgently necessary in our afflicted world among human beings who live in interpersonal solidarity with one another.