Shavuot, the biblical Festival of Weeks, arrives on May 29 this year, with a special urgency. Holidays on the Jewish calendar often speak to us with particular force at pivotal moments in our communal lives – Passover, for example, with its theme of freedom, or Yom Kippur with its call for repentance. This year, we need to be reminded of Shavuot, the spring harvest festival with its often-overlooked — or suppressed — teachings about the rights of the poor and the dangerous seduction of wealth.
Tradition teaches that Shavuot marks the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In fact, the biblical text that introduces Shavuot makes no mention of Sinai. As mandated in Leviticus, chapter 23, the holiday is a celebration of the “first fruits” of the wheat harvest, to be observed seven weeks plus a day after the Passover sacrifice.
Traditional commentaries also teach that Shavuot is unique among the major biblical festivals because it is not assigned any distinctive ritual comparable to the Seder meal of Passover or the makeshift booths of Sukkot. But that, too, has it backward. When Leviticus lays out the five major holy days of the year, only Shavuot comes with a specific code of behavior.
The text spells it out as plain as day: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings” — the bits that fall to the ground — “of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord.”
The message of Shavuot is that the harvest you’re celebrating isn’t yours alone. Part of your crop belongs by right to people you don’t even know, simply because they don’t have as much. And if we restate this as a broad principle, as most of us agree the Bible is supposed to be read, the rule is this: A portion of one’s income shall be redistributed to the poor.
Nor is this to be taken as a recommendation of charity or generosity. It’s intended as a legal obligation, “a law for all time, in all your dwellings” — not just on the farm, and not just in the Middle East — “throughout your generations.” It’s almost as if the ancients knew we were going to try to wiggle out of it.
If you listen to the sort of folks who like to thump their Bibles, you might wonder what happened to the sacred principle of private property. Leviticus takes that on a chapter later, in the portion that’s read in synagogues a few days before Shavuot. Every 50 years, the book says, all land purchases are annulled and the property reverts to its original owners. Large property holdings may be amassed only temporarily. Enduring wealth, like enduring poverty, is impermissible.
Conservatives in Washington these days like to dismiss taxes and regulation as “socialism.” But if you read your Bible, that’s just a fancy name for traditional values.