Let the mountains sing together with joy!

According to one ancient Jewish tradition, the custom of not eating meat on Shavuot celebrates the vow God made with Noaḥ and his children on Mt. Ararat. Although the vow was witnessed by Noaḥ on Ararat, because Noaḥ’s descendants continued to eat the flesh of an animal with its blood, a suitable partner to the vow wasn’t discovered until Avraham. The covenant with Avraham wasn’t realized until the acceptance of the Torah by Avraham’s descendants, Bnei Yisroel, at Mt. Sinai.

So what was the vow to Noaḥ? In the context of the story of the Flood, the vow was to never again destroy the world with a great flood. But what sort of world existed such that this sort of intervention could even be imagined? According to Biblical myth, the Deluge washed away a world where such primary needs as eating and loving had degenerated into eating other animals and rape. In this mythic view, nature was not created as carnivorous. Rather, the existence of predatory behavior is an undesired outcome of divine/angelic desire in the world. The root of this transgressive divine desire was a mistaken worship of angels/stars rather than their creator.

The story of the Exodus is a retelling of this myth. The exodus from Egypt to Sinai parallels the passage of Noaḥ’s ark to Ararat; the Flood parallels the drowning of the army of Pharoah in the Sea of Reeds. The oppression of the Mitzriim and their influence on the Israelites in the story of the Exodus parallel the actions of the Giants and the “Men of Renown” in their coruption of the generation of the Flood.

Played out in the Jewish calendar and in ritual re-enactment, the passage of time from Pesaḥ to Shavuot, from escape to revelation, is thus a journey from the depths of bondage to the epiphanies of freedom — not just for a people but for all of creation. But what is the context for this sense of freedom? The minhag of not eating flesh on Shavuot represents an Edenic hope for a world of compassion as envisioned in Isaiah 11:6-9:

/11:6 And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. /11:7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. /11:8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk’s den. /11:9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH, as the waters cover the sea.

Having such a hope manifest in the traditions and identity of an entire people is certainly a useful strategy for preserving this vision. The failure of the Israelites in the sin of the Golden Calf, thus provide a rationale for God offering to Moshe a very Noaḥian bargain: with the vow unfulfilled, why not destroy the world with fire and start over with Moshe as the seed of a new humankind. Moshe, thankfully, rejects this possibility, does a t’shuva for the people and brings about the possibility of a greater cosmic tikkun for the world with Israel’s observance of the Torah providing a particular example of universal righteousness.

The source for this idea of Shavuot being a holiday remembering God’s vow to Noaḥ realized at Sinai comes from the Book of Jubilees, a work composed in the second century BCE, and which records a number of the biblical legends surrounding the events before and after the Deluge which are alluded to in the early chapters of Genesis. The tragic story of the introduction of this predatory nature is recorded in a series of related legends concerning the antediluvian age. Jubilees is the earliest source connecting the holiday of Shavuot to the giving of the Torah at Sinai, a link which is not made explicit anywhere in the TaNaKh. Here are a few of the relevant verses from Jubilees:

Jubilees Chapter 5:1-2
/5:1 And when the children of men began to multiply on the surface of the earth and daughters were born to them that the angels of YHVH saw in a certain year of that jubilee that they were good to look at. And they took wives for themselves from all of those whom they chose. And they bore children for them; and they were the giants. /5:2 And injustice increased upon the earth, and all flesh corrupted its way; man and cattle and beasts and birds and everything which walks on the earth. And they all corrupted their way and their ordinances, and they began to eat one another. And injustice grew upon the earth and every imagination of the thoughts of all mankind was thus continually evil.

Jubilees Chapter 6:1-2, 6-7, 13-22
/6:1 And on the first of the third month, he went out of the ark, and he built an altar on that mountain. /6:2 And he made atonement for the land. And he took the kid of a goat, and he made atonement with its blood for all the sins of the land because everything which was on it had been blotted out except those who were in the ark with Noaḥ-¦.

/6:6 And behold, I have given you all of the beasts and everything which flies and everything which moves upon the earth and in the water, the fish and everything, for food like the green herbs. /6:7 And I have given you everything so that you might eat. But flesh which is (filled) with life, (that is) with blood, you shall not eat-because the life of all flesh is in the blood lest your blood be sought for your lives-¦.

/6:13 And you, command the children of Israel not to eat any blood so that their names and seed might be before YHVH your God always. And there is no limit of days for this law because it is forever. They shall keep it for their generations so that they might make supplication on your behalf with blood before the altar on every day. /6:14 And at the hour of daybreak and evening they will seek atonement on their own behalf continually before YHVH so that they might guard it and not be rooted out. /6:15 And he gave a sign to Noaḥ and his children that there should not again be a flood upon the earth. /6:16 He set his [rain]bow in the clouds for a sign of the covenant which is forever, that the water of the Flood should therefore not be upon the earth to destroy it all of the days of the earth. /6:17 Therefore, it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shevuot in this month, once per year, in order to renew the covenant in all (respects), year by year. /6:18 And all of this feast was celebrated in heaven from the day of creation until the days of Noaḥ, twenty-six jubilees and five weeks of years. And Noaḥ and his children kept it for seven jubilees and one week of years until the day of the death of Noaḥ. And from the day of the death of Noaḥ, his sons corrupted it until the days of Abraham, and they ate blood. /6:19 But Abraham alone kept it. And Isaac and Jacob and his sons kept it until your days, but in your days the children of Israel forgot it until you renewed it for them on this mountain. /6:20 And you, command the children of Israel so that they might keep this feast in all of their generations as a commandment to them. One day per year in this month they shall celebrate the feast, /6:21 for it is the feast of Shevuot [oaths] and it is the feast of the first fruits. This feast is twofold and of two natures. Just as it is written and engraved concerning it, observe it. /6:22 This is because I have written it in the book of the first law, which I wrote for you, so that you might observe it in each of its appointed times, one day per year. And I have told you its sacrificial offering so that the children of Israel might remember them and observe them in their generations in this month one day each year.

(Translation O.S. Wintermute in J. Charlesworth’s Pseudepigrapha)

From Jubilees one can more easily see the the parallel between the two stories: the treatment and degradation of the descendants of Yaakov under the Mitzriim in Exodus and the decadence and corruption of the Children of Enosh under the B’nai Elohim in Genesis. The midrashim describing the moral decay of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt and their desperate need for rehabilitation provide even more linkage between the two stories. Given that Moshe and Noaḥ are also related characters, both drawn from the water and preserved in arks, the connection and import of the biblical aggadah as it might inform the story of the Exodus seems quite significant.

A good number of later sources in extra-canonical works: pseudepigrapaha and midrash provide additional details (Sefer Ḥanoch/1 Enoch, the Clementine Homilies, the Adambuch, the Midrash of Shemḥazai and Azael, Sefer Rabbi Ishmael/3 Enoch, Sefer haYashar), but only the Book of Jubilees connects these events specifically to the holiday of Shavuot. Inspired by Louis Ginzberg’s Legend of the Jews and Raphael Patai and Robert Grave’s Hebrew Myths, I’ve combined details from all of these sources in the following reconstruction of the legend. (Those familiar with Greek mythology will find some pretty wonderful parallels with the story of Merope.) Sources for this story are included in this sourcesheet, The End of Predatory Nature (pdf). (I prepared the sourcesheet to accompany a 20 minute presentation at Yeshivat Hadar entitled “The End of Predatory Nature and the Rectification of Divine Desire.”) It need not be said but what follows is mytho-history, not history. The two should never ever be confused.

On the sixth day of creation, God shaped and drew forth the Adam, the earthling, from the Adamah, the earth. God gave all the herbs of the world to the Adam and the other animals to eat. No creatures, until the Generation of the Flood, ate meat at all. This is how predation entered the ways of Nature.

The children of Adam and Ḥava, born outside of the garden of Eden, pined for a closeness with the divine that their parents once knew. (These children were the descendants of Enosh, the grandson of Adam and the son of Shet, and to this day men in Hebrew are called, anashim, and women, nashim.) The shekhina, the divine presence, so manifest in the Garden, was less obvious outside its bounds. With each generation she seemed further removed from the transgressions of humankind until ultimately, in the generation of Enosh, she slipped beyond the veil of the stars themselves.

Enosh’s generation searched the cosmos for her. They were the first to begin worshiping the numinous, angelic forces they discovered in her stead, distinguishing them from the unity of the blessed Holy One. They invented images of these cosmic beings, and gathered up towers of precious stones and metals in their honor, concentrating wealth through their worship. They cried to these bnei elohim, these firstborn children of God, to descend from their watchful perch in the constellations and to rule over them on Earth.

Meanwhile, the angels, the souls possessing the stars they worshiped, never understood why the humans, the bnei adam, were granted the beauty and abundance of Adamah as their dominion. Witnessing God’s grief at the decadent worship of the angelic powers, Shemḥazai, the chief of the bnei elohim, testified against the bnei adam, and made the following request: “Master of the world, give us leave, let us dwell with the creatures, and you will see how we shall sanctify your name.” God gave Shemḥazai and his fellow angel, Aza’el, leave to descend but also noted, “It is evident and clear before Me that if you dwelt on Earth the yetzer hara, the inclination to harm, would rule you, and you would behave even worse than children of Adam.”

Odilon Redon, The Cylops (1914)

Odilon Redon, The Cylops (1914)

It was in the generation of Enosh’s grandson Yared, that the angels’ descent became known. As soon as Shemḥazai fell to earth he came upon Ish-tahar, and overcome with desire demanded Ish-tahar to give themself to him. Cleverly, Ish-tahar consented but only under the condition that Shemḥazai first teach them to pronounce the shem hameforash, the ineffable name of God. Upon pronouncing it, Ish-tahar was at once transformed into a star in the Pleiades, transported far away from the gaze of Shemḥazai and his uncontrolled passion.

Hubble Space Telescope image of reflection nebulosity near Merope

Hubble Space Telescope image of reflection nebulosity near Merope

Their desire for the daughters of Adam, the banot Adam, the fecund, animate expression of Adamah’s abundance, did not abate. No longer naïve, Shemḥazai learned to seduce the daughters of Adam with knowledge. Azael followed him, to take posession of Adamah through guile. Azael taught men warfare and weaponry, and women, masks and color. Other angels followed and traded additional knowledge of heaven and earth: the use of plants in medicine and the reading of omens. With the bnei Adam cast into a sea of blood of their own making, and the banot Adam mingling with the bnei elohim, God devised to ensure that the lifespan of the next generation of half-man, half-angels be limited to 120 years.

The children born of these angel’s conquests became anakim and gibborim: giants, powerful and mighty. Lacking empathy for the Children of Adam these gibborim transgressed all boundaries. Their appetites were unquenchable. Satisfying their wonts became increasingly difficult, and then impossible. God rained manna down from heaven to feed them and thus safeguard creation, but to no avail. In outrageous quantities they began consuming animals. The children of Shemḥazai were said to have been fed 1000 oxen a day and a 1000 camels a day. With such titanic exploitation of resources, and so much food gobbled up, hunger and desperation and conflict spread over Adamah. Neighbor devoured neighbor. Many of the animals, modeling their behavior on that of the Children of Adam, began to eat each other. The world became a frenzy of uncontrolled predatory nature.

The stench of all this blood and turmoil and suffering grieved God tremendously, decreeing to wipe the slate fresh, and start anew. Shemḥazai’s gigantic (twin?) sons, Ḥiyya and Ḥeeva, learned about their impending doom in nightmares that evening. In one dream, a stone table inscribed over with letters was erased by an angel bearing a chisel; only four letters remained. In another dream, an entire forest was felled except for one tree with four branches. Upon waking they came to their father to explain their dream. Bewildered, Shemḥazai inquired above and learned that the world would soon be destroyed. He began to worry for his two sons. Wondered Shemḥazai: what would they eat with the world all destroyed? To console his sons, Shemḥazai explained that they would never be forgotten. Their names would be preserved in the future groanings of men, heaving stones and pulling longs oars on ships, and Ḥeeva and Ḥiyya accepted their fate.

During all of this, despite his great popularity as a tzaddik (righteous guru), Enosh’s great-great-grandson Ḥanoch, became increasingly reclusive, solitary and hidden, until finally, he no longer showed his face at all. Upon learning their fate, however, the nefilim, the fallen and doomed angels sought him out, requesting that he compose a confessional prayer and intercede on their behalf. Leaving his hermitage, Ḥanoch ascended a great mountain. All those who tried to follow him were crushed by great blocks of ice. Through his ascent he was physically translated into the angel Metatron, but his appeal on behalf of the nefillim was rejected.

Repentant, Shemḥazai, suspended himself upside down in the heavens, appearing to us as the constellation Orion. Azael, unrepentant, was permitted to reside on earth, albeit hidden deep in the abyss of existential suffering, walking to and fro observing the unfathomable desires by which men and women harm and are harmed.

Just as Ish-tahar had once done, the shem hameforash was pronounced once a year in the Temple on Yom Kippurim, the Day of Atonements. A lottery was made between two goats: one offered to God as a sin offering in the Temple, and the other, sent to Azazel which is Azael, launched off Mount Tzor and dashed on its rocks. At the base of the Mount, imprisoned under great blocks of stone Azael waits, the sins of humankind piled up on him until the end of this Age of predatory Nature.

Upon exiting the Ark, Noaḥ made an offering to God, and God vowed never again to so destroy the world, instituting the holiday of Shevuot to celebrate this vow, and revealing the rainbow as the sign of this promise and as a revelation of the shekhina on Earth.

Eric Rolph, CC-BY-SA, "Double Alaskan Rainbow"

Eric Rolph, CC-BY-SA, “Double Alaskan Rainbow”

The vow also served as a concession to the yetzer hara in humankind, permitting them to exercise their predatory nature but within strict limits, never to drink the blood of other creatures out of respect for the life force flowing through it, and never to eat the flesh of an animal still alive (ever min haḥai). The culmination of this vow would be celebrated when a people might exist trustworthy to follow its command, and so we celebrate Shavuot as both the holiday of this vow and the revelation of the Torah that witnesses this covenant, and on Yom Kippurim, the repentance of the Generation of the Flood reborn as the Generation of the Exodus. We remember the t’shuva of our ancestors, their return from the 49th level of depravity, beholden to the ways of a people who made of themselves bnei elohim. We remember how we were fed with heavenly manna yet still demanded flesh, how we feared the bnei anak, the descendants of the Giants in the land we were promised, how our leader Moshe, whose face shone as an angel, was punished for striking the earth and taken from it at the age of 120.

There are those who, today, would be as the nefilim, bnei elohim on earth, bigshots transgressing all boundaries in satisfying their rapacious hunger for comfort, power, and prestige. These follow in the ways of Sodom. And there are those who embrace devouring the weak as the proper path of humankind in this Age. These follow the way of Amalek . But there are also those who strive to walk in the ways of God, to manifest the shekhina through their effort and overcome their inclination to harm, and this is called the way of our father Yisroel. Mindful of predatory nature and filled with compassion, we refuse to eat flesh on Shavuot and so honor the vision of a world filled with the radiant light of the shekhina, a sukkah of peace and loving compassion over the entire world and its creatures.

In these days of massive eco-destruction, over-consumption, hunger, and wont, Shavuot is a time to be reminded of a vision of this revolutionary compassionate worldview. As human beings, we can control our predatory nature. So my plea is that anyone reading this feels somewhat inspired to act in kindness and consideration towards all creatures and help bring about civil and open societies committed to compassion. Choosing not to eat animals processed by factories into processed meats is one single choice one that can greatly lower one’s environmental footprint, save thousands of fellow creatures from ruthless exploitation, and preserve ecosystems from anthropogenic change. For the sake of the world, go vegetarian this Shavuot, and stay vegetarian for the next fifty Shavuots. Let’s do our best to increase joy in this world rather than add to its suffering.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

4 comments to Let the mountains sing together with joy!

  • Captain Mikee

    “Vegetarianism is the single choice one can make to lower their environmental footprint”

    I suspect this is a misconception, and much as it goes against the story, eating locally raised pastured animals has a much lower environmental footprint than eating vegetables and grains grown on land that is annually scourged of all competing life, artificially supplemented with the nutrients that are washed and burned away in the process, and then shipped halfway around the world using fossil fuels.

    It’s a wonderful story though, and fascinating to contemplate the origins of cruelty and compassion.

  • I agree with you that the devil is in the details, as it were. Folk interested in this legend might also enjoy reading my meditation on cyclopses.

  • re: dairy on Shavuot, see HaElef L’cha Shlomo in Yoreh Deah 322 by Rav Shlomo Kluger (1783-1869, Poland) here summarized by Rabbi Shraga Simmons:

    There is a general prohibition of “eating a limb from a live animal” (ever min haḥai), which logically should also include milk, the product of a live animal. Ever min haḥai is actually one of the Seven Noaḥide Laws which the Jews observed prior to Sinai (and which has applied to all humanity since the days of Noaḥ).

    However, upon receiving the Torah, which refers to the Land of Israel as “flowing with *milk* and honey” (Exodus 3:18), dairy products became permitted to the Israelites. In other words, at the same moment that their meat became prohibited, dairy became permitted. They ate dairy on that original Shavuot, and we do today, too.

    If the Israelites ate dairy for the first time at Mount Sinai, this raises the question how Avraham could have fed dairy products to his three guests (Genesis 18:8).

    The answer requires a technical understanding of the prohibition of ever min haḥai, “limb from a live animal.” One way is to define a “limb” as a piece of meat which contains bones and/or sinews. It is this type of ever min haḥai which has always been forbidden to non-Jews. This prohibition *does not* include milk, because although milk comes from a live animal, it does not contains bones or sinews. Hence, Avraham was permitted to feed milk to his non-Jewish guests.

    There is a second, expanded definition of ever min haḥai, which encompasses *all* products from a live animal — including milk. It is this definition which is prohibited to Jews. Thus it was not until the giving of the Torah, with its reference to “land of milk and honey,” that dairy products became permitted to Jews.

    While Rav Kluger’s answer is framed in halakhic terms, his answer makes the connection between the law of ever min haḥai (not eating the flesh of a living animal) one of the seven mitzvot bnei Noaḥ and receiving of the Torah at Sinai. This connection is crucial in understanding the context by which the holiday of Shavuot was once understood.

  • Over on Facebook, Sarah Chandler shares,

    Why dairy on Shavuot? A few folks who have written about it in the past 1000 years.

    Perushim u-Fesaqim le-R’ Avigdor, p. 478
    Rabbi Avigdor ben Eliyahu Kohen Ṣedeq, a 13th century Tosafist originally from France/ Germany/Italy/Austria; context is Christian Europe

    The society raises the difficulty in asking ‘why is it that we consume pladen [a type of baked dairy pie] on Shavu’oth?’ And it appears that there is a hint to it [dairy consumption] in the Torah: “Also in the day of the first-fruits, when ye bring a new meal-offering unto the LORD in your feast of weeks,” forms an acronym “dairy on Shavu’oth.” Though as for pladen specifically I don’t know why.
    Another early source for this custom is the Kol Bo. {Kol Bo, anonymous work on Jewish Law, probably by Rabbi Aharon ben Ya’aqob HaKohen of Lunel (1262-1325) first printed in Naples, 1490}. It states there: “There is an established custom to eat honey and milk on the festival of Shavu’oth since the Torah is compared to honey and milk as it is written Honey and Milk beneath your tongue.”

    Rama, 494:3
    Part of his hagaoth to Shul’han ‘Arukh at the very end of Ora’h ‘Hayyim, 16th c.
    נוהגין בכמה מקומות לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום ראשון של שבועות
    It is customary in some places to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot.

    Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 494:16 Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 ‒ 1812)
    נוהגין בכל המקומות לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום א’ של שבועות ומנהג אבותינו תורה היא
    It is a custom in all places to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot, and a custom of our father’s is Torah.

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