Passover-Shavuot: From the Yam Suf to the River Sambatyon

Passover and Shavuot are treated as two different holidays separated by seven weeks but nevertheless conjoined by its umbilical cord, the Omer. Two festivals tethered together through the 49-day counting of the Omer, existing in a symbiotic relationship without which neither can exist alone meaningfully. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz summed it up by saying that Passover raises questions and Shavuot provides the answer. While Pesach raise questions about the nature of freedom Shavuot provides the capstone answer that freedom without a framework is a wasted opportunity. If Pesach represents redemption then the beginning of nation building is at the heart of Shavuot accompanied by its laws customs myths and folklore.

The Passover-Shavuot axis raises questions that in today’s age of skepticism cannot be avoided: the role of God and miracles in the unfolding drama beginning with the Exodus and culminating at Sinai. The neat answer is that it was our faith in the Lord of Hosts who took us out of bondage on Passover and it was He that delivered us to Sinai where the covenantal relationship with God through the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Torah was forged. But what if one doesn’t subscribe to this facile approach? How does one commemorate these watershed moments, the birth of peoplehood and celebrate the holidays that mark them without God being the centerpiece?

Powerlessness and the sense of doom and despair has been the motif of the Jewish saga from the beginning and has been a constant in our history until the modern age when the Third Commonwealth emerged in 1948. This redemption was the clear act of brave men, visionaries and fighters and through them the veil of despair was lifted. The story of Passover highlights the powerlessness of the Hebrews: slaves without hope against the determination and power of the Egyptian Pharaohs and overlords. We are taught that it was through faith and the wonders of God and His miracles that we were extracted from the untenable. The miraculous intervention of God with his outstretched arm bringing epochal plagues upon Egypt and the splitting of the Yam Suf is what saved us. Interestingly, the Haggadah of Passover deemphasizes the role of Moses barely mentioning his role in the exodus placing firmly the responsibility and stewardship on God.

The Shavuot celebration on the other hand centers on the pageantry at Hereb with Moses preparing for the revelation and is center stage. At the near conclusion to a very tense three-day encampment at Sinai the bible relates that there was lightening and thunder and the sound of the shofar was so intense that the people quaked. Mt. Sinai according to the biblical text was engulfed in dense opaque smoke, viscid as though it poured out from a furnace leaving the entire mountain shuddering. The sound of the shofar grew exceedingly loud and at its crescendo Moses addressed the people. This is clearly the stuff of Hollywood movie mogul Cecil B DeMille, although the description here is that of the bible and not that of a filmmaker. It is through those clouds of smoke that Moses descends bearing the Ten Commandments, the seeding in the formation of a people.

On the eve of Passover we are depicted as a powerless people with the emphasis on God’s miracles but on Shavuot while still powerless it is Moses that is scripted as the one responsible for our fate. It is this feeling of powerlessness underscored by our festivals that we have peppered our traditions and texts with a near comic relief of being delivered at the last possible moment through the miraculous intervention of God’s outstretched arm or the magic of unlikely heroes such as Moses portrayed as a stutterer.

By examining the holiday of Shavuot through this lens of powerlessness we can imagine the perceived power of the magic. For centuries Akdamut was shrouded in the magical mystery of a fantasy hero, a lame seemingly lackluster Jew who saves Rhineland Jewry (previously decimated by the Crusaders) from the black magical incantations of a Christian sorcerer.

In any traditional rendering of this holiday there is clearly a counterbalance to God’s role if folklore’s stories of glory and heroism are considered, thus shifting the emphasis from God to the heroics of those least expected. The noted piyut entitled Akdamut read on the first day of Shavuot prior to the reading of the Torah but after the Cohen is called to the Torah gives clear expression to this. In this sense it trumps the compelling Book of Ruth void of drama relegated to be read on the second day of Shavuot in the Diaspora.

Akdamut a piyut composed by Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak the cantor and rabbi of Worms, Germany is a liturgical poem that is part of the Ashkenazi rite even after its original purpose had been rendered irrelevant. During the early Middle Ages there was a custom to explain and translate into Aramaic the Torah versus recited during the Torah reading. Accordingly Akdamut was chanted to amplify and explain the first Aliya of the Cohen. With the discontinuance of this tradition (the translation of the Torah reading into Aramaic by the late middle ages) the Akdamut should have fallen into disuse but continued to gain momentum and popularity. Why?

The violent and traumatic loss of life as a result of the first crusade in 1096 along the Rhineland (Worms, Mainz, Speyer, Cologne) set the stage for the piyut’s theme: loyalty to the Covenant in spite of 30,000 Jews slaughter. The popularity of Akdamut and its assured place within the liturgy was guaranteed not because of the first Crusade’s devastation but because of the Yiddish folklore that surrounded the piyut.

The tale is set in the reign of King Martin de Lance when magic and sorcery was very popular and the occult and black magic were ascribed to monks in their long black capes. The story is told of a certain monk who whenever he came upon a Jew would touch him placing him under a spell resulting in his death. It was said that this particular monk was responsible for thousands of Jewish deaths. Due to the fear and helplessness of the Jewish community a Jewish delegation went to the king to ask for protection. The king sent for the monk and asked him if there was anyway to mitigate his behavior. The monk was amenable to a one-year moratorium provided that at the conclusion of the year there would be a contest between the monk and a Jewish sorcerer to determine whose sorcery was stronger. If the Jewish sorcery won then the attacks against the Jews would cease forever more. The Jews had no choice but to agree and sent out emissaries to find a Jewish sorcerer.

As the story goes a scholar dreamt that the Jewish savior would come from one of the ten lost tribes located across the legendary Sambatyon River. The person designated to cross the river and locate a talented Jewish sorcerer was Rabbi Meir, the beloved scholar, cantor, and rabbi of the Worms Jewish Community and the author of Akdamut. According to the legend the river Sambatyon could only be crossed on Shabbat; the only day that the currents were safe for voyagers. As planned Rabbi Meir crossed on Shabbat and presented his letter of introduction. Dan, a stammering short unimposing limping old man was the designee to square off against the powerful monk’s magic. Halacha was clear that Rabbi Meir wasn’t allowed to cross back over the Sambatyon River on the only possible day Shabbat. Unable to return home he composed a piyut known as Akadamut for Dan to present to the Jewish Community of Worms upon his arrival.

Diminutive in stature with a pronounced limp Dan was nevertheless a baal shem tov, a master at knowing how to use the God’s names to effect miracles. The contest was scheduled two days before Shavuot between Dan and the black magic monk in the presence of the king and crowds of Jews and Christians in the town square. The Monk went on the offense employing incantations of black magic while Dan defensively used recitations of different versions of God’s names to counter the potent black magic. The monk conjured up two huge millstones hovering in the air and then ground them down to fine particles demonstrating his awesome powers. Dan however took those particles and fashioned two millstones even larger than that of the monk casting them into the air above causing them to remain in a state of suspended animation and challenged his opponent to bring them down to earth, but the monk was unequal to the challenge. With an incantation Dan had the monk whisked up to a tree, suspended him from a branch and ordered the millstones to grind the monk down. Anticipating victory Rabbi Meir composed the poem Akdamut and knowing that he was stranded at the River Sambatyon never to return to Worms instructed Dan that Akdamut was to be read on Shavuot.

This tale, associated with the devastating Crusades gave hope to the Jewish communities who were in an almost constant state of demoralization due to the Crusades and the plague that ravaged Europe. Encouragement offered by the piyut was enhanced by the story surrounding its composition in generation after generation. The unlikely hero, the short bumbling old limping Jews facing off against the charismatic strong but evil monk was a powerful antidote to the depressing times facing the Jews; the poem and story providing hope to an otherwise powerless community. For the Jews who were aware of this tale the chanting of Akdamut had special mystical meaning. It became so popular that Yiddish translations of the Aramaic poem were made available for all to follow.

Rabbi Meir was a hero and the Akadamut was raised to the status of a wonder prayer that could accomplish miracles. The folk tale is more than just a story but a magical fantasy ascribing to mere humans meta powers able to conquer and redeem the Jewish community reminding us of other legends like David and Goliath, Samson, the splitting of the Yam Suf and the ten plagues. And like the story of the Exodus, where the pagans were vanquished this tale of Akdamut underscores the final disgrace of the Christians described in stanzas 27–30. Beyond that the piyut offers encouragement and optimism for redemption and deliverance through man’s efforts even if at times it would seem that we are powerless.