Arts and Culture Resources for Shavuot
"A sheaf of wheat in the field bends in the wind from the weight of its seeds, for they are many."
– Matityahu Shelem
The festival of Shavuot, originally a purely agricultural holiday, transformed over time into a holiday of agricultural, historical, and religious significance, much like the other two pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot and Pesach.
By examining its agricultural roots in the wheat harvest through poetry, music and visual arts, we bring you a look through an arts & culture lens of chita (חיטה, “wheat”) and the humble yet full of promise shibolet (שיבולת, “spike of wheat”).
The many names of the holiday attest to its multiple personalities:
One of the dominant themes of the holiday in Israel, especially in rural areas, and one of the most visible symbols of this festival is the wheat harvest. The barley harvest that commences on Pesach ends on Shavuot, when the wheat harvest begins. The counting of the Omer (עומר, lit. sheaf of wheat or grain) is complete, and every kibbutz, moshav, village and many cities in Israel will have an elaborate celebration around this theme.
Wishing you a Happy Chag Shavuot/Katzir/First Fruits/Atzeret/Receiving the Torah!
Ronny Someck (b. 1951), an Israeli poet and author, was born in Baghdad and came to Israel as a young child. He studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and drawing at the Avni Academy of Art. He has worked with street gangs, and currently teaches literature and leads creative writing workshops.
When asked what drove him to write the poem “Wheat,” he responded: “Love.”
שְׂדֵה חִטָּה מִתְנוֹפֵף עַל רֹאש אִשְׁתִּי וְעַל
כַּמָּה בָּנַאלִי לְתָאֵר כָּךְ אֶת הַבְּלוֹנדְ
וּבְכָל זֹאת, שָׁם צוֹמֵחַ
הַלֶּחֶם שֶׁל חַיַּי
A wheatfield blows on my wife’s head and on
my daughter’s head.
How banal thus to describe blonde
but nonetheless, there grows
the bread of my life.
Translated by: Vivian Eden
“Shibolet Basadeh” – “A spike of wheat in the field”
Lyrics and Music: Matityahu Shelem
Matityahu Shelem (1904-1975) was an Israeli poet and musician who helped shape holiday celebration and ceremony practices in the kibbutz movement. Most of the holidays are agricultural in nature, such as Chagigat Hagez (Sheep Shearing Festival) and Chag Ha’omer (Omer Festival). Shibolet Basadeh is one of many songs written for these festivals and is a staple of any Shavuot celebration.
Performed by Ofra Haza
“Yam Hashibolim” – “Sea of Grain Stalks”
Lyrics: Yitzhak Keinan | Music: Chaim Agmon | Gevatron 2007
A contemporary rendition by Shibolim, a young band from Kibbutz Geva, with homage to Gevatron (the legendary singing group from the same kibbutz):
“Shibolim” – “Sheaves of Wheat”
Lyrics: Michael Kashtan | Music: Gil Aldema
Shibolim with reference to Gevatron (older version):
The special readings for the holiday include the Book of Ruth. There are many explanations given for the reading of Ruth on Shavuot. The most quoted reason is that Ruth’s coming to Israel took place around the time of Shavuot, and her acceptance into the Jewish faith was analogous of the acceptance of the Jewish people of the Torah. The story fired the imagination of many visual artists who depicted Ruth, Naomi, and the golden wheat fields of Israel.
A. M. Lilien (1874-1929)
Lilien chooses to depict Ruth in a sea of sheaves creating a wave-like motion. Ruth is carrying a sheaf of wheat on her head, wearing simple, biblical-style attire and projecting self-determination. Lilien, who with Boris Schatz established the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1906, sends a Zionist message of Jewish continuity from the time of the biblical Judges through today.
Zeev Raban (1890-1970)
Zeev Raban, who Joined the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1912, depicts Ruth in what will later be known as the Bezalel Style, an eclectic mix of East and West. She is idealized, soft, and humble. The natural elements, including the sheaves of wheat, are in the European Art Nouveau style.
Shamir Brothers, Poster for Women’s Labor Day 1952
The brothers Gavriel and Maxim Shamir were among the most noted and productive graphic designers from the mid 1930’s through the early 1990’s. In poster images from the early years of the State, the women are depicted as equal bearers of the collective endeavor. Sheaves of wheat often symbolize agriculture.
Kopel Gurwin (1921-1990)
A prominent Israeli artist, born and educated in Lithuania, Gurwin survived the Holocaust and imprisonment in concentration camps and later immigrated to Israel. He studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Felt tapestries were his creative medium of expression and he derived inspiration from the rich source of the bible, illustrating its many themes in warm and vivid colors incorporatingthe Hebrew script as an integral, ornamental element. In this depiction of Megilat Ruth from 1987 the verse reads: “Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, I would like to go to the fields and glean among the sheaves of grain” (Ruth 2:2).
(Gurwin designed several of Israel Independence Day posters. Click here to explore Poster Tales: Yom Yerushalayim, a resource which utilizes Israel’s Independence Day posters thoughout the years.)
In his photography series “Bible Stories,” Nes depicts Ruth and Naomi as “gleaners” after the close of the vegetable and fruit market in Israel. The window of time between the close of the market and clean up is intentional and allows the needy to collect leftovers. This is modern day interpretation of leket (לקט, “gleaning”) a biblical command to leave the corners of fields unharvested so that the needy could feed themselves. Nes stages his photographs carefully and often “quotes” iconic visual images. This photograph is modeled after Jean-Francois Millet’s oil painting The Gleaners of 1857.