Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year we were invited to an observant family for a meal on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot. We’re sort of nervous since we don’t know much about it, and don’t want to sound ignorant at their table. Is Shavuot a minor holiday? Could you fill us in?
Noah and Sarena W.
Dear Noah and Sarena,
Shavuot is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of G-d’s giving us the Torah. This year it fell on Tuesday night, May 18, corresponding to the Jewish date of the sixth of Sivan, and we are commemorating the 3,322th anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
Shavuot is not a “minor holiday,” but is mentioned in the Torah numerous times. (Just for the record, although it seems to be a common concept, there actually is no notion of a minor holiday in Judaism. There are Torah-mandated holidays, and later, rabbinically-mandated holidays such as Purim and Chanukah, but even those are not considered “minor.” All the holidays, regardless of their theme, are considered of the highest importance and all made it to the “major” leagues.)
Although Shavuot is such a critical holiday — the source of our nationhood by G-d’s presenting us with His mission as a nation — don’t be embarrassed by not knowing much about it. You’re in good company; I have found that many Jews who are very cognizant about Passover or Chanukah have no idea about Shavuot. I think one reason is that the other holidays have some tangible object around which the festival revolves. Pesach has its matzah, refraining from bread, and the entire seder experience. Sukkot has its sukkah, etrog and lulav. Chanukah has its menorah, and Purim has the Megillah and all the joyous festivities which accompany it.
Shavuot, on the other hand, has no such concrete, touchable item or ritual article upon which to focus the celebration. It’s all about a concept: the receiving of the Torah. The rituals of all the other holidays are available even to Jews who may not study Torah. But the main celebration of Shavuot, besides the usual holiday meals and cheesecake, is the study of Torah. It is customary in congregations worldwide for many to spend a portion of Shavuot night, even the entire night, in the study of Torah. The greatest celebration of Torah is Torah!
This custom, together with the cognizance of the holiday itself, fell by the wayside when a large segment of our people were no longer students of the Torah. Sadly, the “People of the Book” closed the book.
It is a well-known adage that throughout Jewish history any community, albeit observant, that did not maintain institutions of Jewish learning assimilated within two to three generations. Less observant communities that remained staunch in their study of Torah always endured; as the rabbis of the Talmud explain, “the light within it [the Torah] will return them to the path.”
One of my mentors once related an incident which transpired when a friend of his visited pre-perestroika Russia. Customs asked him the reason for his visit; he answered, “Tourist.” They opened his suitcases and emptied out the contents: mezuzot, shofars, tallitot, many pairs of tefillin, and books on the Torah. They said, wryly, “Tourist, huh?” They returned all the other religious items to the suitcases, but held back the books. They told him, in effect, “You can have all this stuff, but the books, those are the ‘enemies of the people.’” Those customs officials realized that the strength of the Jewish people comes from their study of Torah. Let us realize it as well, and may this Shavuot holiday be for you and all of us a renewed acceptance of the study of Torah!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dear Rabbi Fried,