By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Dear Rabbi Fried,

This year we are invited to an observant family for a meal on the eve of the holiday of Shavuos. We are sort of nervous since we don’t know much about it and don’t want to sound ignorant at their table. Is Shavuos a minor holiday? Could you please “fill us in”?

Noah and Sarena

Dear Noah and Sarena,

Shavuos is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of G-d giving us the Torah. This year it begins on Tuesday night, June 13, corresponding to the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan, and commemorates the anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah 3,336 years ago.

Shavuos is not a “minor” holiday and 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, such as Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos. There are also rabbinically mandated ones, such as Purim and Hanukkah, 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.

Shavuos is observed for two days in the Diaspora, one day in Israel. Its laws are similar to those of Shabbos, with certain exceptions.

There is also a custom to eat dairy at one of the Shavuos meals. One of the reasons is that the Torah is compared to milk and honey, which is the epitome of sweetness. When the Jews received the Torah, G-d revealed that Torah is the greatest enjoyment which is available in this world. It is a piece of the next world available to taste in this world — a transcendental, eternal pleasure which dwarfs all the transient, physical pleasures that the world has to offer. Hence, we celebrate that sweetness with dairy at some point during the day or night.

Although Shavuos is the source of our nationhood, the day we received our mission as a nation, surprisingly many Jews don’t know much about it. I have found that many Jews who are very knowledgeable about Passover or Hanukkah have no idea about Shavuos!

 I think that perhaps one reason for this is that the other holidays all have some tangible object or observance around which the holiday revolves. Pesach has its matzo and the entire Seder experience. Sukkos has its sukkah, esrog and lulav. Hanukkah has its menorah; Purim has the Megillah and all the joyous festivities which accompany it.

Shavuos, on the other hand, has no ritual article or observance with which to focus the celebration. It’s all about a concept: the receiving of the Torah. All the other holidays are available in their celebration even to Jews who may not study Torah. The main celebration of Shavuos, besides the usual holiday meals and cheesecake, is the study of Torah. It is customary in many congregations worldwide to spend a portion of Shavuos 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, perhaps 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.

Communities that remained staunch in their study of Torah always endured even if they were less observant, as the Talmud explains, “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, ‘I’m a tourist.” They proceeded to open his suitcases and emptied out the contents: mezuzos, shofars, tallitot, pairs of tefillin and books of Torah. They said, wryly, “Tourist, huh?” They returned all the religious items back to the suitcases but held back the books. They told him, “You can have all this stuff, but the books are the enemies of the people!” Those customs officials realized that the strength of the Jewish people stems from their study of Torah.

Let us realize it as well, and may this Shavuos holiday be for you and us all a renewed acceptance of the study of Torah!

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.

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