Shavuot isn’t about a ritual

Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year, we were invited to an observant family for a meal on the eve 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 & Sarena W.
Dear Noah and Sarena,
Shavuos is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of God giving us the Torah. This year it falls on Saturday night, May 19, corresponding to the Jewish date of 6 Sivan, and we are commemorating the 3,330th anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Shavuos is not a “minor holiday,” but is mentioned in the Torah numerous times.
Just for the record, although it seems to be a commonly held concept, there actually is no notion of a “minor holiday” in Judaism. There are Torah-mandated holidays and rabbinically-mandated holidays, such as Purim and Hanukkah, but even those are not considered “minor.” All the holidays, regardless of their level of obligation, are considered of the highest importance, and all made it to the “major” leagues.
Shavuos is a critical holiday, the source of our nationhood — God’s presenting us with our mission as a nation. But don’t be embarrassed by not knowing much about it — you’re in good company. I have found that many Jews who are proud to be Jewish and very cognizant about Passover and Hanukkah have no idea about Shavuot.
I think one reason for this is that the other holidays have some tangible observance around which the holiday revolves. Pesach has its matzoh, refraining from bread and the entire Seder experience. Sukkot has its sukkah, etrog and lulav. Hanukkah has its menorah, and Purim has the Megillah and all the joyous festivities that accompany it.
Shavuos, on the other hand, has no such concrete, tangible ritual article or observance upon 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 holiday meals and cheesecake, is the study of Torah. It is customary in 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, 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.
On this holiday we celebrate that Jewish continuity truly depends upon the study of Torah.
It is a well-known fact that, throughout Jewish history, any community that did not maintain institutions of Jewish learning assimilated within two to three generations. That is true even if it began as an observant community. Less observant communities that, nonetheless, remained staunch in their study of Torah always endured. This is 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 that transpired when a friend of his visited pre-perestroika Russia. Customs authorities asked him the reason for his visit. He answered that he was there as a tourist. They proceeded to open his suitcases and emptied out the contents, finding many mezuzos, shofars, tallitot, many pairs of tefillin, and books of the Torah. They said, wryly, “tourist, huh?” They returned back to the suitcases all the religious items but held back the books. They told him, you can have all this stuff, but the books, “these are the enemies of the people.”
Those communist customs officials realized that the strength of the Jewish people comes from their study of Torah. Let us realize this as well.
May this Shavuot holiday be for you and all of us a renewed acceptance of the study of Torah. Chag Sameach, a wonderful Shavuos holiday to you and all the readers.

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