Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year we were invited to join an observant family for a meal on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot (with social distancing, of course). We sort of nervous since 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
Dear Noah and Sarena,
Shavuot is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of God giving us the Torah. It occurs on the 6th of the Jewish month of Sivan, and commemorates the anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago.
Shavuot is actually 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 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).
Shavuot 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 a custom to eat dairy at one of the Shavuot meals. One of the reasons for this custom is that Torah is compared to milk and honey, which is the epitome of sweetness. When the Jews received the Torah, God revealed that Torah is the greatest enjoyment and ecstasy 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 which the world has to offer.
Although Shavuot is such a critical holiday, the source of our nationhood by God’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 Hanukkah have no idea about Shavuot. I think one reason for this is that the other holidays have some tangible object around which the holiday revolves. Pesach has its matzo, 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 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. All the other holidays are available in their celebration even to Jews who may not study Torah. 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-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 Russia a number of years ago. The customs official asked him the reason for his visit, him answering 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 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 “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!
One more idea:
The Torah describes the Jews at Sinai “and the nation encamped across from the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). The encampment adjacent to the mountain is expressed in the singular (vayichan), not in the plural (ve’yachanu), which is incorrect for a group of people. Why did the Torah use the incorrect grammatical form?
The sages explain that something very significant is being hinted to by that subtle change of referring to the Jewish people in singular. This was the only time in Jewish history that the entire nation was together with no dispute, like one person with one heart!
Why was this so? If we are so prone to divisions and arguments how were we able to be completely and totally united when receiving the Torah?
The Torah is the great uniter of our people. Every Jewish soul is connected to a letter, line or crown of a letter of the Torah. Only a Torah which is complete, with no letters missing, is kosher. Only a totally united Jewish people is complete, all Jews connecting the lines, letters and crowns of their souls into one huge Torah scroll which is the Jewish nation. The Jews understood at Sinai that without complete participation the Torah would not be brought down from Above and be presented to them, because any Jewish soul which would not participate would constitute an incomplete Torah scroll. The Jews, therefore, went beyond all divisions, accepting the yoke of Torah as one soul, with all Jewish hearts beating in unison in their acceptance of Torah!
This is a very profound message for us today.
Unfortunately there are many divisions in our people. The best way Jews can repair their divisions and reunite is to study Torah together. We are reminded of the profound words Senator Joe Lieberman once said many years ago: “Although we can’t necessarily all pray together, why can’t we all study together?”
Shavuot is a time to join a study session, a class or program! By doing so, one joins hands with hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world who are also studying Torah on this day. You are also being a link to the millions of Jews who have done so over the generations from Sinai, linking the past generations with the future. Check with your synagogue to see how they are addressing Torah study this Shavuot. There are also many opportunities listed on the TJP calendar at tjpnews.com.
By joining such a session, we express an acceptance to increase our Torah study and Jewish literacy throughout the year, much as the Jews accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah for all time over 3,300 years ago.