What is Shavuot all about?

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 & Sarena W.

Dear Noah and Sarena,

Shavuot is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of G-d giving us the Torah. This year it falls out on Thursday night, May 25, through Saturday night, the 27th. This corresponds to the Jewish date of the sixth of the Jewish month of Sivan. This year we commemorate the 3,335th anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Shavuot is actually not a “minor holiday,” but is mentioned in the Torah numerous times. It is about as “major” as it gets; it’s when we received our “marching orders” as a nation for all time!

(Just for the record, there 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 (or Shavuos in the Ashkenazi pronunciation) 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 least 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, G-d 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, 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 Seder experience. Sukkot has its sukkah, etrog and lulav and Simchat Torah. 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, tangible 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 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” have 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.

Shavuot is a time to join a study session, a class or a 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.

Furthermore, 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.

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

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