April 28, 2003 – Number 12
Shavuot – The Forgotten Holiday
Shavuot is as important a holiday as Sukkot and Pesach. It is one of the three “foot festivals” (Shalosh Regalim) or pilgrimage festivals on the Jewish Calendar. The laws and celebrations are the same as Sukkot and Pesach and yet it is the one holiday that is often forgotten by Jews.
Pesach celebrates our freedom from slavery and Sukkot is about our wanderings in the desert. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. One would think that this would be celebrated even more than the other two festivals and yet, most people can not remember the date of Shavuot. Pesach celebrates the spring, and Sukkot the fall harvest. Shavuot is about bringing in the first fruits. Once it was a festival of parades and joy, but now it is most often ignored. Why is Shavuot so easy to forget? The answer is difficult.
There is a question as to the actual date of Shavuot. If Shavuot always falls 50 days after the start of the Omer, the Omer then becomes days of anticipation as our ancestors moved from slavery to Torah. Remember, however, that there were many discussions as to when the Omer actually begins. Some say the first day of the count is the second day of Pesach (the way we indeed count today). This would make Shavuot always fall on the sixth day of Sivan. There were those who insisted that the Omer began on the first Shabbat of Pesach, thus making the date of Shavuot vary from year to year. We do not follow this method of counting but it seems to have had an effect on the way the Sages looked at Shavuot.
Like all of the pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot probably began as a celebration of the beginning of the summer harvest season with Sukkot as its end. The Rabbis of the Talmud later calculated that Shavuot would also be the time when the Ten Commandments were proclaimed on Mt. Sinai (Moses then spends 40 days on Sinai only to come down and find the people worshiping the Golden Calf. Moses then breaks the tablets on the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day on our calendar. Moses asks G-d to forgive the people for 40 days and then returns to Sinai for another 40 days, he returns with the Tablets of the Law on the 10th day of Tishre, Yom Kippur) Apparently in the Rabbinic period, there were sectarians who insisted that only the Ten Commandments were important, not the rest of the Torah. The Sages then reduced the importance of the Ten Commandments in the liturgy and in Jewish Law, choosing to emphasize the Shema and Amida instead. As the Ten Commandments were relegated to the liturgical “back seat” so too did Shavuot fall out of favor. We do not have any ritual objects for Shavuot, no matza, no lulav, no sukka, no seder.
The Rabbis of the Talmud refer to Shavuot as a concluding festival (Atzeret) for Pesach, one that falls 50 days after Pesach begins, similar to the way Shemini Atzeret is the concluding festival for Sukkot falling on the eighth day after Sukkot begins. Since Sukkot is on the edge of the rainy season, the concluding festival come at the very end of the holiday. Pesach marks the beginning of the dry season, and the early grain harvest so it allows those to go home for the harvest and return 50 days later for Shavuot. Standing in the shadow of Pesach, it is little wonder Shavuot does not get much attention.
The only ritual that really belongs to Shavuot alone is the custom of eating dairy. No one is really sure exactly why this is the custom on Shavuot. One legend holds that after the giving of the law at Sinai, the Israelites discovered that the laws for the slaughter of animals and the preparation of kosher meat was a long complicated affair. Since they were hungry, they opted to eat Dairy after the revelation and we eat dairy on this festival ever since. The dairy food of choice are cheese blintzes.
There is a custom from the mystical tradition that makes it very meritorious to study Torah all night on the first evening of Shavuot. Legend has it that G-d came down early on Mt. Sinai only to find Israel still fast asleep. They were so embarrassed we stay up all night to show how much we anticipate the giving of the Law. There are two customs as to what is studied. One has us study a section from each of the divisions of the Torah and of Rabbinic Liturature. The other would have us read about the Commandments, the book of Ruth or other text appropriate for the festival. The book of Ruth was assigned to Shavuot and is read on the first day since it is about the grain harvest and Ruth’s devotion to the Torah the brings her to convert to Judaism. The all night study session is called a “Tikkun L’el Shvuot” and when it does go all night, there is a quick Shacharit service at dawn so the participants can go home and get some sleep.
As with all festivals, there is a Yizkor service of memory on the final day of this two day holiday.
Next week: Reading Torah: How to Have an Aliyah.