Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
May 17, 2004 – Number 5764-28
Shavuot – The Forgotten Holiday
There are three pilgrimage festivals on the Hebrew Calendar. Three times we are commanded to celebrate in Jerusalem, at the great Temple there, these three holidays. One is Sukkot, the holiday that is associated with great joy. The second is Pesach, the great holiday of Jewish Liberation. The third is Shavuot, a small Festival when compared to Pesach and Sukkot, but one that is important. The sad truth is that most people don’t know about Shavuot and don’t know why it ranks with Pesach and Sukkot as one of the three top Festivals of the Jewish year.
Sukkot is a seven day festival that has an eighth day attached to the end. Sukkot ends with Hoshana Rabba, but is immediately followed by Shemini Atzeret (and the second day of Shemini Atzeret which is now a virtual second holiday called Simchat Torah). The Sages say that Sukkot is an international holiday, and Shemini Atzeret is a special day, added to the end that is strictly for Jews. Six months later, once again at the full moon, is Pesach, another seven day holiday (with the last day doubled for calendar reasons making it eight days) Pesach too, the Sages say, has a concluding festival. It does not come, as Shemini Atzeret, immediately after Pesach, we first count 49 days from the beginning of Pesach until this additional festival arrives, called Shavuot.
As with Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot has both a agricultural root as well as an historical root. Pesach begins the harvest of the new grain. Shavuot marks the beginning of the fruit harvest. Special ceremonies were held as each community brought decorated baskets of fruit to be dedicated at the Temple. The Torah does not directly give Shavuot a historical focus, but the Sages of the Talmud, through their calculations, declared that Shavuot was the day that Moses received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. One would think that this would be the basis of one of the most important days on the Jewish Calendar. But because there were Jews who believed that the Ten Commandments were the only thing revealed at Sinai, the importance of the day was lessened.
It was this connection to Torah that eventually gave Shavuot its most unique feature. The Kabbalists noted that the people of Israel had to get up early on the day of the revelation. Even so, they awoke to a mountain that was full of lightning and smoke. G-d, it seems was up even earlier and caught the People of Israel sleeping. To correct this conception that we were sleeping when G-d wanted to give us the Torah, we stay up all night, on Erev Shavuot, studying Torah and the commentaries of the Sages. G-d will not catch us sleeping again. This study session is called “Tikkun L’el Shavuot
The other custom associated with Shavuot is the eating of dairy foods, especially blintzes. The reason is really unknown (who knows why one food becomes associated with one holiday or another?) but we say that after the revelation, and the giving of the laws of Kashrut, the People of Israel were too exhausted to go out and ritually slaughter meat according to the new laws. They decided to eat only dairy and so we eat dairy on Shavuot to this very day.
Passover and Sukkot are seven day festivals. Shavuot is only two days long. We should also note that the Torah never gives us a date when Shavuot is to begin. It begins 50 days after the beginning of Pesach. Passover and Sukkot always fall on the new moon of the month, Shavuot does not. The Torah is not even clear when we are supposed to begin our count. The Torah seems to indicate that the count begins from the Shabbat of Pesach, which would give Shavuot a different day to begin every year. According to the Talmud, however, we begin the count on the second day of Pesach, so that Shavuot always falls on the sixth of Nisan.
Because of its agricultural background, the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot and there is a special piyyut that is designated for Shavuot called “Akdumot” (from its opening word) that speaks of the glory of Torah. In some places, the synagogue is decorated with branches from trees and other large green plants to remember the fruits our ancestors brought to the Temple. Because of its dedication to Torah, when Judaism lifted the ceremony of Confirmation from the Christians, as a means of extending the education of children after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Shavuot became an obvious day to celebrate this milestone.
Next week: The Tallit