Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Shavuot: The Cinderella of the Festivals

Insights on Shavuot, the holiday with no special laws.
Published: Monday, June 02, 2014 6:15 AM


It's sad for Shavuot.

Rosh Hashanah has its shofar, Pesach its matzah, Purim its Megillah - but Shavusot has no special mitzvah to make it colourful and popular, and Jewish opinion,except for yeshivas where it is a central Torah learning holiday, seems to have decided that it is a non-event.

Further, every yom-tov except Hanukkah has its own masechta (Talmudic Tractate), and even Hanukkah has a structure of laws - but Shavuot has neither a tractate nor a large body of halakhot.

It's decidedly odd. Shavuot marks the greatest event in our history, but there is no pattern of ritual to celebrate it. Yes, there is cheesecake (and other milchig delicacies) - but cheesecake is too trivial to be the answer to why tradition has not ordained a serious pattern of observance for Shavuot.

There are two explanations, historical and theological. Historically, our sages saw Shavuot not as an independent event, but as an adjunct to or completion of Pesach. Instead of the name Shavuot, meaning "weeks", alluding to the counting of the Omer, the festival was known as Atzeret, "completion". Pesach and Shavuot were part of one total experience of freedom, physical and moral.

Theologically, any symbol of Shavuot, the festival of the Giving of the Torah, would have to represent Torah, but as God cannot be limited or constrained (Isaiah 66), so can Torah not be encapsulated or symbolized.

The only possible symbol of Torah is not a noun like a shofar, matzah, Megillah and sukkah, but a verb - in fact, two verbs, "learning" and "living". We mark Torah not by seizing upon a symbol, but by a pattern of action.

Its first element is learning. There is a special way of learning Torah. "What does this mean?" asks Ludwig Lewisohn. "It means a devout and seeking attention to the word of prophet or master; it means slaking a thirst of the soul. It means reading with the right and pure kavanah intention, the right and pure aspiration after the sources of wisdom and of good. It desires to understand, not to argue; to absorb, not to brag with; to find words of life and follow them, not to find formulae for dispute or victory in dispute. It desires immersion into an eternal source of spiritual joy and rectitude" ("What is this Jewish Heritage", 1954, p.47).

How do we live Torah? Let Ludwig Lewisohn answer this question too. "That way which Jews have pursued," he says, "that halakhah is the way of sanctification of all life, in order that life may be truly human and may illustrate man's likeness to God. The Jew's recommitment is not a recommitment of preaching or teaching, of writing or joining parties. It is a life to be lived. And it is to be lived not consciously or spectacularly, but with quiet self-containment, with tranquillity  with dignity, beyond all clamour and contention" (p.43).

Our generation has encountered many major problems and will need steady nerves for many years in order to endeavour to contain those problems and control their fall-out. But let us not fail to recognise that this is also an age of great wonders. Some of them no one could have predicted. Some have surprised even the greatest believers in the possibility of miracles. For instance, the amazing resurgence of Torah learning and Torah living.

Who, on the morrow of the Holocaust, standing amid the ashes of the intense Torah life of pre-war Eastern Europe, was rash enough to imagine that Torah would rise from the ruins like a phoenix? And yet it has happened. Jewish learning is the great Jewish growth industry, Jewish living is attracting ever more of our people, especially and significantly the young.

The two verbs of Shavuot are back in fashion. The Cinderella of Shavu'ot has become a princess!

WHY WEREN'T THEY READY?

The giving of the Torah was a noisy affair – “thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast” (Ex. 19: 16 – 17). Why such a commotion?

According to the Midrash, the people had slept in, and God had to wake them up. As Rashi puts it, it was like a teacher who arrives before his class and wonders where his pupils are. The result was the now long accepted practice of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, staying up all night on Erev Shavuot to study Torah and to prepare spiritually for the festival. Our ancestors were caught napping; we have to make up for their lapse.

True, it is not our generation that were at fault, but every generation can be guilty of failing to be ready for a spiritual experience. Shavuot is the most obvious symbol of this problem – after all, Jews have often failed to embrace the Torah with sufficient joy and excitement – but we are frequently unprepared for a great moment.

Our preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is often far too perfunctory – and yet we complain that the service leaves us unmoved.

Examples of lack of readiness for prime-time experiences are not limited to the festivals. How many people, for instance, are spiritually ready for marriage, for parenthood, for retirement, even for death?

CHURCH & STATE

In today's world, slogans often replace facts. Victims of this tendency include the Ten Commandments. Yes, everybody says the Ten Commandments are a good thing and all civilized nations believe in them. What wonderful rhetoric! But what is the reality?

Few nations give even lip service to "I am the Lord your God". Even fewer can honestly say they have no other gods before God. They all use the Divine Name or other pious phrases in vain. They take no notice of the Sabbath. They give honor, not to parents – or children – but to the rich, the noisy and the powerful.

The laws against killing, stealing, committing adultery, bearing false witness – none of these principles is seriously upheld, regardless of the rhetoric. Not coveting? Everyone else's turf is greener and we all wish we had it. Don't talk to me about keeping the Ten Commandments.

Some would argue that the separation of Church and State makes it all harder. Personally, I think it actually helps. History provides more than enough evidence of religion using State power for its own ends, and vice-versa. Neither is constructive. When people have to be coerced into religion out of fear of State sanctions it compromises the freedom of the individual conscience. How can I be dragooned into a religious affiliation against my conscience and convictions?

When the State uses religion as an instrument of power and social control, it compromises both the self-respect of the State and the religious duty of saying "Thus saith the Lord" even against potentates and princes. There must be ongoing dialogue between Church and State, but neither should be an instrument of the other.

THE DATE OF SHAVUOT

No explicit date is given in the Torah for Shavuot. We know it has to come seven weeks after Pesach.

In Second Temple times it was hotly debated between the Pharisees, who said that in the command to count seven weeks “from the morrow of the Sabbath”, “Sabbath” means the first festival day of Pesach – and the Sadducees, who said that “Sabbath” means Saturday. The Pharisee view prevailed, so the two festivals are intrinsically linked.

The outcome is that the physical freedom of Pesach, when the people became an independent nation, is complemented by the moral freedom of Shavuot, when they decided that they would accept the Torah as their national constitution.

MILK & MEAT ON SHAVUOT

Shavuot is marked by eating dairy foods. The explanations for this custom are almost innumerable. Every book about Jewish practice and custom offers a theory.

One of the possibilities is the following. In the laws of kashrut, it is prohibited to mix milk and meat foods. The prohibition comes three times in the Torah, so that the separation of the two categories of food is a crucial sign of Jewish observance. Yet milk is permitted on its own, as is meat (provided of course it is kosher), but what is not permitted is their mixture.

The Torah portion of Noach, with its Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah, tells us that we may not consume meat that is torn from the body of a living animal ("Ever Min HaChai"). Meat therefore is only allowed if the animal has been properly slaughtered (using the laws of shechitah). Milk, on the other hand, comes by definition from a living animal.

In case one thought that the rule against meat from a living animal also entailed not consuming milk from a living animal, the Jewish tradition specially ordained an occasion – Shavuot – which features and celebrates the eating of milk products.

RISING ABOVE THE SENSES

A few place names set the scene for the whole of Judaism. Moriah, Jerusalem, Sinai, Masada, evoke overwhelming thoughts and emotions. Shavuot, of course, turns the spotlight on Sinai.

The greatest event in history took place there, but the rabbinic sages were adamant that it was and remains a rather ordinary mountain, unimpressive in relation to the majestic peaks elsewhere. The place was not as important as the message: the lesson mattered more than the locale. After the Six-Day War we were able see the mountain that is reputed to be Mount Sinai close up, and the rabbinic notion that this was no grand, remarkable peak was proved over and over again.

So if we cannot and do not concentrate on the venue, what of the message with which it is associated? The message is Revelation: God revealed Himself to Moses and the assembled multitude of Israel. A difficult concept, for God is infinite and non-physical, and yet He was able to communicate with finite, physical mankind. Of course nothing is impossible for God, but our human reason cries out to understand how the Revelation could have happened.

“No man can see Me and live”, says God (Ex. 33:20), and yet human beings perceived something of Him, even if it was with the mind’s eye and not in the normal sense, and they lived. The people said to Moses, “You speak to us and we shall hear: let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:30), and yet God did speak to them, and they did not die.

“The people saw the thunder” (Ex. 20:15); the rabbis remarked, “They saw that which is normally heard, and they heard that which is normally seen”. It seems that the demarcation between the senses fell away. All five senses combined in a unique experience. There was no longer a dividing line between sight and hearing, smell and touch, feeling and any of the other senses.

Man rose above his normal self. His elevation removed him from the constraints of earthly life. His ecstasy brought him into higher realms. For a moment man was in heaven, and lived. Moses had feared that the moment would bring destruction: “Let them keep away, lest they break through to see God, and many will perish” (Ex. 19:21) – but they survived.

There may be a parallel in a story told of four rabbis who entered “the garden (of spirituality)” and only one – Rabbi Akiva – “entered in peace and emerged in peace” (Chag. 14b). The miracle of the Revelation at Sinai is that a whole people entered in peace and emerged in peace. What actually happened we cannot discern with the regular apparatus of human reason and logic, but our ancestors knew that they had perceived a glimpse of God and had heard His voice.

What Sinai teaches us is that earth-bound mortals, however rarely, can reach out to the Ineffable and rise above the limitations of their physical senses. It teaches us, too, that in an ethical sense we can rise above the defects and drawbacks of being human and achieve a world in which love, truth, peace and justice are actualities and not just dreams.