Beginning with the sunset on Saturday, Jews throughout the world will begin to observe Shavuot, the most meaningful (to me) and favorite of Jewish holidays. It commemorates, that incredible day when God gave us the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
People living in the US (including many Jews), might think that Hanukkah is the major Jewish holiday. Actually it is a very minor holiday. Shavuot is one of the three major festivals (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). In biblical days, Jews would travel from all over the Holy Land to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice at the Holy Temple on those three festivals.
Historically, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah). Notice it says giving of the Torah not receiving of the Torah. We believe that Jews are always receiving the Torah, learning its meanings, understanding the mitzvot. Therefore using receiving doesn’t really work because every day is the time of receiving the Torah.
Interesting Facts about Shavuot:
- Mount Sinai: We are taught that Mount Sinai was chosen because it was a “modest sized mountain” One might think it was because Moses was an old man when he had to climb the mountain, Actually he had to climb up and down 4 times and he was 80 yrs. old. God chose a moderate mountain because he wanted to show that man did not have to be large in stature to meet his potential. Another reason Sinai was chosen was because it was outside of the Holy Land. The laws given at Sinai are basic laws and should apply to all people.
- Since the law was given outside of the Holy Land God could legitimately demand that these basic rules about how people should live their lives apply not just to Jews but to all people.
- What Moses looked like: How the heck would I know. But I can definitely tell you he didn’t look like the Charlton Heston-like, traditional way the lawgiver has been portrayed in movies and art. Think about it, here was the child of Hebrew slaves raised in the court of Pharaoh–why would he look like a tall westerner? Sorry to burst your bubbles but Moses was probably short by today’s standards and had dark skin like Middle Easterners today (and BTW we know his wife was black).
- The Revelation at Sinai. Think about this for a second, the Torah says there were 603,000 men at Sinai (so at least 2 million people), to hear God’s words in God’s voice.The first two of the Ten Commandments were also heard directly from God speaking to the Jewish people, and not through Moses as an intermediary. Jewish tradition explains that the experience was so powerful, that the Jews “died” from the impact of hearing God’s voice. Their souls actually left their bodies from the force of the interaction, and God had to “revive” them.
- After this happened twice, the Jewish people said, “Enough! We’re convinced – you tell Moses and he can tell us the rest of them to us!” I bet God was relieved also, It can’t be easy to revive 2 m. people But more importantly; There is no other religious event in the history of mankind where the presence of God was seen and heard by an entire nation. Now some of you maybe thinking it is all a fable, that never happened. I bet you guys also believe that the moon landing was staged. Well, there is no way to prove the story of the revelation at Sinai really happened (that’s why it’s called faith). But ponder this. There were 2 m. witnesses. Not one wrote a minority opinion. Not one said the entire lawgiving thing was done on a sound stage in Brooklyn, or that it wasn’t God from on high–it was Moses standing on some wooden boxes speaking through a bull horn and reading the commandments off a yellow legal pad.
- In the Torah, the first word of the Ten Commandments Anochi (I am) is not in Hebrew it’s in Egyptian. There are 50 days between when the Jews left Egypt (Passover) and when they received the law at Sinai (Shavuot). That’s not a lot of time especially when you consider they were slaves for a few hundred years. They weren’t even away from Egypt long enough to forget the phone numbers of the best take-out places in Egypt. The Lord wanted them to feel comfortable, so he started with an Egyptian word, bringing up the question–if the revelation at Sinai happened today, would the first words be ‘Dudes, check it out, I’m the Alpha Dog here”
- They’re not really called the Ten Commandments, at least in Judaism. In Biblical Hebrew, the commandments are called עשרת הדברים (transliterated Aseret ha-Dvarîm) and in Rabbinical Hebrew עשרת הדברות (transliterated Aseret ha-Dibrot), both translatable as “the ten words” or “the ten things. While many Rabbis believe that all of the rest of the commandments in the Torah stem from these 10, they also teach that all 613 commandments in the Torah are equal (except for giving to charity and honoring your parents). Pirkei Avot, a book of the Mishnah, teaches “Be as meticulous in performing a ‘minor’ mitzvah as you are with a ‘major’ one, because you don’t know what kind of reward you’ll get for various mitzvot.”
- The Commandments have no “Thou Shalts.” Our maker is a “bottom line” type of guy and fitting all of those Hebrew words on stone tablets small enough for an 80-year-old to carry down a mountain is not easy. So there were no “thou shalts” nor were there any “thou shalt nots” in the the commandments. Those are all fancy words added by humans who thought God needed embellishments to be cool. Folks, we are talking about the word of God the freaking creator of the universe, the omnipotent being who boldly went where no man has gone before, countless billions of years before James Tiberius Kirk appeared on TV screens. There is nothing cooler than that. So his words needed no embellishments, therefore as an example, it’s not “Thou shalt not steal” it’s “Don’t Steal.”
- There is no commandment that says, “Don’t Kill.” In the originalHebrew the commandment, לֹא תִרְצָח translates as “Don’t murder.” What’s the difference? If it said “don’t kill” then acts of self-defense, the death penalty, war etc. would be banned, they’re not–only intentional murder.
- Moses’ Father-in-Law Gets Top Billing? The name of the Parsha (weekly Torah reading) in which the revelation occurs is not named after the Ten Commandments, it is called Yitro, after Moses’ father-in-law who was a Gentile. There are only two Parshot in the Torah named after a non-Jew so this is a big deal. At the beginning of this Parsha, Yitro sits Moses down and explains to him how to delegate responsibility so he can spend more time with family. From this we learn that to God, Shalom Ha-Bayit (peace in the House) is more important than anything even the revelation at Sinai, that spending time with family is also God’s work. It also teaches us that father-in-laws are not only allowed to, but are supposed to butt in.
- All Night Study Sessions: The first night of Shavuot the tradition is to spend the evening studying Torah. That’s because the Jews overslept at Sinai. This is how the Torah tells the story beginning with Exodus 19:16, “It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. The Rabbis interpret this verse as God was already on the top of Sinai waiting, but we overslept so the Lord had to make a racket and wake us up. That’s why on the first evening of the holiday (Saturday night this year) we have a what’s called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (repairing the Evening of Shavuot). We spend all night studying Torah make up for the fact that we overslept. We are showing God that we appreciate the Torah he gave us, and we are not going to oversleep again. And to make sure we stay awake–we eat while we study.
- Pizza, Blintzes and Ice Cream, The reason why Shavuot is my Favorite Jewish Holiday. When God was done with giving the Jews the Torah at Sinai, the Israelites realized that their plates were not “Kosher.” While they were making their plates and utensils Kosher, they ate only dairy. So we eat only dairy also. Therefore, Shavuot is 48 hours of Pizza, Blintzes, Cookies and Cream Ice Cream (to be truthful any flavor is okay, cookies and cream is my personal favorite). That’s why Shavuot is my favorite Jewish holiday. The two days of Shavuot, are the only two days of the year you can tell your wife “Yes Honey, I am a diabetic and the doctor did tell me to lose weight, but this is not splurging, I am only eating this pint of Hagen-Daz because I am following God’s Law” How cool is that!
Folks have a wonderful holiday and whether you are Jew or Gentile, remember to make sure and eat lots of your favorite flavor of ice cream (its God’s will).