Why is Shavuot the elusive holiday?
The usual answer is that Shavuot has no unique ritual. Not the matzah or the seder of Passover, not the shofar of Rosh Hashanah, not the lulav or the sukkah of Sukkot, not the dancing of Simchat Torah, not even the prayer and fasting of Yom Kippur. Speaking of, even the other fast days seem to have a greater texture than Shavuot, for what is there that distinguishes Shavuot? O, but what about the widespread custom of eating dairy foods? It is not written in the Torah, nor in the Talmud. If one does not eat dairy foods on Shavuot, one has committed no grave violation. Shavuot is the elusive holiday because its meaning cannot be grasped like that of all other Jewish holidays and fast days. They are seasonal. It takes a few weeks to prepare for Passover and 30 days of Elul to prepare for the High Holidays and another 10 days of repentance to meet Yom Kippur. The fast of the ninth of Av takes three weeks of preparation. True enough, one counts the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, but the count is from Passover, not to Shavuot. If one were counting down to Shavuot, the count would begin with 49 days, then 48 days, etc., but the count goes in the opposite direction, away from Passover, as if Passover were extended 49 days.
Indeed, Nachmanides calls these 49 days a kind of “chol ha-moed,” an intermediate space between Passover and Shavuot. So what is the meaning of Shavuot?
In the American Jewish community, why is there less attendance on Shavuot than on all other Jewish holidays? Many synagogues have made Shavuot a time for Confirmation. It is an artificial linkage, as Confirmation itself has no roots in Jewish lore; it is but an attempt to keep Jewish teenagers connected to the synagogue a couple of years past Bar and Bat Mitzvah. It is an admirable attempt to infuse meaning into the Shavuot holiday, which is but another way of posing the same question: Why doesn’t the holiday itself have the same “pull,” the same attraction, for the wider Jewish community as other Jewish holidays?
Perhaps the answer is this: To find Passover meaningful, all one has to do is to pay attention to Passover itself, and to prepare a couple of weeks for in advance. All one has to do to find Rosh Hashanah meaningful is to pay attention to it. The same for all of the other holidays: Just shift gears for a couple of days or for a week or so, and you have the holiday in your grasp.
You’ve got matzah and a seder? Then you’ve got Passover. You’ve done sincere introspection and prayed hard? You’ve got Rosh Hashanah.
It doesn’t work this way with Shavuot. To “get” it, a Jew has to do something all year long. It cannot be prepared for just during the 49 days of the Omer count, which, in any event, are not characterized in the Torah as a preparation for Shavuot. Rather, in antiquity, Shavuot was the time to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple, in a show of gratitude. But there is no Temple now. What is the meaning of Shavuot now?
Not all night, but all year
The customary answer is that Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah by G-d on Mount Sinai. Aye, there’s the rub. No specific ritual is able to commemorate the revelation and no seasonal disruption in the normal course of life is able to mark it. Its meaning is grasped only if one studies the Torah delivered at Sinai all year long. Suddenly to wake up to the theme of Torah study a few days before Shavuot, or even 49 days before Shavuot, will not do it — will not enable one to grasp the holiness of Shavuot. Staying up all night on Shavuot studying Torah, but barely doing it any other time, is, well, like all good things: it is a good thing. But it will not convey the strength, the centrality, the focus or the holiness of the holiday.
Torah study does not work that way. Not because the Torah is vast and it takes a long time, a lifetime in fact, to delve into. But because the Torah, to be meaningful, is to be received with the same freshness as the day it was given. By definition, Torah study is more than an intellectual exercise, it is a re-creation of the original acceptance of the Torah. It is the excitement, the fear and the awe of standing at Mount Sinai. Like any really appreciated new thing, the acceptance of the Torah retains its hold on a person only if one is conscious of it all the time.
To be able to “enter into” Shavuot, one needs to feel the fresh connection that each Jew potentially has with the Torah, by studying it day by day, all year long. This is why Shavuot, in contemporary Jewish society, is the hardest holiday. It isn’t given to seasonal preparation. It can’t have its own unique ritual, such as a shofar, or its own unique gesture, such as a seder, for the same reason that breathing cannot be done or celebrated seasonally. Breathing needs to be constant. The essence of Torah study is constancy. As it is the life-breath of the relationship between the Jew and G-d, it cannot be limited by a special ritual object or a specific ritual gesture.
It can, however, be celebrated, much as a person who runs a race, swims laps, lifts weights or recovers from an illness can feel the specialness of breathing and can celebrate it.
The Treasure Is Not Elusive
Translation: Shavuot does not have to be the elusive holiday. It can even become the most treasured holiday, if one understands that the preparation for it is the study of Torah every day and finding a way to enter into the sweetness of it —
• To be enraptured by the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh;
• To be mentally challenged and enhanced by the process of Talmudic study;
• To be refined by the demands of musar study, looking inward and refining one’s character;
• To be excited by the weekly Torah portion as it rolls around;
• To delight in the endless variety of the Hebrew Bible: its narratives, its laws, its rhythms, its history, its wisdom, its embodiments of elevated success and abject failure, its pregnant passages, its endless layers of interpretation;
• To see the connection between the complexities of the the Torah in theory and the way it is implemented in practice;
• To be enthralled and yet also humbled by the infinite vistas that the teachings of the Torah set before any student;
• To have that feeling, both rewarding and frustrating, of never having covered the entire corpus of the Torah;
• To know that not only the will of G-d is revealed through the Torah but that the personal sense of being addressed by G-d and even being in G-d’s presence is the underlying gift of Torah study.
The Key: The Day After
None of this can be seasonal. None of it can be captured or expressed by an unusual ritual. The challenge of Shavuot is expressed in the question of how one lives day by day as a Jew. The challenge of Shavuot differs, say, from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in this way:
After these awesome days are over, one hopes that one has changed and can sustain the commitment to renewal that one has made. If one fails a little or a lot, there is always next year. The season of Elul, the ritual of the shofar, the Ten Days of Repentance and the fasting and prayer of Yom Kippur are designed to bring one back, or to push one higher.
But after Shavuot, it is impossible to rely on whatever inspiration the holiday provided, or on whatever Torah one studied during the holiday. It must be picked up the very next day and every day thereafter for there to be any hope that Shavuot will convey its meaning and its celebration as it rolls around the next year.
To say that Shavuot is not seasonal is not only to say that it is not given to a relatively short period of preparation, it is to say that it is not given to a period of preparation at all, any more than one can cease breathing as a practice period for renewing it. Breathing knows no vacation. Torah study, too.
an existential condition
What, then, is the hope for Shavuot? To hear on Shavuot a lecture by a Torah scholar? Perhaps. To study the record of the revelation as set down in Exodus and in the talmudic tractate of Shabbat? Perhaps. To focus on the scroll of Ruth and its connection to Shavuot? Perhaps. (Ruth as the paradigmatic convert speaks to the revelation of the Torah, as it was the mass conversion of the Jewish people.)
All good. But perhaps the more lasting hope for Shavuot is to locate a piece of Torah — its laws, its narratives, its poetry, its ethics, or some combination thereof — that speaks to one’s mind and existential condition so powerfully that one can relish delving into it the day after Shavuot and every day thereafter, year round.
Shavuot, in other words, does not have to be the hardest holiday. In fact, it can be the easiest. If one steps into the sacred excitement of daily Torah study, then Shavuot requires no preparation beyond what one already studies daily. In fact, if one has adopted Torah study as part and parcel of one’s daily life, then Shavuot looms as a celebration. Far from being the elusive holiday, it offers the opportunity to focus more intensely on what one already relishes.
Blessed Be the Confusion
What do I personally bring to Shavuot this year? Blessed confusion. Which element of my daily Torah study should I focus on? How do I choose?
I began the study of tractate Shabbat a little more than three years ago and am very close to completing it.
Perhaps if I focus on it alone, I will. That would be very sweet: to finish one of the longest tractates in the Talmud on Shavuot.
But then, I would not have time for my review of the laws that I studied for rabbinic ordination. The study of those laws recalls for me the most intense period of Torah study in my life, and my relationship with the most trenchant teacher I have ever had, the unforgettable Rabbi Elya Sobel, of blessed memory.
But if I focused only on those laws, and not on tractate Shabbat, I would also not have time for my current exploration of aggadata, the legends (not the laws) in the Talmud, and who can put aside all that practical wisdom, fantastical metaphor, philosophical commentary and depiction of the lives of the Sages? How could I possibly put all that aside?
And so, I am blessed with confusion, with the feeling mentioned above, the feeling both rewarding and frustrating, of never being able to cover the entire Torah.
Welcome to Shavuot.