Shavuot is perhaps my favourite festival, and I am sorry that most do not share my enthusiasm for it.
The distinguished liturgist, Rabbi Dr Jacob Petuchowski, said: “Festivals, like books, have their fate. Changing times and environments can be either beneficial or detrimental to a festival’s survival, and, in this connection, its position within the rubrics and definitions of canon law is relatively unimportant”.
Petuchowski was actually referring to the decline of Rosh Chodesh and the rise of Chanukah, but perhaps time has been detrimental to Shavuot, too.
The observance of Shavuot is commanded in Torah, even though the way it is observed and the reasons for it have changed considerably over millennia. Shavuot originally is atzeret – the conclusion of Pesach. For most Jews, even if they have observed the whole week of Pesach, it somehow ends there, and there is not the observance of the Omer, the counting of the days, the weeks, until Shavuot. In addition, the recent additions to the calendar of Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZicharon and Yom Ha’Atzmaut are growing in importance, which is right, but it is perhaps sad that it is also at the expense of Shavuot.
In one way it suffers perhaps because it is only observed for one or two days, and, cheesecake, no matter how delicious, does not really compete with Seder and a week of Pesach or with the Sukkah and a week of Succot. However, I think the real reason for its lack of popularity is that it is too religious, too theological for the great majority, and also perhaps because its observance belongs largely in the synagogue, and most do not grow up with special Shavuot memories.
This weekend is not only Shavuot, but in the Church, Sunday is Pentecost, (formerly more commonly known as Whit). Shavuot is also known as Pentecost. The Christian version refers to the 50-day journey from Easter, the Jewish one to the 50-day journey from the start of Pesach. Both clearly had their origins in relation to the harvest. I have often thought that the best way of giving Shavuot the renewed significance it deserves would be for the Church to again stress the importance of Pentecost, which for Christians marks the descent of the Holy Spirit, and Jews might then be proud to stress that we, too, have a festival at this time of the year. Sadly, at the present time, perhaps both are too ‘theological’ to be of general appeal.
Shavuot has made a journey from its agricultural origins, though these clearly have a renewed significance in Israel, to “z’man matan toratenu”, the time for the giving of our Torah. It is essentially this that we celebrate on Shavuot, and probably the main aspect in our time is the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, the specific study associated with the first night of the festival. The practice is based on that of the 16th century mystics of Safed. The Tikkun refers both to the study session, and the traditional text used for it, and the mystical idea behind it was that at midnight, the heavens open and favourably receive the thoughts, study and prayers of those who remain awake on the anniversary of the Revelation.
Yet why are not more people excited about Shavuot? Not everyone can stay up at all night, and it is often not the start of renewed study. Furthermore, many who do take Torah study seriously, and perhaps choose each year to study the text with a different commentator, will start not at Shavuot, the festival of revelation, but at Simchat Torah, when we renew our cycle of Torah readings.
What is the difference between Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the Torah but don’t really study it, and Shavuot, when we celebrate learning and study but don’t have the physical involvement with the Torah that Simchat Torah presents? And, importantly, why are they two separate days? Simchat Torah itself is a late addition to our calendar, at least in relative terms; Shavuot in its origins does not relate to Torah, but is described as the celebration of the wheat harvest, seven weeks after the Pesach barley harvest.
We all know how complicated it is to attempt to define what being Jewish means, but clearly for all who take what we might term ‘religious’ Judaism seriously, Torah is crucial, and we try to study it, learn from it, grow from it.
Traditionally Shavuot and Simchat Torah complement each other. In the words of Rabbi Dr Reuven Hammer, “Shavuot emphasises God’s part in revelation, Simchat Torah Israel’s part in studying, learning and internalising the revelation”. We need both the intellectual study and the physical relationship with the Torah.
Some dislike Simchat Torah. They mistakenly say that it is “just for children”, and feel there is too much stress on the dancing, the physical aspects of our relationship with Torah, and regret the lack of decorum. I do not know anyone who dislikes Shavuot as such. However I do know very many who are unaware of its real significance, and do not value this opportunity for us all to, as it were, stand at Sinai, to renew our commitment to Torah.
I don’t know what we do about this, but it is worth our trying to maximise our relationship to studying Torah, to living Torah, and perhaps finding ways of stressing that Shavuot and Simchat Torah are both necessary, and helping to find ways of making as many as possible comfortable with both.
Rabbi Amanda Golby provides rabbinic pastoral support at New North London Synagogue and has a special interest in areas of inclusivity.