Poor Shavuot. It gets a bad deal. It goes largely unnoticed and unobserved by masses – maybe even by the majority – of Jews today. It seems to hold far less appeal than Passover. Even Sukkot fares better, and I won’t even talk about Chanukah, which, as our tradition presents it, is a rather minor affair. But Shavuot conceptually is big. It commemorates what is arguably the central event of Jewish experience: the giving – and the corresponding receiving – of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. And in the rhythm of our contemporary life it falls by the wayside for most Jews.
Why? Could it be that Shavuot simply comes at a bad time of year – exams, commencements, spring flings? Or maybe because compared to the other holidays Shavuot doesn’t give us anything to do. No special candles, no special meal, nothing to take or shake or blow.
But wait! There is special food. (There is always food when it comes to a Jewish festival – though on Yom Kippur you have to wait until the end.) On Shavuot it is customary to eat a dairy meal at least once. There are varying explanations for this; some of them can be found on the Web (Google "Shavuot dairy"). Some say it is a reminder of the promise regarding the Land of Israel, a land flowing with "milk and honey." According to another view, it is because our ancestors had just received the Torah (and the dietary laws therein) and did not have both meat and dairy dishes available. A likely story. More to the point, I think, is the verse in the Song of Songs that reads "honey and milk shall be under your tongue" (4:11), which some commentators understand to refer to the Torah. The idea is that the words of the Torah are as pleasant and acceptable to our ears and hearts as milk and honey are to our tongues (Kol Bo 58).
Did someone say Torah? What was that about "ears and hearts?" We come, then, to the main point: Shavuot is about Torah. It is not about an aspect of Torah, like teshuvah (turning, as in turning our life around by turning to higher matters) on the two High Holy Days. It is not about key ideas that underlie Torah, like freedom and redemption from slavery that Passover commemorates and promises. It is not about attempts to kill Jews (Purim) or Judaism (Chanukah). Shavuot is not about the ancillary; it is about the primary, the core, the reality of Torah as the foundation on which Jewish peoplehood rests. Jews may disagree about the nature of this Torah and how it is to be lived out, but there is consensus that "the Jewish people without Torah is like a body without a soul."
Good. But what is it that we are supposed to do on Shavuot? What is it we are supposed to do with Torah on this day (or these days)? Are we bidden to hear it read? Or are we bidden to study it? Is the celebration of Shavuot accomplished by hearing the Torah read publicly, thus replicating the Sinai experience? Or do we honor Torah by sitting over the text, perhaps with a friend or two, and analytically plumbing its meaning and implications? Hearing and studying are very different acts. Studying is intellectual; hearing is a different kind of cognition.
The indications are that we can and should do both. When it comes to Torah, hearing and reading, reading and hearing, are not mutually exclusive acts. The Torah addresses both the heart and the mind - though not necessarily in that order. It is meant to be heard and it is meant to be studied. Indeed, Judaism presumes a synergy between what the auditory nerve and the optical nerve each transmit to the brain. To hear the Torah read aloud, on Shavuot or on any Shabbat or holiday, without having some idea of what it is that is reaching our ears is as problematical as knowing a great deal about the Bible without hearing the voices that are speaking in and through its text and pondering the import of what they may be suggesting or implying to us.
We can observe Shavuot by hearing the account of the Sinai event declaimed aloud. Or we can set aside some time on the first night to sit alone or with a friend or a group of friends to engage with some Torah text – biblical, rabbinic, medieval or modern. We can do this for an hour or two or we can, as many now are doing, study and discuss all night long. Then, if we segue into a "dawn’s early light" morning service and hear the Torah read, we do both, capped off with a breakfast of blintzes and sour cream, a latte and even some decadent ice cream.
Shavuot is for all Jews, but only someone who is serious about Judaism and Torah will overcome the challenges of the season and get into it. Shavuot ultimately is a test, a test of how serious a Jew one really is.
Prepared by Rabbi James S. Diamond, senior consultant, Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning
Learn about the holiday of Shavuot.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shavuot at MyJewishLearning.com.