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The Forgotten Festival

Celebrating Shavuot (Israel, 1951).

The holiday of Shavuot, which begins this year on Tuesday evening, is the orphan among Jewish holidays; it is the forgotten festival.  Let me count the ways.

Relevant Links
When is Shavuot Celebrated, and Why?  Philologos, Forward. A phrase in Leviticus setting the date of the festival, which seems straightforward enough, is anything but.
Not Your Father's Torah Study  Shiri Lev-Ari, Haaretz. Secular Israelis are turning out in droves for Shavuot study sessions—sessions dedicated not only to Torah, but to modern poetry, yoga, and television.

First, and perhaps strangest, it is the one festival in the year that, at least theoretically, does not occur on a specific date.  Instead, Shavuot's occurrence on the calendar is relational: Leviticus 23 gives instructions to count 49 days—seven complete weeks—from Passover, making the day following the count—the 50th day—the day of Shavuot. 

In practical terms, there is no longer any need to do this.  Today's Jewish calendar no longer depends (as, for some, the Muslim calendar still does) on direct observation of the moon, but follows a strictly mathematical formula.  Factor in the instantaneous worldwide communication we enjoy nowadays, and there is no need to count each day between Passover and Shavuot.  Don't tell your rabbi, but Shavuot always falls on the sixth day of the month of Sivan (May-June in the secular calendar); Diaspora Jews add a second day, just as they do for Passover and Sukkot.

The second reason for the holiday's neglect is that it lacks a gripping storyline or a colorful ritual to enliven it.  Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is one of the three great biblical pilgrimage festivals.  But Passover has the exodus from Egypt, good enough for the technicolor imagination of Cecil B. DeMille, and Sukkot has the distinctive rituals of the lulav and etrog and the construction of a temporary sukkah, or "tabernacle," in the out-of-doors.  Shavuot has no story and—unless you are willing to count eating cheesecake—no colorful rituals.

The third reason Shavuot is neglected nowadays is a sociological one.  Passover is the occasion when families reconnect in a Jewish context; at the other end of the year, even non-Jewish calendars in the United States tend to note Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Gentiles have gotten used to their Jewish coworkers disappearing to attend synagogue services on those holidays.

But Shavuot occurs at the beginning of summer.  The school year is often over, and even synagogues expect to be less busy.  Except for Tom Lehrer, who spends Shavuos in East St. Louis, people do not make special plans for the festival.  Outside traditional circles, American Jews mostly ignore the holiday.

More telling evidence of neglect comes from the books of the only Hebrew-language Nobel laureate for literature, S. Y. Agnon.  Days of Awe, his well-known collection of texts and traditions relating to the High Holidays, was ranked at #574,649 on at the end of May.  His comparable book for Shavuot, Present at Sinai (don't feel bad if you've never heard of it), was at #1,670,924—just one week before the festival.

The contents of Present at Sinai point us to the fourth reason for the holiday's low profile.  Days of Awe has page after page of discussion of the traditions associated with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between, across the world and throughout the centuries.  As mentioned before, there are almost no such traditions associated with Shavuot.  But not only that: It is the one Jewish festival without halakhot, without specific religious requirements that are unique to it.

It had them once, of course.  The original biblical rationale for the holiday was an agricultural one, an offering of "new grain" (Leviticus 23:16) in the form of two loaves of bread.  But once the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and such offerings ceased, it was not clear what role Shavuot was to play in the Jewish festival year. 

Jewish tradition found a way, through creative exegesis, to fill the gap.  Exodus 19 begins in the third month after the Israelites left Egypt, and so Jewish tradition has calculated that the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 must have been given on Shavuot (or near enough; even rabbinic sources do not agree on the precise day).  So the "Feast of Weeks" has taken on a religious coloration as zman matan Toratenu, "the season of the giving of our Torah."

That is why Agnon's Present at Sinai is not a book of Shavuot customs and prayers, but a collection of traditions about the giving of the Torah.  And that it also why sales of the book do not spike as barbecue season approaches.  It makes sense as a companion to the holiday, but it makes almost as much sense at just about any other time of the Jewish year.

The cultural vacuum at the center of Shavuot has given rise, in recent years, to the revival of a tradition, first found among the kabbalists of 16th-century Safed, of late-night, and sometimes all-night, communal study sessions.  As yet, this new-old custom has been adopted by a relatively small minority, though it is getting more widely known; the Union for Reform Judaism now provides a turnkey package for the experience.  But in general Shavuot continues to hold a tenuous place in the Jewish imagination.  If "all beginnings are hard," as the Sages tell us, Shakespeare assures us that "all's well that ends well."  So when the Jewish festival calendar begins in the spring, with Passover, we can be confident of a joyful conclusion in the fall, with Simhat Torah.  In between, Shavuot is likely to remain, as it has long been, the festival of the excluded middle.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcastHe teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.  He will be leading a tikkun at Congregation Kesher Israel in Philadelphia this year.

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Anson Laytner on June 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm (Reply)
Precisely because Shavuot lacks pizzaz, I have long thought that we should move Simchat Torah to Shavuot. After all, do we really need another holiday in the fall and as the second day of Shemini Atzeret, it would hardly be missed? Think of the great content celebrating the Torah would add to Shavuot!

So who gets to make the decision?
Allen on June 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm (Reply)
Why the tradition of eating dairy?
Geoff on June 7, 2011 at 8:45 am (Reply)
Another reason - it is neglected by the tannaim and amoraim. Its the only Biblical hag that doesn't get its own masekhet in the Talmud.

Rachel Elior in THE THREE TEMPLES probably put her finger on its orphan-like neglect - it probably started out as the supreme holiday of the Temple priesthood, and was elevated even more by the secterian priests of Qumran and the apocalyptic literature, where it is quite prominent. As such the Sage, consciously and unconsciously, de-emphasized it.
r. winters on June 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm (Reply)
Shevuot is a unique among religious holidays, and if it is "neglected" it is because American Jews are so fixated on synchronizing our holidays with the Gentiles'. So Passover is "related to" Easter, Hannuka blended with Christmas, Succot of course is Thansgiving...But Shevuot is an orphan.

No surprise. Shevuot is the only holyday anywhere that celebrates the giving of a binding, unifying LAW!
We stood at Sinai and bowed our heads for an eternal yoke of Divine Law. And we celebrate that day.

Do any of you even known when Constitution Day is?
finch on May 25, 2012 at 6:35 am (Reply)
> Why the tradition of eating dairy?

Because this is the time of year when dairy became available in Eastern Europe. Sephardim don't have this tradition.
Ben Tzur on May 31, 2012 at 1:38 am (Reply)
I would have thought that, in terms of "dramatic" significance, little could be more dramatic than the arrival of the entire B'nai Yisrael and the "mixed multitude" that went out from Egypt with them at Mt. Sinai, and their awesome experience there of the first revelation of Torah, including the Ten Commandments -- a revelation whose reception crystalized the Jewish people per se. This puts into doubt the applicability of Carasik's "second reason." After all, Shavuot celebrates and commemorates the most dramatic, central and constitutive event of Judaism.

Neither is this association of Shavuot with the arrival at Sinai and the first revelation of Torah something that came late in Biblical history. The very reason why it was put at the end of 49 days after Passover, however this was counted, indicates an essential bond between the two festivals of Passover and Shavuot, the first celebrating Exodus, the other celebrating the end of the Exodus in the arrival and revelation at Sinai. One implies the other. The first "harvest" that Shavuot signified, therefore, and the spiritual goal symbolized by the Omer offerings and count-down, was the harvest of Torah. Agricultural meanings were secondary but important for an agricultural society.

But Shavuot was and is not the end of the story. It celebrates merely the beginning of the Sinai revelation and experience. That is the real reason why it lasts only one day, two in the Diaspora, and is therefore relatively de-emphasized. Following this first revelation event, we are told in the Torah, Moses went up the mountain to commune with God for forty days and to bring down the Tablets. He returned precisely on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, to discover the Golden Calf. He broke the Tablets, purged the people, and then went up for a second time for forty days to gain God's forgiveness. The Ninth of Av comes mid-way in that second period of ascent. The fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av indicate our continuing repentance for those sins. Moses returned on the 30th of Av and on the first of Ellul called the people together with the blowing of the Shofar, urging them to purify themselves and repent as a people in the coming weeks. There then followed Moses' third ascent for 40 days and his return precisely on Yom Kippur with the second set of Tablets, signifying Israel's full atonement and acceptance of God's sovereignty. This is followed almost immediately by the Sukkot building of the Tabernacle (Sukkah) in which to perform the commanded sacrifices. This is the narrative as the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy give it. So all of the festivals I have mentioned comprise one coherent dramatic narrative of the experiences of the Jewish people when they were created as such, in their first months at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot only begins the story of revelation at Sinai, but it is, and therefore was from the beginning, an essential part of it, contrary to secularist "Biblical critics." The dates on which the various festivals occur follow the narrative of the Exodus-Sinai story with precision, and this cannot be not coincidental. If Shavuot were taken out, the entire sequence would have been broken and would have collapsed, just as it would if any of the other festivals were omitted The sequence exists as a whole, with their timing in the annual calendar coinciding exactly with the Torah account, and must have done so from the beginning. After all, all religions celebrate their defining and aboriginal events in their annual festivals, and even institute them very soon after the religion first arises, in order to provide collective commemoration and renewal for their members and as a way of socializing them into the religious community.

It must be remembered, too, that in those days there were no secular festivals, neither in Israel nor amongst its neighbours. If the festival had nothing to do with Sinai it would have been a wholly pagan one to pagan gods. And as such it would never have been accepted by pious Torah-faithful Jews, either in the Biblical period or later. The repudiation of the Canaanite idolatrous cults was too explicit and central to the teachings of the prophets and the Torah itself. It beggars belief that, 1, such a crucial part of the Torah story as the arrival at Mt. Sinai and the first revelation of Torah would have been without a festival celebration for a thousand years after the generation of the Exodus, and 2, that this central festival amongst the Jews, for over a thousand years, instead merely set the seal of approval on a wholly pagan Canaanitic agricultural celebration to pagan gods of fertility, to such a degree that it persisted as such even into the Hellenistic period well after the return from Babylonian Exile and the unification of the Jewish people around Torah practice. These are what one must believe if the thesis of the festival of Shavuot only gaining a Torah and Sinai reference in the Hellenistic period is accepted.

As for the dairy emphasis, this is part of the continuity with Passover. The logic is one of inversion. Since we were slaves in Egypt, our appetites were organized in coarse and greedy ways, ways that required bloodshed, such as the "fleshpots" of Egypt required, and so we began the process of purification of our appetites by making proper sacrifice of our sheep and gorging ourselves on it, in the night of Passover. There then followed the seven weeks of exodus into the wilderness, when we were forced to eat manna from heaven alone, and when, after our rebellious insistence on meat-eating and the "flesh-pots," we were given quails from heaven but then soon fell terribly ill from them. The purifications of manna continued, and by the time we arrived at Sinai, our appetites were such that we were ready to receive a Torah of peace and non-violence, duly represented by our diet of dairy foods. The period of Omer-counting presents a kind of ascension to Sinai relating even to our food appetites, but this symbolizes a spiritual progress too.
Ben Tzur on May 31, 2012 at 1:57 am (Reply)
Actually, Sephardim do eat dairy foods on Shavuot. Perhaps "finch" is thinking of Yemenite Jews, who are the only group that do not. For details on the traditional dairy delights enjoyed by Sephardic Jews, see the Wikipedia article on Shavuot. The article also offers a number of traditional reasons given for the dairy emphasis. So does "Why Dairy on Shavuot?" at
Yosef Dov on June 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm (Reply)
Shavuot is actually not quite the only major Jewish holiday that is neglected like that. There's also, for example, the 7th Day of Passover (plus the Last Day in the Diaspora). Even though that is a part of Passover in a general way (e.g. not eating leavened bread), it has a distinct identity from the rest of Passover, and commemorates the Crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites. Furthermore, there's Shmini Atzeret - that is and isn't a part of Sukkot. If it weren't for Simchat Torah occurring the next day in the Diaspora and the same day in Israel, Shmini Atzeret would also not be so well-known.

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