The Forgotten Festival

By Michael Carasik
Monday, June 6, 2011

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.

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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