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Saving Shavuot

Poor Shavuot! It lacks the kind of home observance—like seders, matza and maror for Pesach; sukkahs, lulavs and etrogs for Sukkot; latkes, gifts and menorahs for Hanukkah—that would endear it to the people. On Shavuot, if you don’t go to shul, there’s not much to do. There are, of course, customary foods eaten on the day – dairy foods like blintzes and cheesecake, as long as you’re not lactose intolerant. But there is no Shavuot equivalent to the shofar or the sukkah or the seder, even though Shavuot should be greatly celebrated since rabbinic tradition identifies it as the day on which the Torah was given to our ancestors at Mount Sinai—an event which, theologically-speaking, should surpass even the Exodus from Egypt.

In North America, Shavuot also has the bad fortune of coming close to the end of the school year, when Jewish attendance and attention starts to drop off until the autumn.

For a long time, many Reform and Conservative synagogues attempted to staunch this outflow by putting their Confirmation ceremonies—celebrations for high school students who have continued their Jewish education beyond their bar and bat mitzvahs—on Shavuot. In more recent years, Confirmation has fallen out of favor because it’s seen in some quarters as being an adaptation of a Protestant Christian custom without authentic Jewish roots—thus depriving the holiday of some contemporary meaning.

Another old/new custom that has seen increasing popularity in recent years is the tikkun leil Shavuot, an all-night study session, to celebrate the holiday. In its original form, the tikkun was a dusk-to-dawn event involving prayer and Torah study and was first practiced in the 16th century kabbalists. Today, non-Orthodox congregations that hold the celebration often substitute lectures, films, and roundtable discussions on a variety of subjects and try to keep congregants engaged until at least 10 or 11 p.m. (Pulling an all-nighter is particularly challenging if the holiday falls on a week night and one is intending to work the next day.)

Shavuot once was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, major holy days when ancient Jews would flock to the Temple in Jerusalem with their offerings. After the rabbis decided that Shavuot would also commemorate the giving of the Torah in addition to celebrating the season’s first fruits, Shavuot ought to have become one of our most important festivals—but it never has had the popularity of either Sukkot (once known as The Holiday) or Pesach. Is there anything more important to Judaism than the giving of the Torah?

So what to do? How to save Shavuot?

I’d like to propose a radical solution, one that has absolutely no chance of getting adopted: Move Simchat Torah to Shavuot.

How’s that? How can you just move a holiday?

It all has to do with Shemini Atzeret, the “eighth day of assembly”, the holiday that concludes Sukkot, the seven-day holiday that immediately precedes it.

And what does Shemini Atzeret celebrate? Absolutely nothing. Even Torah doesn’t explain it. In BaMidbar/Numbers 29:35 we read “On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupation.” But this simply begs the question: What the heck is the holiday for?

Shemini Atzeret is perhaps the most perplexing and useless of holidays. Without sacrifices, it has little purpose other than our offering the prayer for rain and doing yizkor, which I think rabbis added to give it a little something. Outside the land of Israel, since one day is added to all holidays except the fast days, Shemini Atzeret actually has two days of meaninglessness. For traditional Jews, the first day of Shemini Atzeret is also the eighth day of Sukkot, so it has some honor and purpose through that connection. But in the Diaspora, the second day of Shemini Atzeret also had to be observed and so, sometime in the Middle Ages, its second day became Simchat Torah, the holiday that celebrates the cyclical reading of the Torah. Having rid themselves of the second day syndrome, Reform Jews observe Simchat Torah on the same day as Shemini Atzeret, just as Israeli Jews do, so the latter holiday derives its primary meaning from the secondary, but now more significant, day.

And there is hidden divine approval for the idea of moving Simchat Torah to Shavuot.

First of all, consider the fact that Shemini Atzeret parallels Shavuot. It is the eighth day conclusion of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot just as Shavuot is the eighth-week conclusion to the seven-day holiday of Pesach. And, in the Talmud, Shavuot is called “Atzeret” making the parallel with Shemini Atzeret even stronger. So if we moved Simchat Torah to Shavuot, we would simply be moving the holiday from one Atzeret to another.

Now, consider this second proof: Count up all the autumn holy days: the month of Ellul, the two days of Rosh HaShannah, the Fast of Gedaliah, Yom Kippur, the seven days of Sukkot, and then Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Hidden in the word “atzeret” is the word “ATZOR”—“STOP”. “Enough already!” God is telling us, “Stop with all the holidays. I’m worn out from all your prayers.” But if we listen to what God is punning here, if we actually stop gathering after Shemini Atzeret itself, where should Simchat Torah go? The answer is obvious: The holiday celebrating the cyclical reading of the Torah should migrate to the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah.

Think about it: Making the switch would save Shavuot from near oblivion; it would make the people happy to have one less holiday to worry about in one season and happier still to have something meaningful to celebrate in another; and, above all, God would get to enjoy a well-earned rest in the fall and be ready to rejoice with us in the late spring as we celebrate the giving and reading of Torah in one combined festival—Shavuot.

About the Author
Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle is currently president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and longtime editor of its journal Points East. He is the co-editor, with Jordan Paper, of "The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng." Before retiring, he taught at Seattle University and worked with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. His most recent book is "The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God."
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