The White House hosts an annual Hanukkah Party, opening its doors to American Jewish leaders and politicians, organization heads, etc to celebrate the “Festival of Lights”. Even Passover has graced the White House with a private, state Seder hosted for staff, family and friends to celebrate the “Festival of Freedom”. And yet, when it comes to Shavuot, the one holiday we would think to be the most important to the Jewish people, the White House forgets to party,…along with many of the Jewish people themselves.
The holiday of Shavuot is the second of the so called shalosh regalim, the Three major Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) which comprise the three pillars of Jewish observance. Research shows that the majority of Jews who have some sense of Jewish identity likely have a Seder night. Many also know about Sukkot, having seen the funny huts and the “shakings”. Even other festivals like Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Purim are celebrated to some degree by the observant and non-observant alike.
However, when it comes to Shavuot, most non-observant Jews have never celebrated -or sometimes even heard of – Shavuot! At best, it is known as “the one where we eat cheesecake”.
This is all the more so surprising given the fact that Shavuoth celebrates the Torah. I mean The Holy Torah! (Where, by the way, all of these other Holidays find their basis! ;-))
I would have thought it should actually be the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar. Why, then, do more Israelis celebrate Yom Kippur, or have a Passover Seder, or put a kippah on their head and go to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, than celebrate receiving it? What is the reason for this anomaly? Why is Shavuot so “unpopular”?
Not only is our knowledge of Shavuot (or lack thereof) perplexing, but the holiday itself is also very different from the other holidays.
Every other holiday requires a tremendous amount of preparation. Preparing for Pesach requires massive cleaning & a search and burning of all leavened products. Preparing for Sukkot requires that we construct the sukkah and buy a lulav and etrog. Purim requires we prepare gifts to the poor, find costumes, presents, etc., Hanukkah we prepare candles and Hanukkiahs. For Yom Kippur we prepare through Teshuvah (repentance) and a pre-fast meal.
How do we prepare for Shavuot? Well, there’s nothing to do particularly. No preparation at all. We enter Shavuot basically like we enter Shabbat.
Similarly, on the Shavuot holiday itself, there are no special mitzvot. Seder has matzah, Haggadah, etc. Sukkot has the species and dwelling in the sukkah. Rosh Hashanah has the shofar, Yom Kippur has fasting and the other forms of personal affliction. On Chanukah we light candles, and Purim has the Megillah and the unique feast.
Shavuot has nothing uniquely of its own. Not prior to, nor on the day of the Festival.
It also seems quite odd that there is no direct reference in the Torah to Shavuot as the day that even celebrates the giving of the Torah. In fact, it’s very name, “Shavuot”, implies that it has no independent identity: “Shavuot” means “Weeks”, and it is so called, because it is observed after counting seven full weeks after Pesach.
What’s going on?
To get a better understanding of what Shavuot is, we need to understand what it isn’t…
A common misunderstanding is that on Shavuot, we celebrate the “Receiving of the Torah”. This is incorrect. If we open the prayer-book, we will find that the festival is called Chag Matan Torateinu. Shavuot celebrates NOT the receiving (“kabalah”) of the Torah, but the giving (“matan”) of the Torah. There is actually a big difference between the two concepts.
When we talk about receiving an item, the focus is on the receiver. So, speaking about Kabalat haTorah, the receiving of the Torah, puts the focus on us the receivers of the Torah.
If you look into our other holidays, the focus is actually on OUR relationship to the festivals, i.e., expressed through our active preparation for and our actions on the day itself.
But it may be possible that the message of Shavuot is that our focus should move away from ourselves, the Receivers, to the Giver of the Torah.
At Sinai, God revealed His presence in an unprecedented way. And we “prepare” for this revelation every year by having no specific, no personal, no self-focused activities of preparation. Rather, this lack of active, personal preparation – which we have on other holidays, presents us with a rare opportunity to wholly choose to focus our thoughts and aspirations towards the Giver of the Torah, not because there is anything to “accomplish” on this Holiday, but simply because we are grateful and want to feel our relationship with the Giver personally and deeply.
Maybe our next dream – after the Embassy move and the Golan Heights’ recognition – is for the President of the USA to inaugurate the habit of cheesecake in the White House.
Ps: Another perspective may be that the Torah was not actually “received” until 120 days after the “giving” at Mount Sinai, and that day is known as Yom Kippur. When we discuss the receiving of the Torah and focus on the receiver, we necessarily refer to the individual. Every person has a different relationship with Torah and “receives” it in his own unique way, each according to his perception and level of understanding (and that is actually part of the intention of Yom Kippur). In contrast, when we discuss the giving of the Torah (i.e., Shavuot), the individual receiver is not prominent; rather, the giving of the Torah implies that the Torah was given to all Jews equally, without distinction and that includes your neighbors too ;-).