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TCS Bulletin - Shavuot: A 'Reform' Festival?

Officially there is no agreed upon hierarchy of Jewish festivals. One could argue that Yom Kippur is the most important of all days in the year, and in America, Hanukkah is the holiday celebrated by most people, but beyond that it is hard to accurately compile a Festival League Table.

When looking to subdivide our festival calendar the most obvious division is between those festivals which are Biblically ordained, and those which were instituted later. The five festivals laid out in the Torah are Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. And from this list of five, it is clear that this month’s festival of Shavuot is the poor relation. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the synagogue is full to bursting as people mark these special days; Sukkot includes the construction of our outdoor booths, and Pesach has the Seder.

But what does Shavuot have? Cheesecake, flowers in the synagogue, an all-night study session – but nothing as catchy as these other festivals.

Over the years Shavuot has not received the attention which she deserves, but her significance and meaning offer an important insight into how Judaism has developed and been constantly reforming long before the term ‘Reform Judaism’ even existed.

In the Torah Shavuot is mentioned on two occasions (Leviticus 23:15-22 and Deuteronomy 16:9-12). In both cases it features alongside other Biblical festivals, and in both cases it was linked a to a harvest related sacrifice. What is striking about Shavuot is that no specific date is given for the festival, which is in stark contrast to the other festivals introduced in the Torah. Instead the date of Shavuot is defined by counting a period of time in relation to the festival of Pesach.

The challenge for the festival of Shavuot was not just its dating, but also how it would survive in a Diaspora Jewish community, where the links to the land of Israel and the harvest cycle had been broken. This was not a problem for the other harvest festivals, as Pesach had a link to the Exodus and Sukkot was associated with our booths in the wilderness; Shavuot had nothing. With the link to the wheat harvest an insufficient reason for celebrating the festival, the Rabbis had no choice but to reform it and gave it a new historical meaning. Shavuot became the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah.

The Rabbis looked at Shavuot’s place in the Jewish calendar, and calculated that with Pesach marking our Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot, appearing 49 days later, would provide an appropriate moment for celebrating the giving of the Torah. It is worth noting that in the Torah itself there is no suggestion that Shavuot was the festival on which Moses went up Mount Sinai. The attribution of this new meaning to the festival was a later addition, which ensured that Shavuot could survive with a new significance for future generations.

Shavuot demonstrates the fluidity which once existed in Judaism for new meanings and traditions to develop and be accepted by all of the community. Today Shavuot is known as zman matan Toratenu – the time of the giving of our Torah, with no acknowledgment that this added significance came much later.

Another tradition for this festival, which we will be engaging with this year, is the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of study in honor of the festival (don’t worry, we won’t be going all through the night). This too is a later addition to the observances of the day, added by the Kabbalists in Tsfat around the sixteenth century; and yet today it is an almost universally accepted element of the festival.

Shavuot demonstrates the way that Judaism is constantly evolving and adapting, responding to new situations in the world around us. It may not be the most ‘popular’ or most widely observed festival in our calendar, but it is an important reminder about the dynamism and reform which has always been present in Judaism. 

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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