The festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) starts tomorrow evening. Unlike all the other festivals mentioned in the Torah, the date of Shavuot is not specified. Instead, the Children of Israel were commanded to count a period of seven weeks from the day following the Pessach (Passover) festival (hence the name Shavuot,meaning "weeks"). Like Pessach, Shavuot is a harvest festival. Thus, it is also known as Chag Hakatzir ("The Festival of the Harvest") and as Yom Habikkurim ("The Day of the First Ripe Fruits"), when it was customary to bring a thanksgiving offering to G-d for His bounty. But most importantly, Shavuot is Zman Matan Torateinu ("The Season of the Giving of our Torah").
Pessach is a spring festival, marked by the blossoming of flowers, but while the flowers are beautiful, it is only when the fruits ripen that they have a use and a purpose beyond mere beauty. In the same way, the Exodus from Egypt brought freedom to the Children of Israel, but it was a freedom without use or purpose – anarchy, in fact. Only when the Children of Israel accepted the Torah, and adopted a set of rules and a morality by which to live, did the flowers of freedom ripen into the fruits of nationhood.
You might ask yourself, why is Shavuot called "The Season of the Giving of our Torah" rather than "The Season of the Receiving of our Torah". The reason for this is that whereas we make the decision, daily, to accept the Torah and live by it (or not, as is, unfortunately, too often the case) the Torah was given by G-d once, and once only, on Mount Sinai, on the 6th day of the month of Sivan – a specific time and place.
In the Book of Exodus, Chapter 19, we read how the Children of Israel prepared to receive the Torah by purifying themselves for three days. Since then, it is the custom to spend the eve of Shavuot in all-night prayer and study – Tikkun Leil Shavuot. In modern Israel, outside ultra-orthodox circles, this often takes the form of lectures and symposia on the application of Torah and Halakha (Jewish Law) to topical questions arising from the problems presented by modern lifestyles and technology. For example, I noticed that tomorrow night, Jerusalem’s Yeshurun Synagogue will host a number of lectures on subjects ranging from how to determine the moment of death according to Halakha (vitally important in an age when organ transplants are an accepted fact of life) to the Halakhic aspects of Operation Cast Lead.
Shavuot is when we read the Book of Ruth, the story of the most famous convert to Judaism in history. Her story takes place round about the time of the wheat harvest. We read about her gathering corn in the field of Boaz – for in Jewish law, the corners of the field, the fallen and forgotten sheaves, the gleanings, were to be left for the poor. Ruth, as we know, was the great-grandmother of King David. Thus, a foreign woman, a convert, was the ancestress of the most famous of the kings of Israel, the mother of the line from whom the Messiah will one day come. Furthermore, Shavuot, according to Jewish tradition, is the birthday of King David. It is also the day of his death.
One of the most beautiful of Shavuot customs is that of decorating the synagogue with flowers. In our synagogue in London, if my memory doesn’t deceive me, they were always white flowers – lilies and so on. Here in Israel, I have seen this custom extended even to the extent that the supermarket was decorated with flowers and ears of wheat!
As with any Jewish festival worthy of the name , Shavuot too has its special foods. There doesn’t seem to be any single authorised reason for the tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot but just as Purim wouldn’t be Purim without Hamantaschen, Shavuot wouldn’t be the same without cheesecake. Some claim that it is because light, dairy foods are more suited to the hot weather usual at the time of this early summer festival. Another explanation is that until the Torah was given, the Children of Israel did not have to abide by any special dietary laws. They did not, in short, have to "keep kosher" and so they ate meat even of animals which were later deemed "unclean". In consequence, their meat dishes were unfit, not kosher. Therefore, from the moment the Torah was given, they could no longer use those utensils until they had been ritually purified. But this they could not do on Shabbat or on a festival, so they had to make do with eating only dairy products until the festival ended. Whatever the reason – I just love cheesecake.
When I was a child, I was entranced by an ancient Jewish legend, according to which, at midnight on the eve of Shavuot, the heavens split wide open and one may see the Almighty and all the heavenly host. At that moment, any wish one makes will be granted. Year after year, I struggled to keep awake, in vain. When I grew older, staying awake was no longer a problem, but I still never saw anything but a black night sky. In cloudy, rainy England, I couldn’t even see stars. I realised then that to see this miracle, one had to be in Israel. But alas, when I came to Israel, I was again disappointed. Each year at Shavuot, midnight came and went – and still, nothing. I understood then that this vision was only given to those who spent the night studying and praying. Year after year, I have tried to approach midnight on Shavuot able to say, honestly, that I have been studying Torah, even if it’s just a few verses.
I still haven’t seen the heavens split open.
I don’t despair.
Maybe this year…