From the Rabbi's Desk May 2018

The last major festival of 5778 is coming to us in May; I refer of course, to Shavuot.  The name of the event means “weeks” and it occurs 7 weeks after Pesakh, which, our sages calculated, was the time it took the Israelites to get from Egypt to Mt Sinai.  Therefore, Shavuot is associated with the “revelation at Sinai”, the giving of the 10 Commandments.  Jewish tradition maintains that when Moses went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets with the “big 10” inscribed on them, he also received, in some other form, the entire Torah as we know it today.

There is considerable evidence that the Israelites, upon establishing themselves in Canaan, adopted the agricultural festivals of the people around them, and added to these a distinctly Israelite patina by associating all of these occasions with the formative event of Israelite history, the exodus from Egypt. (This adoption of local practices and customs is quite common throughout human history, and explains why, for example, there are distinctly pagan elements to some events on the Christian religious calendar).  Thus, the early spring harvest festival became associated with the exodus itself; the late spring harvest festival became associated with the events at Sinai; and the fall harvest festival became associated with the journey from Sinai to Canaan (ostensibly via the little huts we set up for Sukkot, though the Torah tells us that the Israelites dwelt in tents on their trek).

Even when all ties to the agricultural cycle of Israel were eventually lost (after the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the subsequent  expulsion after the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, 132-135 CE), the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesakh, Shavuot, Sukkot) were the dominant occasions of the Jewish religious calendar, because that is the emphasis the Torah gives them.  In time, absent the ability to fulfill the obligation to present offerings at The Temple, Jewish practice elevated Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in importance, and turned the Pilgrimage Festivals into celebrations connected exclusively to the exodus experience.

Shavuot, though, is the least observed of these occasions today.  Unlike Pesakh and Sukkot which are eight day holidays, Shavuot is only a two-day occasion (and in the Reform world, often only a one-day event).  As we established in discussion here a few weeks ago, there really are no great Shavuot songs (Pesakh has so many, and even Sukkot has a couple).   Pesakh is of course heavily focused on food, and Sukkot, being the fall harvest festival, also has a food orientation.  Shavuot is widely known to be a “dairy festival”, though the rationale behind that is rather weak: some argue that since the dietary laws were not known to the Israelites till the Torah was given (on Shavuot?  see above), our ancestors went without meat until the rules were made known to them.  This is a wonderful, if improbable, excuse for indulging in blintzes and ice cream.

When we gather to celebrate this festival, on Sunday, May 20th, at 10:00 am we will read the 10 commandments from the Book of Exodus (the Bnot Torah Shavuot 2015 class will read), I will have some things to say about the occasion, we will hold a Yizkor Service, and we will honour the tradition of our milkhik yontif by enjoying a dairy treat afterward, at 11:30 am (our motto will be: life is uncertain; eat dessert first).

By the way, it is worth noting that all the Pilgrimage Festivals occurred in the spring and fall.  The summer in Israel is hot and dry, so making that journey to Jerusalem (with livestock and family in tow) on unpaved roads would have been very difficult.  And the same journey would have been impossible during the winter months, which is the rainy (and cold) season in Israel, when the roads would tend to be washed out.

So what is left on the Jewish calendar for this year?  After Shavuot there are no Torah-mandated observances other than...of course...Shabbat.   Our sages added Tisha b’Av (observed this year on July 22) to the calendar later on, to mark the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem not once but twice on that same date.  This is a day of mourning and fasting, though not a day of abstaining from work.   This occasion is even less observed than Shavuot in our age, largely because our people once again live in and govern our ancient homeland, and though The Temple has not been restored, many of us are fine with that, not wanting to return to the practice of animal sacrifice.

So make use of Shavuot, the last celebratory occasion of this Jewish calendar year, and join us on Sunday, May 20th...and don’t forget our pre-lunch motto of the day!