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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

SHAVUOT FOR SECULAR AND HUMANISTIC JEWS

As a Humanistic rabbi—and a realistic one at that—I can predict with near certainty that virtually none of you will be celebrating Shavuot (or Shavuos in the Yiddish pronunciation) when it begins tonight at sundown. You probably only have a vague idea of what it is (perhaps refreshed by recent memory if you came to our Shabbat dinner last Friday).


As secular Jews, it makes sense that we might overlook or ignore this holiday. Its central message is a commemoration of the time the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai—not exactly compelling material for people of our kind. But not celebrating does not need to translate to not knowing about it. So here's a brief primer on a holiday that may not demand celebration but is still worth learning about.

 

What is Shavuot?

 

There are three times designated as the Pilgrimage Festivals: Sukkot in autumn, Pesach (Passover) in early spring, and Shavuot in early summer. These three were called Pilgrimage Festivals because Jews were encouraged to celebrate them in Jerusalem. Although all three were originally agricultural feasts, they were later transformed into celebrations of the Jewish story.

 

The fall harvest feast of Sukkot was connected to the tale of wandering the wilderness in temporary huts (sukkot in Hebrew). Pesach, the spring feast of the wheat harvest, almost entirely transformed into a retelling of the Exodus story. And Shavuot, tonight's feast of the first summer fruits, became the celebration of the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

 

Unlike the first two, however, its narrative connection is not mentioned in the Torah itself at all. It was invented so late that it was not included in the very book it celebrates.

Also unlike the first two, Shavuot is quite modest. It doesn't even have an exact date. Its name, meaning "weeks," falls exactly seven weeks after Pesach whenever that may be.

 

Partly explaining the lack of attention, at least in the Diaspora, is the fact that the holiday also has few notable rituals. There are some, of course. One is the custom of eating dairy foods. This, perhaps, symbolizes the traditional idea of Torah as the milk of Jewish sustenance. I say perhaps, because it's unclear where it originated.

 

Its other rituals are synagogue-based. Tonight, the very religious will attend a Tikkun Leil-Shavuot, a kind of Torah study all-nighter. Tomorrow, the few congregants who attend services will hear the Torah's account of receiving the Ten Commandments. Someone will also chant the Book of Ruth, the story of King David's grandmother (a story that—though wonderful—should be shelved under fiction).

 

In Israel, where Jewish holidays dictate even secular schedules, Shavuot is much more popular than in the Diaspora, if not always in a religious sense. Those all-nighters I mentioned above have been adapted by secular Jews, enhancing the holiday's appeal by including a large variety of cultural offerings. Additionally, because many early Zionists established kibbutzim to return to Israel's ancient agricultural roots, Shavuot also gains a boost from kibbutz open houses and local parades featuring wagons, tractors, and rows of little children dressed in white and adorned with greenery and flowers.

 

The ancient Rabbis who revived interest in the holiday by linking it to the revelation of the Torah made a connection that we might build upon. Though we no longer harvest summer fruits or believe in a revelation at Mt. Sinai, we might consider how, in each generation, our people have planted new literary seeds. Perhaps we can celebrate that kind of harvest instead. Because while we may not have stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, our people nevertheless earned the sobriquet "People of the Book."

 

So let us give a Shavuot nod to the very human stories of the Torah, the writings of our prophets, the tales of our Rabbis, the songs of our poets, and the prose of our novelists. Let us pause, too, for a moment to rejoice in the extensive literature of Jews who wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Yiddish, Ladino, English, and a multitude of other tongues. And if we're looking for something to read tonight, perhaps we might choose the Book of Ruth. It's a magnificent story that actually reflects our movement's open-minded approach to welcoming new people to our community.

 

Whether in joy or dread, Jews have always tended to our fields of creativity, particularly in writing. That's something worthy of celebrating on this holiday, if only in our hearts.

 

Happy Shavuot!

 

(Whether you observe it or not!)

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