Unlike the other major Jewish festivals, Shavuot lacks a unique obligation mandated by the Torah with strong symbolic resonance. On Sukkot Jewish people dwell in the temporary, wooden ‘Sukkot’ booths and shake the lulav and etrog (the four species of date-palm, willow, myrtle and citron fruit); on Pesach Jewish people are required to forgo eating food containing ‘leaven,’ instead eating matzah; on Rosh Hashannah the shofar is blown – and even on Chanukah, a rabbinic festival, there is a requirement to light the Chanukiah. Instead, Shavuot is most well-known for its minhagim, or customs: traditions that have developed over time that, whilst not strictly mandatory, still form a notable part of Jewish observances.
The most famous custom observed on Shavuot is the eating of dairy foods: in particular, many people recognise cheesecake as the signature dish of the day. The origins of this tradition are difficult to pin down, but there is a widely cited reason behind the custom. When the Jewish people received the Torah they became obligated in the dietary laws of Kashrut, which rendered the meat they had prepared (and the pots it had been prepared in) unfit for consumption. Since the Torah was given on a Shabbat, the Jewish people could not prepare more meat, and so instead ate dairy foods that day which require no preparation.
The tradition exemplifies the meticulous nature of Jewish commitment to the commandments, as traditionally meat meals are always enjoyed on festival days, and so to fulfil both traditions one has to be very careful to ensure he or she does not transgress the prohibition of eating milk and meat at the same time (generally the dairy food is eaten first, followed by a short break before the meat may be eaten).
A second tradition widely observed further demonstrates the principle of thoroughness and commitment in observance of the commandments. One the eve of Shavuot, many Jews spend much of the night (or the whole night!) studying from either a set liturgy compiled by the Zohar or other Jewish texts of their choosing. The evening is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot: the word ‘Tikkun’ being derived from the Hebrew word meaning to fix or repair. This is an allusion to the Midrashic commentary on Exodus, which claims that the night before the Jewish people received the Torah they went to sleep, sleeping late into the day until Moses awoke them. Perceiving their tardiness as a lack of excitement and anxiousness to receive the Torah, modern Jewish ‘repair’ this mistake by staying up all night studying, ready to re-receive the Torah the following day.
A story is told of the Dubno Maggid, Rabbi Yaakov Krantz (1740-1804). One Shavuot evening he was studying at a Tikkun Leil service in the study hall of the renowned Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer. It was noticed that the Maggid was learning a different text to the standard liturgy which was being discussed by the Vilna Gaon that evening. When he was asked why he was refraining from studying the standard Tikkun Leil, he characteristically replied with an analogy:
“A father once instructed his son to learn how to set up and operate a business in the market. Taking his father’s advice, the young man went to the market and observed all the shop windows and stalls decorated with high quality products: ripe fruit, beautiful jewellery, and finely made clothing. The man set about establishing his own shop, buying a few expensive items to present in the shop window. Many customers were attracted to his store, but were quickly disappointed to find that inside the shop there were few items of any value to purchase. Dejected, the man returned to his father who admonished him: ‘the window is supposed to provide examples of the goods you have inside the store!’”
The Maggid explained that the Tikkun Leil liturgy, which spans many texts, might indeed be useful for one who is already intimately familiar with these passages. However, he wished to ensure his knowledge of ‘the basics’ was sound before he could move on to reviewing passages from many different texts.
These traditions of Shavuot suggest a theme of careful, methodical attention to observing the fundamentals of Judaism. Unlike other festivals which have unique, symbolic obligations attached to them, Shavuot (which commemorates the receiving of the Torah), requires one to re-commit to essential Jewish lifestyle practices, exemplified physically through attention to dietary laws, and spiritually by attention to studying. Many have argued that Judaism is a religion of ‘doing’ more than a religion of belief, however many Jews argue that it is only through a careful attention to their actions that they can form a relationship with God.
So, the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates Jewish re-commitment to all the values of the Torah, is exemplified not with a symbolic act, but with traditions that remind Jewish people of their constant obligations and values.
Aaron Carr, former CCJ intern.