Shavuot — A Time to Celebrate Our Peoplehood
by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)
On Passover we commemorated our liberation from slavery. But on Shavuot we celebrate our true appointment as the Jewish people through our acceptance of Torah in the form of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the word “Shavuot” has two meanings: “weeks” — because we just counted seven weeks during the period of the Omer; and “oaths” — because the Children of Israel and God exchanged oaths at Mount Sinai, forming an everlasting covenant not to forsake one another.
Indeed, it is considered essential to realize that Torah is not man-made law but moral law handed to us directly from God. The idea is summed up in the phrase, “Torah min HaShamayim” — “Torah from the heavens”. I found this beautiful Midrash quote from Rabbi Abahu in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that conveys the spiritual nature of this awareness:
“When God gave the Torah, no bird sang or flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the Serafim ceased from saying ‘Holy, Holy’, the sea was calm, no creature spoke; the world was silent and still, and the divine voice said: ‘I am the Lord thy God’.”
As mentioned in my previous article on Passover, Shavuot is one of the major three holidays (the Shalosh Regalim) in which a pilgrimage was made to the Temple (the other two being Passover and Sukkot). While both Passover and Sukkot are a week long, Shavuot is only two days long. As a result, the holiday really has an air of focus about it, much like reaching a pinnacle. This is best exemplified by the long-standing custom of celebrating the holiday with an all-night Torah-study marathon — Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Because Shavuot is also associated with the first harvest, it is customary to adorn the synagogue with flowers and branches.
I must admit, when I was growing up, I wasn’t all that excited about Shavuot. My favorite part of the holiday, however, was the food! It is customary on Shavuot to only eat “milchik” — that is the dairy diet, instead of meat. There are many explanations for this, but the one that resonates for me is that as we reach this pinnacle of Torah awareness, we restrain ourselves and eschew the pleasures of meat-eating. Nevertheless, I loved the food on Shavuot — especially my Bubbie’s blintzes! I’ve got to say, I have never tasted anything like these blintzes anywhere else. She guarded the recipe religiously, though my mom and I managed to almost recreate them a few years ago. Her blintz crepe was paper thin and rolled around a Farmer’s-cheese-based filling in a tube-like shape that was left open at the ends. These where then further baked in the oven. Other Shavuot foods served up by my Bubbie were her stuffed white fish, which had the most yummy filling made of ground up vegetables that was so sweet and tasty, and an amazing spinach and egg souffle. Who needs meat?!