Does Shavuot Exist? – Cantor Sarah Sager


This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the Shabbat presentation by Cantor Sarah Sager on Friday, May 23, 2014. In this Shabbat sermon, she is raising a conversation about the meaning of Shavuot in the context of Jewish festivals and Reform Judaism, and the observances in the life of our synagogue. She is advancing a conversation in which we encourage you to take part. Please do post this blog, share it with others, respond to it below with your comments, and consider joining one of two upcoming discussions at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. Cantor Sager will discuss Shavuot and this presentation with our members at our next Women’s Torah Study session on Wednesday evening, June 11 at 7:15 pm. In addition, our Ritual-Festivals Committee, under the leadership of Michael Penzner, will open its meeting on Wednesday evening, July 9 at 7:30pm to congregants who wish to express an opinion on Shavuot, and our festival practice at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. Please do join us.

At this time in the Jewish calendar, we are travelling from Egypt to Sinai, from our festival of Pesach (or Passover) to our observance of Shavuot.   I’m curious:  How many of you have heard of Shavuot?  For how many is it a new term?  Of those who have heard of it, who knows what it is?  Why do we celebrate it?  How do we celebrate it?

It is a festival – which means we would group it with what other festivals?  Shavuot is identified in three different ways.  It is called the Feast of Weeks because it is observed seven weeks after the beginning of Passover.   Or, it is called the Festival of the First Fruits as it originated in gratitude for the late spring harvest;  or, it is referred to as  z’man matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah, as that is the historical association the rabbis assigned to its observance.

I have been observing Shavuot since I was a little girl.  I remember going to synagogue with my parents and seeing the flowers and baskets of fruit beautifully displayed on the steps of the bima and the steps up to the ark.  I remember eating a remarkably decadent dairy dish made of cheese and dough and raisins and melted butter at my grandmother’s house, and how my mother used to bang out on the kitchen table the crepe like pancakes that she would then fille with cheese and bake — in the days before one could purchase frozen blintzes at the grocery store.  I remember the beauty and the pageantry of Confirmation every Shavuot morning and, as an adult and a professional, I have coached, tutored, guided, and blessed hundred’s of Confirmation students.

And yet, for some reason, this year, I find myself  in a somewhat strange and unfamiliar place.  I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone here that I love Judaism.  I can be even clearer:  I am passionate about our tradition, its wisdom, its beauty, its teachings, its rituals and practices.  I love that every day of my life, I have the privilege of waking up to the challenge, gift, and responsibility of conveying something of Jewish life and thought to others.  There is a part of me that believes Judaism is (almost) perfect.  I am continuously awed by the depth of its philosophy, the multi-faceted, multi-layered, and multi-generational nature of its concepts and ideology.  I love to learn about it, teach it, observe it, sing it, and hopefully, strengthen it. So how is it possible, I am asking myself, to be sharing with you this question:  Does Shavuot exist? 

I see it on the Jewish calendar.  I know that it is identified as one of the three Shalosh Regalim, the three major festivals of our year.  I know that observant Jews go to synagogue, eat dairy foods, and stay up all night studying in observance of the festival. I also know that we (most often) celebrate Confirmation on our Shavuot festival.  Most of our students, however, do not associate their Confirmation with Shavuot and will never celebrate Shavuot again (at least not until their own children, God willing!, are confirmed!).  I know this because, other than their families and a few of our members who have been informed that Yizkor will be recited, NO ONE comes to temple on Shavuot!  If we were to move Confirmation to another date, and if we did not send out letters inviting people to observe Yizkor for a loved one, if we just put a notice in our Bulletin and on our website that there will be services in honor of Shavuot, no one would attend!  It makes me wonder: what is it about Shavuot that is so forgettable or uninteresting or so completely irrelevant to our contemporary lives that we cannot even count on a minyan of our members to come to services in observance?

We can be clever and programmatic:  we can convene groups of our members at Mitchell’s or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor for learning and a dairy treat; we can even hold a study session late into the night – and invite particularly interested members to attend.  In the end, however, I keep asking myself:  Will we be developing a congregation of Shavuot observers – or will we simply capture those who are momentarily attracted to the fun and the subject matter chosen for learning?  And if we have to try so hard to ingeniously create some kind of awareness of this festival – awareness that just doesn’t seem to “stick”, are our efforts better used in other ways?

As I thought about this question, I did some of my own review of Shavuot.  In fact, although identified in the Torah as one of the three major harvest festivals, unlike both Pesach and Sukkot, it is not until post-Biblical times that it became identified with an historical event.  That is when the rabbis wisely assigned the giving of the Torah, the moment when we formed a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai, to Shavuot, because they knew that without an important historical association, the late spring harvest festival would not survive the increasing urban concentration of our people in the Diaspora.  It has the fewest rituals associated with it of any of the festivals.  One has only to think of the seder and the sukkah to realize that eating dairy on Shavuot (the reason for which no one really knows – although there are many opinions!) just does not compare.  Even studying all night in the mystical tradition of what is called Tikkun L’eyl Shavuot does not carry with it the accessibility and sensory power that other rituals have and that make them beloved and transmittable.  It is also a relatively recent practice, having originated with the mystics of the 16th century.

It is quite possible that these issues have nothing to do with Shavuot’s neglect. Perhaps the rabbinic assignment of the Giving of the Torah to Shavuot, well-intentioned as it was, was not strong enough.  Perhaps it seemed forced or contrived and did not have the power or organic nature that the Exodus had when associated with the early spring harvest or Sukkoth had as symbolic of the fall harvest, a natural time for Thanksgiving.  Even as it is linked to Passover by the practice of counting 49 days of the omer between Pesach and Shavuot, the connection between harvest and holiday does not excite the imagination.  And how many people know – or care – what an omer is anyway?!?

Or perhaps there is something else.  We do not keep the Torah in the ark in order to bring it out once a year on Shavuot, to celebrate the giving of the Torah on that festival.  On the contrary, we take it out every single Shabbat and on other days as well, both special and ordinary.  The central symbol of Shavuot – the Torah itself – is an ongoing constant in our lives.  Every time we ascend the pulpit to take it out of the ark, every time we carry it and march with it, every time a young person is called to the Torah to read from it, it is as if we are re-enacting that moment at Sinai when Moses ascended and brought the Torah back to the Israelite people.   It is the drama of our ancestors receiving the Torah that we re-live on Confirmation.  But the reading and studying, the teaching and interpreting that has to happen to make our Torah a vital, alive, relevant source of wisdom and insight has to happen all the time.

Thus, I pose the question:  Should there still be an annual observance of that moment at Sinai when our people responded to God’s call:  “Naaseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will listen.”?  After all, our tradition says that we were all there, every one of us.  Every Jew who ever lived or will live was there to accept the Torah and to promise to follow its laws and precepts.  Or do we accept the current reality and acknowledge that while we subscribe to and observe the values of Shavuot, for Reform Jews, at least, Shavuot just does not exist?

Is it possible that in a creative, dynamic, vigorous religious tradition, there is room for some observances to survive and thrive while some fall into disuse – to be revived, perhaps, at another time?  Or to be consigned to our history books as other observances have been, such as the Feast of Water Drawing  which was an ancient observance during  Sukkoth, as well as other hints and clues in the Bible that seem to refer to observances that were commonly known at the time of writing.

Irving Greenberg points out in his book, The Jewish Way, that new celebrations have become part of our calendar, such as Yom Hashoa and Yom Haatsmaut.   The history of Reform Judaism is partially the history of choosing , after great study and deliberation, those rituals and observances that make sense, that have relevance and meaning in a contemporary context.  We have not been afraid to establish new standards and criterion of religious observance.  We are the movement, after all, that established the principle of Patrilineal descent, of outreach to the non-Jew, of inclusion and full equality of our Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender population.

I am fully cognizant that we are commanded in the Torah, “Eileh moadei Adonay”, these are the appointed times and seasons of Adonai that we are to observe.  And I would be deeply reluctant to forge what would certainly be vilified, censured, and denounced as another separation of Reform Jews from the rest of the Jewish world, from so-called “normative” Judaism.  But there is something in me that resents pretending, that chafes at the role of “surrogate Jew” for others.  That is not my understanding of community, of all of us having stood at Sinai.  I was not there for someone else who couldn’t make it – I was there to accept my personal responsibility.  As was every one of us.   I now find myself asking, with the abject ambivalence of one who loves this tradition with which we have been blessed :  Does that personal responsibility continue to extend to the observance of Shavuot?

I am hopeful that we might begin a conversation about the observance of Shavuot as well as our other festivals.  In fact, an article based on my remarks tonight will appear in our next bulletin, we will include a discussion of Shavuot at our next Women’s Study session on Wednesday evening, June 11 at 7:15 pm, and the next meeting of our Ritual-Festivals Committee, under the leadership of Michael Penzner, on Wednesday evening, July 9, will be open to congregants who wish to express an opinion on this very topic.