Shavuot is an important and interesting holiday, but it's so often neglected. Why is that, and what can we do about it?
Falling seven weeks after Passover, and one of the three "pilgrimage festivals" mentioned in the Torah, Shavuot started out as a harvest holiday, and only later in Jewish history became associated with the giving of the Torah and the revelation on Mount Sinai. The rituals originally associated with the holiday are no longer practiced, and compared with the fanfare and rich symbolism of the other two pilgrimage holidays, Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is kind of a dud.
However, Shavuot has been imbued with expanding rituals and symbols over the years, and an increasing number of Jews are incorporating the holiday into their practices. Though the old agricultural rituals are no more, four current traditions are gaining popularity:
1. Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or as I like to call it, the original all-nighter: In order to show our preparedness for revelation, some Jews stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot learning various texts, studying with their communities and drinking coffee. Sometimes the Tikkun will end with morning services at the crack of dawn and the reading of the Ten Commandments during the Torah service.
2. Confirmation: Many congregations use Confirmation as a way to encourage high school students to stay involved in religious education past their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Because Shavuot is so closely associated with Torah and learning, it provides a nice backdrop for young adults to share what they've learned since age 13.
3. Eating cheesecake: There are multiple explanations for this one, but the one I like the best posits that because the Israelites didn't know how to keep kosher before receiving the Torah, they could only eat dairy foods and not any meat. As long as you can only eat dairy, you might as well do it right and eat the most fattening of all dairy foods. Ice cream is also a good choice. Bonus points for cheesecake with ice cream on top.
4. Reading Ruth: The Book of Ruth is read during morning services on the second day of Shavuot. As Jews by choice have become more prominent members of many Jewish communities, the story of Ruth is a chance to celebrate them and their commitment to Jewish life.
Whether or not you are part of a community that celebrates Shavuot through any of these rituals, there are certainly ways that you can incorporate the holiday into your life and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Go to a tikkun if one is available. If not, host your own. All you need are a few people, some cheesecake, caffeinated beverages and a few conversation starters. (Or if, like me, you have a baby or some other reason that staying up all night sounds like actual torture, find an alternate option still in the same spirit. I'm hosting a picnic for people to eat and learn together during the afternoon.) Also, educate yourself about the historical and contemporary observances of the holiday so that you're able to be a Shavuot ambassador and share what you've learned. As usual, I highly recommend myjewishlearning.com, which I also consulted before writing this post.
Finally, because Shavuot is on Monday, there won't be an Advice Well published that day, which gives you extra time to think of more questions to submit. When Shavuot rolls around this weekend, if nothing else, for goodness sake, be sure to eat some cheesecake.
Chag sameach, and be well,