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Understanding the Days of the 'First Fruits'

May 13, 2010 By:
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Apparently, not all Jewish festivals have been created equal.

Passover has the seder -- the most widely observed Jewish ritual -- the eating of matzah and a stirring narrative of a people's deliverance from slavery.

Sukkot, which has undergone something of a revival among non-Orthodox Jews in recent years, has the building of the sukkah booth at home, and the synagogue ritual of waving the lulav and etrog.

And Shavuot, the third of the major biblical pilgrimage festivals, has, well ... blintzes and cheesecake.

It's fair to say that on the American Jewish calendar -- specifically, in the non-Orthodox world -- Shavuot, the festival of weeks, has sometimes been little more than a blip.

The two-day holiday, originally a spring harvest festival, also known as "first fruits," has come to mark the revelation of the Torah. Many traditional Jews believe that it's the anniversary of the actual day -- exactly seven weeks after Passover and the liberation from Egypt -- that God proclaimed the Ten Commandments to the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai.

Surely, the conclusion of the counting of the Omer -- the time between Passover and Shavuot -- is one of the most important events on the traditional Jewish calendar. In Israel, it's a big deal; thousands gather at the pre-dawn hours at the Western Wall. The idea is that, spiritually speaking, it is as if Jews are about to receive the Torah from God for the first time.

So why, among most Jews in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, has Shavuot been overshadowed even by less traditionally important holidays, such as Chanukah and Purim?

"I would be only honest in saying it is a challenge to try to create an interest and excitement," said Rabbi Barry Blum of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in Broomall.

The reasons for this are varied, according to a number of rabbis and scholars. One theory is that, other than the custom of eating a dairy meal, the tradition that's become most closely associated with the holiday is the all-night Torah-study session, known as tikkun.

(One explanation for the custom of eating dairy is that when the Israelites first received the Torah, they realized that their meat wasn't kosher and so opted for a simpler meal. The custom of learning Torah and Talmud throughout the night dates to the 16th century.)

An American Angle
No matter how synagogues try to reinvent the Torah-thon -- whether by discussing contemporary topics or analyzing the Jewish content of the latest Coen brothers' film -- studying into the wee hours can only appeal to a limited number of Jews, according to Beth S. Wenger, director of the Jewish-studies program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wenger said that it's far more difficult to extrapolate a universal, American theme from Shavuot, which is inherently about the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

She added that part of the reason that Chanukah and Passover have remained so popular with U.S. Jews is that they've been framed in American terms of religious liberty and freedom from slavery.

Shavuot "doesn't have that neat translation that really fits into the American narrative," Wenger said, adding that learning sessions have undergone rejuvenation in some pockets of American Jewry, but not on any grand scale.

Ironically, the timing of the holiday may account both for its relative obscurity and its connection with an important milestone -- confirmation -- for some Jewish teenagers, according to several rabbis.

The symbolism is ripe: Students have been taught that they are receiving the Torah into their own lives.

"Confirmation is a reconstruction of the day of standing at Sinai. It is having the youth saying, like the Jews said at Sinai: 'We are part of this, we will obey and fulfill and the words of Torah,' " said Rabbi Vivie Mayer, director of the Beit Midrash at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

According to Rabbi Lance J. Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, 50 years ago there was more awareness of Shavuot simply because more students participated in confirmation, which back then was the central rite of passage in Jewish life, more than Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

It wasn't uncommon for a large-sized synagogue to have more than 100 high school-age students in a confirmation class, and hundreds more family members and friends would turn out for the ceremony, held on or close to Shavuot, said Sussman.

While it's still common for the ceremony to be held in conjunction with Shavuot services, confirmation classes have grown smaller over the years as fewer teens are staying in religious school past the age of 13.

Lila Corwin Berman, director of the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, said that the linkage of the holiday to confirmation represented "an attempt to turn the holiday into something kid-centric -- a sort of acknowledgement that the only holidays that really work in the U.S. are those that focus on children."

Some congregations, while continuing to link Shavuot and confirmation, are trying to emphasize the adult learning aspect. At Congregation Or Ami, a Reform synagogue in Lafayette Hill, 13 students are set to become confirmed on Erev Shavuot. But then, a number of adults will participate in a tikkun, or study session, until midnight, according to Rabbi Kenneth I. Carr.

"Shavuot has been reclaimed by a number of Reform congregations in recent years with an increased emphasis on continued adult learning," said Carr.

A Divinely Inspired Event
Kol Yisrael Bucks County, a Chabad-run center in Yardley, is planning a traditional study session lasting at least until 4 a.m. But the next day, they've scheduled an ice-cream and pizza party for kids. The important thing, stressed Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein, is for the next generation of Jews to hear the Ten Commandments recited aloud in shul, which is customary.

"In some respects, it is the initiation of us actually becoming a people," he said.

When asked about the relative lack of enthusiasm for Sha-vuot, Weinstein suggested that the festival presents a theological challenge of sorts for non-Orthodox streams. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was spoken by God and written by Moses, while non-Orthodox streams generally believe that the text was divinely inspired though ultimately written by humans.

But does this make it more difficult for non-Orthodox Jews to relate to the holiday?

"It gives us the opportunity to consider how we relate to God and we see God in our lives," explained Carr.

For Sussman, the day raises an essential, post-modern Jewish question: What exactly do we mean when we say Torah?

"On confirmation, we are not asking our kids to say they believe that God spoke to Moses on the sixth day of Sivan 32 centuries ago," Sussman wrote recently in his synagogue's monthly newsletter. "Rather, we ask them and one another to see ourselves as part of a generational tradition that stretches back to unknowable origins on heaven and on earth."


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