Image: Mt. Sinai. Photo by Tomos Kanopasek/shutterstock. All rights reserved.
If you ask most people – even most Jews! – about Jewish holidays, you’ll likely get the following list:
- High Holy Days
- Some other stuff – who can remember?
The order might differ. Passover is in fact the Jewish holiday kept by the greatest number of Jews worldwide. It’s primarily a home holiday, celebrated with a festive meal. Passover speaks of home, hearth, and family to Jews.
The High Holy Days are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. They have to do with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and with repentance from sin (Yom Kippur).
In the 20th century, Chanukah came to the attention of Madison Avenue because it’s the Jewish holiday closest to Christmas.
And yes, everyone knows there are other holidays – but who can remember them all?
The biggest Jewish holiday of all comes once a week: Shabbat!
In Biblical times, there were the Big Three, aka the Chagim. A Chag (Khahg) is a festival that used to require one to travel to Jerusalem to participate in the Temple sacrifices for the day. The Chagim are:
- Sukkot – which falls right after the High Holy Days
- Passover – at Passover
- Shavuot – 50 days after Passover
Follow the links if you are curious about Sukkot and Passover. In ancient times, Sukkot was the biggest holiday of the entire year, so much so that the people referred to it as “THE Chag.” The people of Israel loved Sukkot and celebrated it with the same enthusiasm we celebrate Passover today.
Passover celebrates Part 1 of the great drama of the Jewish People, the Exodus from Egypt (yitziat Mitzrayim.) However, it is only the beginning of the story, one half of the covenant between God and Israel. On Passover, God delivers the people from slavery in the land of Egypt. But this is a covenant – a two way deal! It is not complete until Shavuot.
On Shavuot, we celebrate Part 2 of the great drama. Fifty days after Passover, the people are deep into the wilderness of Sinai. We stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and we agree to receive the Torah, the Teachings that include the mitzvot (commandments) that we will study and follow for the rest of history. God did great deeds for us, and now we make a great commitment to God: 613 commandments! They will shape our lives and our destiny forever.
That’s what we celebrate on Shavuot: the Torah. We celebrate it with late-night study sessions (Tikkun Leil Shavuot) and by eating dairy foods. We say special prayers of praise (Hallel) in synagogue, and remember our dead (Yizkor.)
Why is this chag so poorly known that it is practically a secret holiday? Part of it is that it comes on the heels of Passover. Some of it may be that it comes just as school lets out, and people go on holiday.
However, I think that there’s one other thing at play, something on a much larger scale. If Sukkot was THE Chag in the past, and Passover is the well-known Chag in our present, perhaps Shavuot is the Chag of the Future. Perhaps we have not yet reached the time in Jewish history when we fully appreciate it.
I hope that you will join me this year in celebrating this once and future Chag! Check with your local Jewish institutions about Tikkun Leil Shavuot. If there is some relative you still mourn, consider attending Yizkor services at your synagogue. And if nothing else, have a bit of dairy, perhaps a nice piece of cheesecake! Taste the silky sweetness and think, “this is the taste of Torah!”
Chag sameach Shavuot – Happy festival of Shavuot!