Ten years ago, a reform rabbi friend of mine, bemoaned to me that “Shavu’ot is the forgotten holiday of the Reform Movement”. He explained that:
1. It was only one day.
2. It usually came out in the middle of the week.
3. There is nothing tangible to “capture” people with as other holidays.
I remember thinking how symbolic it s that the holiday celebrating Torah is missing from a movement that does not believe in its divinity. I’ve felt quite smug about this anecdote over the years and shared it in many settings.
But, since then, I’ve come to realize that Orthodox Judaism is hardly better off when it comes to Shavu’ot. The Orthodox movement doesn’t celebrate Shvu’ot. We celebrate a made up holiday called Chag Matan Torah:
1. The two are not even the same day. As the Talmud explains in Masechet Shabbat, 86b, and Rosh Hashana 6b, Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan, whereas Shavu’ot takes place on the 6th. (In ancient times, when the new month was determined by eyesight, it sometimes even fell on the 5th of Sivan).
2. We do not count 50 days from The Exodus to Matan Torah. This is a misnomer. Nowhere in the Torah are these two events connected by 50 days. (And in truth, we didn’t even get Torah on the 50th day, rather, on the 51st).
We count from the first harvest of grain (קציר העומר) seven weeks and then celebrate The Holiday of Harvest.
3. In the five(!) different places the Torah discusses Shvu’ot we find an exclusively agricultural-religious holiday. It marks the new season of harvest when we:
– Give thanks for the new harvest and new fruits
– Recognize that divine providence throughout Jewish history is the reason we are able to live and work The Land of Israel and enjoy its fruits.
– Share our plenty with the less fortunate.
So how was The Holiday of Harvest “hijacked” and turned into The Holiday of The giving of Torah?
1. Once The Temple was destroyed and we were cast into exile, what would a Torah based Shavu’ot look like? It has no observances that are not dependent on living an agricultural life in Israel. The holiday would become irrelevant, possibly even forgotten. It had to be given a new meaning. Considering its proximity to the date of Matan Torah and the emphasis on a more “spiritual” Torah during our exile – the original holiday was reinvented and infused with new meaning.
2. But, there is possibly a deeper connection as well. The beauty of Shavu’ot (and Megillat Ruth; the reading of the day) is that it represents – more than any other holiday – what a full Torah life looks like. Megillat Ruth is what Hashem had in mind when he gave Torah in the first place: The Jewish People living in The Land of Israel, keeping the Mitzvot of the land while also taking care of the less fortunate. All this, while remembering where we came from and where we’re heading. It may very well be both the most mundane as well as most beautiful stories in all of Tanach.
So why the connection?
The Torah does not require that we celebrate the day the Torah was given. Remember what our mothers told us about why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day? “Every day is mother’s day…”. The giving of Torah isn’t a singular event, rather, a continuous, never-ending one. But when the day during which Torah life is supposed to appear in its most comprehensive manner is in danger of being erased from Jewish observance, it became the day to remember that Hashem gave us Torah: If we’re not able, yet, to “live the life”, let’s at least remember to look at the manual to remember what is missing.
May we merit to observe Shavu’ot with all its Mitzvot and original meanings!