Connecticut temple 88 248.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The rabbis of the Talmud ask: "Why are Pessah and Succot celebrated for seven days each, while Shavuot is celebrated only one day?" They answer, "Pessah and Succot are rooted to the days on which they are observed, but Shavuot belongs to all time and can be celebrated at any time." Thus the rabbis conclude that the giving of the Torah, which we commemorate on Shavuot, is an event "above all time and space."
Since the central theme of the festival is this gift of the Torah to the Jewish people, it is important to mark all of the night of Shavuot with intensive study. Our tradition includes the the righteous rising to recite tikkun hatzot, midnight prayers. A talmudic legend recounts that there was a harp hanging over the bed of King David in Jerusalem. When the midnight breezes came, they blew across the strings, creating a melody that awakened the king. For his tikkun hatzot, he rose to pen psalms of praise to God.
Those of us who have experienced the Shavuot tikkun in Jerusalem, followed by its dramatic conclusion, will never forget it.
"No matter where you live within Jerusalem, you can find a tikkun in your specific neighborhood at anytime between 10 at night and three in the morning on Shavuot. Now, if the spirit moves you, as it does thousands of other Jerusalemites - you can weave your way through the streets of Jerusalem making your way to the Kotel, the Western Wall," said Jewish writer Yaakov Luria.
You look up to the heavens as the dawn breaks. The birds begin to fly, the prayers reverberate throughout the open area having drawn close to this holiest of sites. Turn your face from the Wall and you can see waves of people pouring down the steps, flowing through the gateways and security checks as they enter the compound. Thousands have arrived, physically and spiritually, to link themselves with their people's vibrant past.
We are reminded never to take our Torah for granted - make it a part of us and then we will benefit from the profound and inspiring teachings which it contains. Conservative rabbi Richard Hammerman wrote that "On the eve of Shavuot, we are reminded that symbolically we await the giving of the Torah anew. Rather than closing our eyes in slumber, we must deepen our own personal knowledge of our spiritual treasure through constant, intensive study."
SHAVUOT HAS its own culinary delights, special milchig, dairy and cheese, dishes. Noted food editor Linda Morel addressed the prevalence of dairy dishes on this holiday in an insightful article.
"Shavuot, " she writes, "commemorates Moses receiving the Torah and Ten Commandments, and some scholars believe that the whiteness of milk is a symbol of the Torah's purity. This is seen through the gematria, numerology, of halav, milk, which is 40, comparable to the 40 days Moses was on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
"Practical-minded scholars speculate that after the children of Israel returned from Sinai, they were too tired and hungry to prepare meat. In this same vein, it is maintained that because the Israelites had just received the laws of kashrut, they had to make their utensils kosher before eating meat - hence only time for milchigs."
Another point made by Morel relates to the specific time of the year when the holiday occurs - in May or June, just seven weeks after Pessah. "In Israel," she points out, "this is the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat season. Because fields are lush for grazing in late spring, cows, goats and sheep produce more milk, resulting in abundant cheese. It's possible that the Israelites began eating dairy foods at Shavuot because they had too much milk."
MY MOST dramatic milchig experience was almost 40 years ago, in the little town of Danielson, Connecticut, where I spent Shavuot conducting the services for a holiday bar mitzva. A group of 30 families of Holocaust survivors had been transplanted to Danielson and the surrounding area. Most became chicken and egg farmers, but some became dairy farmers. By the time I arrived, some of the families had moved on but the community still had a quaint, beautiful synagogue which they maintained carefully.
Alan Turner, the current lay leader of the merged Danielson-Putnam synagogue, notes that the Danielson synagogue building, Beth Israel, was built in 1953. Four of the survivors are still alive and six of the children of survivors still live in the area. Six years ago, the two synagogues in Danielson and neighboring Putnam linked together and took the name Bnai Shalom. Turner emphasizes that there is a movement afoot in Danielson to create an endowment to preserve the building and make it a center for teaching tolerance.
On Erev Shavuot, upon arriving from New York City, I was met by the leader of the congregation, a survivor of Auschwitz. We had a nice conversation and he asked me if I knew Yiddish. We went to the synagogue, where I met the bar mitzva boy and his father, a survivor of Treblinka. The young man chanted the Torah brachot and his haftara quite well. He and the other young people attended a Hebrew school in a large community nearby.
At the Shavuot morning services there were about 100 people - maybe 25 children. The bar mitzva boy was excellent - he led parts of the service and all his chanting was well done. I remember that he emphasized in his speech how proud he was to be a Jew. He said his grandparents - who had perished in the Holocaust - must all be looking down on him. He promised never to let Jews be persecuted as all the families gathered that day had been.
The most tasty moment and most poignant experience for me occurred when I entered the room where the kiddush luncheon was being held. There was an amazing array of dairy dishes: blintzes, lasagna, cheese kugels, a variety of quiches, ziti and feta cheeses. For dessert were cheesecakes of every flavor imaginable, cheese tarts and a cheese surprise. All these delicacies were made from the products of Danielson's Jewish dairy farmers.
As I stood in that kiddush room, all I could hear was Yiddish - young and old speaking the mame loshen. Driven from their homes in Europe, these survivors had rebuilt their lives in America. Not only the synagogue and the Torah, but also the Yiddish language linked them to the past and nurtured their growth, keeping them alive as Jews. What a privilege it was for me to observe Shavuot in Danielson; that memory is always with me.