How should we celebrate receiving the Torah?

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is unique among Jewish holidays in that there is no special mitzva that must be fulfilled.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is unique among Jewish holidays in that there is no special mitzva that must be fulfilled. On Passover, we refrain from hametz and eat matza; on Succot, we sit in a succa and hold the four species; on Rosh Hashana, we blow the shofar. On Shavuot, there is a festive and serene ambiance, a refreshing atmosphere that blends nicely with the story of Megilat Ruth, the greenery decorating the synagogue, and the delicious dairy foods. But all these are traditions, not commandments.
What is really the story of Shavuot? It is the story of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the most historic and significant event to ever happen to the Jewish nation, at which the nation received the Torah and declared before G-d the famous declaration of “Na’aseh ve’nishma” – We will do and we will hear.
The uniqueness of Shavuot in comparison to all the other festivals is expressed in the Talmud in typical halachic fashion. The Talmud in Masechet Psachim (daf 68) tells of the disagreement among the sages on how Jewish holidays should be celebrated: Should the festival be split so that one part is dedicated to eating and drinking while the other is dedicated to studying Torah and praying; or should the focus be on one – either studying Torah or eating and drinking, not combining both? As the debate continued, the Talmud mentions one important detail: This dispute was debated in relation to all Jewish holidays except Shavuot, about which all agreed that it should be celebrated by eating and drinking. The reason given was that it marked the Torah being given to Am Yisrael.
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Is eating a big meal the most appropriate way to mark receiving the Torah? Most of us could probably come up with different, more suitable and spiritual ideas. But the Talmud sees this from a different perspective. Rashi, the well-known Talmud commentator, explains why Shavuot should be celebrated with food and drink in order to “show that this day when Israel received the Torah is comfortable and acceptable to us.”
Meaning, what is important to mark on Shavuot is not awareness of the obligation to fulfill mitzvot, not the burden, but awareness of the pleasure in fulfilling commandments, the fact that it is “comfortable and acceptable” to us.
Indeed, this point is emphasized every morning during Shacharit prayers in the blessing recited between the Shma and Shmona Esreh when we say the following: “True and firm, established and enduring and right, believed and beloved, precious, desired and sweet, yet awesome and mighty, well-ordered and accepted through tradition, good and beautiful is this thing and binding upon us for all eternity.” This “thing” is, of course, the Torah.
This sentence is a bit intense, but it can be divided into two categories of descriptions.
The first category deals with the rational approach to the Torah: true, firm, established, enduring, right and believed.
The second category deals with the emotional approach to the Torah: beloved, precious, desired, sweet, awesome, mighty, well-ordered, accepted, good and beautiful.
Many times, we tend to focus on the first category, the rational one, that which investigates the reason for one mitzva and the logic behind another; that which tries to make reality fit the Torah or make Torah fit reality.
But the second category, the emotional one, is neglected. When we focus on the question of whether or not a deed is permissible or forbidden, if a food is kosher or not, we forget to listen to our Jewish heart and ask ourselves: Is this beloved? Is it precious? Is it desired and sweet? To what extent is it awesome? The entire Torah, start to finish, is directed at man’s heart and soul. Through fulfilling mitzvot, the Torah awakens man’s conscience, his sensitivities toward others and toward his environment, and particularly toward his own existence as man.
When our sages sat and thought about how to celebrate receiving the Torah, they reached an agreed-upon conclusion: The way to truly celebrate is through food and drink, a celebration that does not focus only on our spiritual side, but also on our physical being.
This is a way of celebrating that looks at man as a whole, as a totality of body and soul, feelings and desires, understandings and longings. We celebrate being part of the Jewish nation, and of “receiving the Torah” each year anew.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.