For observant Jews, nothing is more definitive of their life and faith than the Torah. So it stands to reason that Shavuot, the second of the three scripturally mandated Jewish pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot — celebrates the giving of the Torah from God to man.
Shavuot, which will be celebrated this year on Sunday and Monday, May 27 and 28, comes exactly 50 days after Passover, the first Jewish festival of the year. According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a noted Jewish scholar with more than 60 books to his credit, the proximity of Shavuot to Passover on the calendar is hardly coincidental.
"The relationship of Passover and Shavuot," he said, "is like the relationship between a question and an answer. Passover is the question, as reflected in the most famous question asked on the Seder night: Now that we have our freedom, what do we do with it? And the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, is the answer."
Indeed, Rabbi Steinsaltz said, Shavuot is more than an answer. It is also "the creation of a nation that becomes the vehicle for holding, safeguarding and transmitting the Torah. Thus these two holidays, which are joined together by the counting of those 50 days, form a full metaphysical sentence that is made up of a question and an answer."
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah said, "Shavuot is the special time for us to re-awaken and strengthen our special relationship with God."
Jews do that, he said, "by re-dedicating ourselves to the observance and study of the Torah — our most precious heritage."
According to Rabbi Zippel, the Torah is composed of two parts: the written law and the oral law.
"The written Torah contains the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings," he said. "Together with the written Torah, Moses was also given the oral law, which explains and clarifies the written law. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation and eventually transcribed in the Talmud and Midrash."
Through the years Jews have studied and drawn strength, courage, instruction and inspiration from the complete Torah. It is the foundation upon which Jewish identity is built, representing "a continuous chain of tradition extended throughout the generations, connecting the scholars of the present day to the revelation at Mt. Sinai," Rabbi Zippel said.
In a sense, he says, Shavuot is a wedding anniversary.
"On the day of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people," he said, "God himself was the groom and the Jewish people were the eager — if slightly overwhelmed — bride."
The Torah was the wedding contract. "It served as the reciprocal agreement of devotion and love between 'husband' and 'wife' — each giving, each receiving," Rabbi Zippel said. "Our assent to the Torah was unconditional and enthusiastic. After all, it was the purpose of liberation from the slavery of Egypt. We were being chosen, being wanted. We were the desired ones of God's plan for a just world, a world of law, that would be both spiritual and practical for us and for mankind."
With such reverence for the Torah and its teachings, it is no surprise that Torah reading — specifically, the reading of the Ten Commandments — is an important part of the Shavuot tradition. ("Every man, woman and child, including infants, should attend services on the first day of Shavuot and hear the Torah reading of the Ten Commandments," Rabbi Zippel stressed.) So is eating dairy foods, such as cheesecake and cheese blintzes; decorating homes and synagogues with fruits, flowers and greenery; the reading of the Book of Ruth; and engaging in all-night Torah study.
"Shavuot entails taking a look at ourselves and making an effort to make a real change for the better," Rabbi Zippel said. "Regardless of a person's spiritual status, he or she has the potential — and the obligation — to reveal their inner connection (to the Torah) and express that bond ... within the context of everyday life."