Overlooked Jewish holiday

Oh shucks, Shavuot

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Shavuot may be the most important holiday that you’ve never heard of.

This holiday commemorates when the Israelites got the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. That’s a pretty significant event, wouldn’t you say? So what is it about this poor, forgotten festival that makes it so easy to overlook? You would think that with a backstory that profound, it would be a day that all Jews would be aware of.

Shavuot is on a par with Passover and Sukkot, biblically and religiously speaking, and I know you’ve heard of those holidays. But there are a few reasons why Shavuot doesn’t get much respect. Here are a few reasons why:

The time of year

Shavuot takes place in late May to early June each year. That’s just when most synagogue Hebrew schools are winding down and people are getting ready for the end of the school year and thinking about summer. It’s hard to feel religious when you’re planning your Memorial Day barbeque.

It’s fleeting

Shavuot, along with its siblings Passover and Sukkot, make up the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, which marked the occasions in ancient times when Jews would travel from all over to Jerusalem in order to bring sacrifices to the Temple. Both Passover and Sukkot are celebrated for eight days — lots of time to get into the holiday spirit. Shavuot, however, only lasts for two days. Almost as soon as you realize it’s here, the holiday is over.

It’s the Jan Brady of holidays

I just picture Shavuot sitting on the couch talking to his therapist, complaining that his brothers got all the attention, and no one thought he was special at all. After all, both Passover and Sukkot are filled with beloved and familiar rituals and traditions. And Shavuot? Not so much. Other than a custom to eat dairy foods (cheesecake is often served at dessert), there’s just not that much going on.

Shavuot’s real strength is in its message — it reminds us when we first received the Torah. It is important on Jewish holidays to reflect on past events and how their meanings relate to modern life. Instead of just looking at Shavuot as ancient history, it is important to try and feel like we’re receiving the Torah all over again every year. That’s exactly the point that we hope that all of our b’nei mitzvah kids get — not only on Shavuot, but throughout the year. Torah is literally the gift that keeps on giving.

Kids are routinely assigned books to read in school. They read each one (or just go online for the SparkNotes), write some essay or take a test, and then they’re done. Usually they will never have to look at that book again for the rest of their lives. Now imagine a book that they study each and every year — sure, the lessons will be different for elementary school, middle school, and high school students. But the assumption is that each year, the teacher is able to find new insights and fresh material to educate young budding minds.

That’s how we’re supposed to look at the Torah, and why this is a vital holiday for kids and adults of all ages. The Torah is supposed to be the book that you don’t just read once and forget.

And that’s an occasion, if ever, for a delicious slice of cheesecake.

Updated 12:55 pm, June 3, 2014
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