Renewing our vows with G-d.
By Claudia Dornbusch Aumann
For those who grew up in non-observant communities, the holiday of Shavuot was one that came and went unannounced. Everyone knew to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, even Sukkot. But Shavuot? Who knew? And isn’t it ironic? In fact, Shavuot commemorates the single most important event in Jewish history, the event that stamped the Jewish nation with its identity, its faith, and its destiny: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The actual giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was one of the most dramatic and awesome events recorded in our history. With heavenly voices, the Shofar sounding, lightning and thunder, G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish people. Unable to withstand such holiness, the Jewish people begged Moses to be their intermediary and receive the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments and the entire Torah. But undeniably the entire Jewish people—every man, woman and child—was present and agreeable to receive the moral code and ethical system that would guide our lives from that time on.
What is Shavuot?
Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. It’s the holiday when we renew our acceptance of G-d’s gift to us. The word “Shavuot” means “weeks,” marking the completion of the seven-week counting period, known as the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot. The word “Shavuot” also means “oath,” and it refers to the day that G-d swore eternal devotion to us and we in turn pledged our loyalty and devotion to Him. Shavuot is the day when we are reminded that the Torah is not only a beautiful ornament to respect and dance with on Simchat Torah, but the source of all of our wisdom, knowledge, and understanding about life and how we should live it.
Our sages have compared Shavuot to a wedding between G-d and the Jewish people. On Mount Sinai, the groom (G-d) united in complete harmony with the bride (the Jewish people), for better or for worse, through good times and bad. Just as a wife and a husband sometimes feel the need to renew their vows and recapture the love and commitment they shared together the day they married, so to in Shavuot we renew the vows we took at the marriage ceremony on Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago.
Laws and Customs
Shavuot is a two-day holiday, beginning at sundown of the 5th of Sivan and lasting until nightfall of the 7th of Sivan. As on other holidays, no work may be performed and special meals are prepared and eaten. Both on the first and second nights, women and girls light candles to usher in the holiday. On the first night of Shavuot, some communities observe the centuries-old custom of having an all-night vigil dedicated to Torah learning and preparation for receiving the Torah anew. One explanation for this tradition is that the Jewish people who were in the desert over 3,000 years ago did not rise early on the day G-d gave the Torah. In fact, it is said that G-d had to awaken them. To compensate for their behavior, Jews have accepted upon themselves the custom of remaining awake all night, preparing for this awesome moment.
All men, women and children go to the synagogue on the first day of Shavuot to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments. Since we all came together at Mount Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments from G-d Himself, we reaffirm our commitment to Him by hearing them again. It is especially important that children, even the youngest of infants, be present to hear them. Why? It is said that before G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He demanded guarantors. The Jewish people made various suggestions, but all were rejected by G-d. When the Jewish people said, “Our children will be our guarantors that we will cherish and observe the Torah,” G-d immediately accepted them and agreed to give the Jewish people the Torah. Children were the “guarantors” then, and are the “guarantors” now for only through them and by them will our identity and heritage continue.
It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. Eating blintzes and cheesecake is definitely different from what we eat on all other holidays. Why? There are various reasons, but the two most prevalent are that when the Jewish people received the Torah, included were all the Kosher laws. Since they had not followed these laws before that, the Jewish people could not cook meat in their pots, which had yet to be rendered Kosher. And given that the revelation at Sinai occurred on Shabbat, they were unable to slaughter animals and make their pots Kosher. The only thing they had was milk. The second reason is that the Torah is likened to milk as the verse says, “Like honey and milk, [the Torah] lies under your tongue (Song of Songs 4:11). Just as milk can fully sustain a human being (as in a nursing baby), so too can the Torah provide all of the spiritual nourishment we need.”
On the second day of Shavuot, the Yizkor memorial service is recited. Additionally, some communities have the custom of reading the Book of Ruth on the second night. Ruth was a convert and the model of Torah acceptance. Her experience is a reminder to us that we are all Jews only thanks to our own act of Torah acceptance and at the heart of Shavuot is our acceptance and renewal of our connection with the Torah. Ruth’s connection with Shavuot also stems from the fact that she became the ancestor of King David who was born and died on Shavuot.
This year, Shavuot begins sundown on June 7th and is celebrated through June 9th. Let’s all connect to our essence, rejoice in our acceptance of the moral code that guides our lives, and renew our eternal commitment to who we were, who we are, and who we are meant to be.