Shavuot: On Covenants and Cheesecake

Dear Josep,

The Shavuot holiday coincides with a number of joyful events in my family. In 2008, Eitan and I got married 3 days before Shavuot. In 2009, I gave birth to H the morning before Shavuot. In 2012, I gave birth to R2 right on the day between our anniversary and H’s 3rd birthday! Understandably, the Omer “count-up” has special meaning for us every year. 🙂

So what is this holiday and what is its significance?

“Shavuot” literally means “weeks”; the word shavua comes from the root sh.v.a., ש.ב.ע, which means “seven”. But that same root also means “oath”. Remember how I said that Passover is like the birthday of the Jewish people, and that Shavuot is like the wedding anniversary? The 6th of Sivan is the day God gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In the 50 days between the Exodus and receiving the Torah, we went from being slaves to prophets–every one of us.

In Rabbi Judah the Levi’s philosophical work The Kuzari, he puts forth an argument that is still used in theological debates when discussing the Divine origin of the Torah. (Rabbi Lawrence Keleman gives a wonderful class on this here.) He states that every other religion began through the revelation of a single human being–Islam had Mohammad, and Christianity had Paul. (Yes, Jesus before that, but Christianity as its own religion, as opposed to a Messianic sect of Judaism, basically began with Paul’s revelation.) The thing about individual revelations is that they are impossible to verify. You can either believe that Mohammad or Paul was a true prophet and had a true revelation, or not. A skeptic could easily claim that they were making it up or were clinically insane, and it is very hard to prove or disprove one way or the other.

It gets a little harder to dismiss when you make the outrageous claim that an entire nation stood at Mt. Sinai and personally heard God speak. We’re talking about around 3 million people. It is extremely difficult to argue that 3 million people went simultaneously insane. Or just got together and decided to make the whole thing up and tell their children and their children’s children that they personally heard God speak, and manage to pass that intact story down through every generation for 3,500 years.

Now, this is obviously not a flawless argument–there is no such thing when it comes to theology–but it is a fairly strong one, and certainly differentiates Judaism from the rest of the world’s religions. Only Jews would have the audacity to claim that our ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak with their own ears.

According to Exodus 19-20, the nation gathered at the mountain on the 6th of Sivan, and God gave them the Ten Commandments. (Which, by the way, is a fairly inaccurate translation of that phrase. We have 613 commandments, not just ten, and these ten aren’t necessarily more important than the others. The Hebrew phrase, asaret hadeebrot, is more accurately translated as “the Ten Statements”.) The Israelites were so overwhelmed by the Divine revelation that they told Moses to go up to the mountain and receive the rest of the Torah for them. He ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Tablets of the Covenant.

The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907
The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907

So What’s the Deal with this Torah Thing?

In my “Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club“, I gave two definitions for the Torah, the first of which was: “the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment”.

Now, one might ask oneself, aren’t we talking about faith and a relationship with God? What about this dry, austere collection of legalistic rulings and restrictions is so important and inspiring to Jews that they were willing to sacrifice their comfort, safety, financial viability, and sometimes their lives for it, for 3,500 years?

Here’s where our wedding allegory comes back. The Torah is like a wedding contract. If you take a look at any type of prenuptial agreement, you’re most likely to encounter a bunch of boring legalese. Any kind of contract provides the framework, the boundaries, through which a healthy, prosperous relationship can grow.

A good example of this is Shabbat. If you sat and read through those books I showed you about the laws of observing Shabbat, all you’d see is a whole bunch of things you’re not allowed to do. How stifling and restrictive! But as you saw yourself, all the “thou shalt nots” are not what define Shabbat. Shabbat is so much more than a bunch of restrictions. It is a time outside of time, a space to disconnect from our role as “creators” and enjoy our role as “creations”. We could not fully feel and enjoy this if we did not have a way to clearly differentiate our existence on that day from that of every other day of the week. The laws of Shabbat provide the frame; we fill in the picture. This is, of course, also true about marriage.

So what is the Torah? The Torah is our contract with God and our handbook to creating a just, moral, God-conscious society. God made a covenant with us to use the framework of the Torah to create a better society and raise the spiritual level of humanity to a point where God will be able to reveal Himself to all. He wanted us to do this by serving as an example to the rest of the world, being a “light unto the nations”, as it were. In return, He promised to give us the land of Israel–a land at the center of the world, where the paths of the leading civilizations at the time constantly crossed, meaning that they would all come in some kind of contact with us. He promised to bless us and protect us and provide for all our needs, as long as we kept our end of the deal.

…That didn’t exactly go as planned, but that’s a story for the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av. 😉

Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot is one of the Three Regalim–the Biblical holidays on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Like the other Biblical holidays (Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shmini Atzeret), it is observed similarly to Shabbat, with restrictions on “acts of creation”–with the one exception of certain actions required for making food. (These are called “Yamim Tovim”, literally “good days”, or “Yom Tov” in singular.) In Israel Shavuot is one day long; outside of Israel, it is two days.

Other than that, there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot. There is a custom to express our gratitude and love for the Torah by staying up all night learning Torah. (Eitan likes to note that this custom only came into existence when coffee became widely available…) Many synagogues are specially decorated with flowers and colorful cloths to cover the Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the Torah scrolls.

According to tradition, King David’s birthday and date of death were both on Shavuot. (It is said that dying on one’s birthday is a sign of great righteousness. Moses also died on his birthday.) For this reason, we read the scroll of Ruth during services on Shavuot, which tells the story of David’s great-grandmother–a Moabite convert to Judaism.

Another well-known custom of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. Tradition has it that this is because when the Israelites received the Torah, they were overwhelmed by all the laws regarding kosher meat, and decided to make life easier on themselves by just eating dairy until they were on top of the whole kosher meat thing.

Unlike in most areas concerning cuisine 😛 my Ashkenazi ancestors did dairy pretty well. Classic Ashkenazi dishes include blintzes (like fried crepes), bagels (traditionally eaten with cream cheese and smoked salmon), and cheesecake, the latter of which has become the classic Shavuot dessert.

Nom nom nom. by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0
Believe it or not, I was not a fan as a kid. My mom used to get cheesecake from the local kosher bakery for everyone else, and carrot cake for me; I assume because it was the other dairy cake they carried! I came around eventually–especially since Israeli cheesecakes are lighter and milder on the cheesy flavor–but I’m still kind of weird about cheese and sweet things. Especially the combination of chocolate with cheese. :-/
by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0

Shavuot falls on this coming Sunday, which means that us Israelis are in for a two-day Shabbat-Yom-Tov, and non-Israelis are in for a three-day extravaganza.

There will be cheesecake.

Lots of cheesecake.

(So Shavuot doesn’t exactly follow the formula of “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But at least there’s the “let’s eat” part! 😛 )



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