The Festival of Shavuot certainly does not have the
powerful observances of other festivals, dwelling in
booths on Sukkot or eating matzah on Passover.
Nonetheless, it has developed its own observances. We
eat dairy foods. A lot of us eat blintzes, (about
1000 calories a bite, so it is best you eat it
only once a year.) On Shavuot we read
the book of Ruth, the beautiful story of
a Moabite woman who cast her lot
with the Jewish people. “Your people
will be my people; your G-d will be my
There are other traditions that tie the
festival to the learning of Torah. Many
Jewish people stay up all night studying the evening of
Shavuot, and many synagogues, including ours, sponsor
study sessions (tikkun leil Shavuot). This is based on a
midrash that when the Israelites were ready to receive
the Torah, they overslept, and Moses had to go from tent
to tent to wake them up.
The giving of the Torah is the central defining event in
Jewish life. But what actually happened at Mt. Sinai?
The traditionalist point of view is that Moses received
two Torahs, the written Torah and the oral Torah, at
Mt. Sinai. In fact, one Rabbinic teaching says that every
thing any student of Torah will say to his/her teacher in
any generation was already given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
I am sure that the Rabbis did not mean this literally.
They meant that all Torah teachings in every generation
were potentially contained in the Torah given to Moses.
Personally, I prefer another approach. What did G-d give
the Israelites at Mt. Sinai? Some say G-d gave only the
first two of the Ten Commandments. These are the only
two written in the first person. (“I am the Lord your G-d.”
“You shall have no other G-ds before me.”) By the third
commandment it is Moses, not G-d, who is speaking. (“Do
not take the Lord’s name in vain.”) The people were too
frightened to hear G-d’s voice directly, and therefore
asked Moses to do the speaking.
Some say that G-d only gave the first word of the first
commandment Anochi (“I”). After one word, the people
became too frightened and let Moses speak.
But there is a Hasidic teaching that takes this idea
further. G-d only spoke the first letter of the first word,
when the people in their fright asked Moses to do the
speaking. The first letter of the first word is an aleph, a
silent letter. The Israelites at Mt. Sinai heard G-d’s voice
in silence. The event at Mt. Sinai was The Sound of
Silence, thousands of years before two Jewish boys Simon
and Garfunkel sang their great song of the same name.
What happened on Shavuot? The Israelites gathered at
Mt. Sinai and heard the sound of silence. They had an
overwhelming sense of G-d’s presence. Moses would
articulate the words of G-d. But atMt. Sinai, the Israelites
knew that there are G-d-given obligations. There are
commitments they must make as Jews. If Passover is
about freedom, Shavuot is about obligations. Without
obligations, there can be no true freedom.
So break out the blintzes, read the book of Ruth, study a
little Judaism (it does not need to be all night), and
celebrate this important day in the Jewish cycle of