Shavuot: some people refer to it as the Forgotten Major Jewish holiday. It gets much less press than Passover, which it follows. It doesn’t have the commercial glow of Hanukkah nor the frivolity of Purim. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are familiar to most Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish. Although Shavuot isn’t as obscure as Lag B’Omer or Tisha B’Av, it is often overlooked by less observant Jews, is largely unknown to non-Jews, and is often an after-thought when compared to all the hoopla surrounding Passover.
Shavuot literally is the Festival of Weeks (which Christians refer to as the Pentecost). It commemorates the revelation of the Torah after the Jews left Egypt, as recounted in the Passover seder. It is also an agricultural holiday, and we hear the recitation of the Ten Commandments.
In general, Shavuot is not celebrated as universally as Passover, Rosh HaShana, and Hanukkah. But I love Shavuot, for various reasons.
- It involves much less preparation than does Pesach.
- The cooking is much easier and less costly: the emphasis is on food that is dairy or even vegan.
- It’s only two days long. Compare that to Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah!
- The nightly (or daily) counting of the Omer that leads up to Shavuot is quaint, and doesn’t involve much time for each installment (although you do need to remember to count 49 times in a row, which can be a bit tricky).
- I have a personally enjoyable Shavuot story, involving a Rededication Ceremony I participated in at age sixteen.
- The decor is fun: flowers! Ten Commandment crafts!
- We read the book of Ruth. It’s an interesting story.
- Much less pressure than many other Jewish holidays, especially Passover, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
- You are encouraged to stay up late/all night to study and learn, and it can be fun and intriguing.
- Pesach is near Tax Season, and no matter what the sages say, it definitely sucks some energy from the holiday. Shavuot is post Tax Season.
- It is easier to deal with than Hanukkah (not a gift extravaganza); you don’t have to buy food gifts or costumes like Purim; not depressing like Tisha B’Av; no tent-making like Sukkot.
Let’s take a look at each of these points.
- There is so much preparation that goes into getting ready for Passover. If you are observant and invested in doing it carefully, you have to buy certain foods, you need to clean a lot, you need to sell your Hametz, and various other steps. Passover takes a lot of time and effort. On the other hand, Shavuot doesn’t involve switching dishes and cutlery and near-neurotic cleaning. You can ease into Shavuot without much preparation.
- Passover food purchases and cooking can be expensive. If you’re going to host one or two seders, it can be a pricey outlay. And we know that many stores do hike up the prices for foods and sundries. For Shavuot, people just tend to buy ice cream or cheesecake, a floral arrangement or two.
- Shavuot only lasts for two days. Two days! It flies by so quickly, compared to Passover (which often seems longer than eight days, amirite), as well as Sukkot and Hanukkah. Shavuot is THE modest length holiday.
- If you are faithful about counting the Omer, the 49 days between the Second Night of Passover and the day leading up to Shavuot, it does involve being conscientious about making the daily or nightly declaration (“Today is Day Three,” et cetera, and the blessing). Yes, there are apps for this. Or you can go low-tech and just make a pen tick on your wall calendar. And this is a fairly easy mitzvah to perform, in either Hebrew or English.
- Here is my Personal Fun Shavuot Story. When I was in tenth grade, I was a student in our synagogue’s Hebrew high school. The congregation held an annual Rededication service for 16-year-olds which meant that we each led a small portion of the Shavuot service for the first day of the holiday. (I chanted part of “Seu Shearim”.) We also sang certain prayers as a group. But the fun part was that we had an enhanced kiddush after the service, and each participating teen had a table with a personalized cake! We were asked in advance which frosting and filling flavors we wanted. I requested vanilla frosting and cake with pineapple filling– and that’s what I received! It was a delicious cake, with my name in the frosting, and it was so nice.
- Shavuot decor is pleasant. The emphasis is on flowers, spring motifs, and if you have children, they can make Ten Commandments decorations.
- We read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. It is an interesting tale with a focus on Ruth and Naomi. Ruth is the sympathetic convert to Judaism and Naomi is her mother-in-law. There is a certain amount of drama and custom related in this story. As a reviewer might say, it’s a good read.
- Shavuot does not have the pressure of Passover (all that cooking, cleaning and days of peculiar meals!), nor that emotional weightiness of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. For the most part, it is light-hearted, joyful, and celebratory.
- We are encouraged to stay up all night for the first night, studying Judaica. Around the US and globally, there are groups holding various lectures on a spectrum of Jewish topics. I recall one year attending a lecture on Jewish medical ethics that actually grew contentious. One year I led a talk about how Jewish prayer books vary in style (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Chabad, US Army, and so on) which was eye-opening for many who attended.
- In the United States, Passover corresponds with Tax Season. This year the general Tax Deadline was Day Three of Passover. No matter how you spin it, that does detract from the mood of Passover. Shavuot is Post Tax Season, so you can enjoy it without thinking about whether you signed the check and if the tax voucher was written correctly.
- I’ve said plenty about what we have to do for Passover. But other Jewish holidays also require major efforts: Sukkot involves assembling a hut, Hanukkah involves buying a bunch of gifts, Tisha B’Av is quite sad, Purim involves buying lots of junk food and getting your costume and accessories Just So. Shavuot? Buy a cheesecake, some flowers, and polish your favorite shoes – and you’re ready.
Have I convinced you why Shavuot is such a great holiday in the Jewish calendar? I certainly hope so. Give Shavuot a try, if you haven’t previously or only a few times in the past. If you are a regular to Shavuot, approach it with a new and deeper appreciation!