When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, all Jews would come there for the three annual “pilgrimage festivals” (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot). Unlike Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot only lasts one day, so another six days were added following Shavuot so that all the people could offer the sacrifices associated with the holiday. These days are called yemei tashlumin (days of fulfilment).
Since we are still in the midst of these days, it’s appropriate to discuss the unique quality of Shavuot over Passover, Sukkot and even Shabbat.
Passover and Sukkot involve activities that require preparation and involvement on the holiday itself. On Passover, we clean our homes of leavened products and conduct a seder commemorating the exodus from Egypt. On Sukkot, we obtain the four species (lulav, etrog, willow and myrtle) and dwell in a sukkah. Yet Shavuot is not associated with any specific act. True, the Torah commands us to count 49 days following Passover to Shavuot, so there is preparation. And there is a mitzvah of bringing first fruits to Jerusalem between Shavuot and Sukkot. However, the giving of the Torah goes beyond the mitzvot of counting 49 days and bringing first fruits. So what can we do to properly celebrate the holiday?
One answer is the custom, instituted by the rabbis, of reading Tikun Leil Shavuot — which contains sections of every Torah portion, as well as sections of the Oral Law and the Zohar. The Midrash relates that before the giving of the Torah, the children of Israel experienced such a deep and refreshing sleep that they had to be awakened to receive the tablets on Mount Sinai. To rectify this error, many Jews stay up all night learning Torah, either by reading the Tikun Leil Shavuot or attending various classes.
There is another aspect of Shavuot that requires understanding: If a person has a disturbing dream on Passover or Sukkot, Jewish law allows them to fast on the holiday if it will restore their emotional ability to enjoy the Yom Tov. Such a person can even fast on Shabbat. However, it is forbidden to fast on Shavuot. So what is it about the holiday that makes it stand apart in so many ways?
At Sinai, the Torah (Shemot 19:20) states: “God descended upon the mountain.” Chassidut interprets the statement to mean that God eliminated the barriers that previously separated the spiritual and material worlds. This enabled man to elevate physical matter (such as the parchment used to make tefillin and mezuzot, investing that parchment with sublime levels of holiness). So, too, when a person makes a blessing over kosher food, he or she elevates its inherent holiness to its supernal source. In this way, man fulfills the purpose of the giving of the Torah.
The point is, Shavuot does not just celebrate a one-time event; rather it originally forged an ongoing relationship between man and God, and annually empowers mankind to deepen that relationship by following the Torah. In essence, Shavuot applies to and encompasses all of man’s activities. Choosing one way to celebrate Shavuot over another would miss this important point. Even disturbing dreams have, at their essence, a positive outcome — encouraging the person to come closer to God. For that reason, the proper way to celebrate Shavuot is to engage in acts that combine the holy and the mundane and show that they are, in essence, united.
There is one more way that Shavuot is special. According to our sages, the forces that are associated with negativity have no permission to accuse the Jewish people of any deficiency on Shavuot, much like Yom Kippur. However on Yom Kippur, we refrain from eating, drinking and other acts. In that sense, we are like angels. On Shavuot, we can enjoy these very deeds and obtain a taste of the way the world will be in the Messianic Era. To quote Maimonides, (Laws of Kings, Chapter 12:5) in that era, there will be neither famine nor war, envy nor competition, for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.
Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, as Isaiah 11:9 states: “The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.” May we see its fulfillment with the immediate revelation of Moshiach. PJC
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and rabbi of Congregation Kesser Torah. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.