Shavuot: The Forgotten Sister

Of the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot is the most joyous and Passover the most popular, leaving Shavuot in the dark. Only ritual can save it.

Celebrating Shavuot in the Jezreel Valley. 2,900 years ago Elijah outdueled the prophets of Baal in this area.
Celebrating Shavuot in the Jezreel Valley. 2,900 years ago Elijah outdueled the prophets of Baal in this area.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I feel bad for her sometimes. The forgotten of three sisters, always listening to the accolades showered upon her siblings – always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

For her sisters there is merriment, feasting and festivities, yet for this forgotten sister, when people are reminded that she exists at all, no one is sure what to do in her presence.

The three sisters of the Jewish calendar are Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, known as the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals of the Bible. Sukkot, a weeklong festival, replete with rituals - some universally compelling (who doesn’t enjoy a holiday meal served in an outdoor booth at the start of fall?) and others more esoteric (like the lulav and the etrog) - is synonymous with joy. As the Torah teaches us: “And you shall rejoice on your festival,” (Deut. 16:14)

Then there is Passover, the popular sister. Known to Jews and non-Jews alike, and brimming with ritual: the challenging – “unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days,” the compelling – “On that day tell your son, 'I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt',” and the pop-cultural, like the Maxwell House Haggadah, or the yearly showing of The Ten Commandments film on TV.

But Shavuot, poor Shavuot, is a lonely wall-flower, waiting for the world to notice her.

At this time of year I spend a fair amount of time contemplating the reasons for Shavuot’s relative obscurity, as I ready my household for a two-day yontif (the price of the Diaspora!) and wonder just what we are going to do for the next few days. Sure there is the relatively modern tradition of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night Torah study session commemorating the rabbinic tradition (though one that is not present in the Biblical account of the Pentecost or Shavuot) of marking that the Torah was given to Moses and the Jewish people on the 6th of Sivan.

And then, of course, there is the dairy that is traditionally eaten on Shavuot. In stark contrast to the rabbinic dictum of “There is no happiness without meat and wine,” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 109a) on Shavuot we eat dairy – a tradition very loosely based on a series of rabbinic linguistic puns that tie Torah to milk.

In more modern times, and in recognition of the contemporary lack of adherence to the festival that is found in America, many synagogues co-opted the borrowed concept of “confirmation,” that is a ritualistic acceptance of Jewish learning for teenagers, in order to fill the pews on Shavuot. But how can any of this compare to the imagery and ritual of Shavuot’s more popular sisters, Sukkot and Passover?

Herein lies the crux of the matter: when it comes to life, both religious and secular, ritual is king. Ritual reminds us, ritual concretizes us, ritual compels us; and in the absence of a truly captivating ritual, any celebration will eventually disappear.

How do I know this? Easy, I am a camp director.

Camp is the quintessence of ritual. For example, at our camp, at the end of every play we rise to sing Himnon Ramah, the Anthem of Ramah, written by Professor Moshe Greenberg. But unlike our sister camps, at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, we add a single word to the chorus of this song – “Tioga.”

Why? Well, because when our camp was established in 1950, it was carved out of a previously existing camp named Tioga, and someone, somewhere, decided to memorialize this erstwhile camp by shouting its name during Himnon Ramah. Camp Tioga (at least the one I am referring to) is long gone. The person who first shouted its name is long gone. In fact, chances are that 90 percent of our campers don’t even know the story behind this tradition, and yet in just a few weeks’ time, 400 campers will rise to their feet and shout with all of their might “Tioga!”

So maybe I should just get up there this summer and say “enough with this nonsense, it is time that this tradition goes the way of the dodo!” If I did this, there would be a riot on my hands.

Thus is the power of ritual, and the absence of ritual is equally as powerful.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Shavuot, and if you ask me – the way to save it is through ritual! We need more synagogues and schools who host all-night learning sessions. We need more homes where children learn to bake the perfect cheesecake alongside their parent or grandparent. We need more talk about the Book of Ruth and the powerful narratives of the Jews-by-choice who enrich our holy communities. We need more ritual!

Anything less and our beautiful, forgotten sister will be lonely forever.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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