Sunday, June 8, 2008

A brief Shavuot spiel.

Shavuot, says My Jewish Learning, "is among the least-observed Jewish holidays today. But the holiday is deeply meaningful, and makes up in theology what it lacks in ritual."

In its most simplest phrasing, Shavuot is the celebration of the revelation of Torah at Sinai to Israel. The holiday is directly connected to Pesach, which began seven weeks ago. Between Pesach and Shavuot, we count the Omer, and at the conclusion of the counting, bam! There is Shavuot, the festival of weeks (though it has many different names). The holiday also commemorates the harvest, and it is for this reason that some believe those in the U.S. and the Diaspora have a difficult time connecting with Shavuot, for it still has this agricultural significance in Israel.

Though there are no set mitzvot for the holiday aside from the typical (no work, etc.), there are customs that are incredibly prominent in observance today. These include
  • אקדמות – Akdamot, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services
  • חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese
  • רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services
  • ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery
  • תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.
That fourth one, yerek, was news to me when I began poking around to refresh myself on the significance and practices of Shavuot. On the upside, I do have a bounty of fruit in my home, which is also part of the collecting of greenery and fruits for the home. I've always wanted to engage in all-night Torah study, but to this date, I have not done so. It has logistically usually been impossible, and I thought perhaps this would be the year, but once again, work has gotten in the way (not to mention I took last Monday off and it would probably be seen as a little suspicious if I did it again).

However, the upside of this is that I can spend tomorrow evening and throughout the day tomorrow at work (in between odd jobs) studying Torah and reading the Book of Ruth. I recently read through Ruth while working on a project to compose entries for a Bible Dictionary in the works (my topics: Ruth, Naomi, Mara, and Tzipporah). The significance of the Book of Ruth for converts -- and for this holiday -- is profound, especially considering recent events vis a vis the revocation of conversions in Israel.

You see, the Book of Ruth is read because it corresponds with the harvest, as Ruth worked in the field with Boaz. Likewise, the book comprises the lineage of King David, who himself arose from the lineage of a convert -- Ruth. It is within texts like this that I sit back and wonder what a proper conversion for Ruth would have been like, and how -- after all these years -- we can still wonder about a convert when so much of Jewish history was shaped by a child born of a convert's line. Some of the greatest leaders, thinkers and artists have been converts of all stripes, as well.

Of course the best part of Shavuot -- or so most think -- is all the delicious dairy that is consumed. Myself being of the not-a-lot-of-dairy consuming variety these days, will probably consume just a little bit. I am going to a wine and cheese shindig tomorrow at Chabad in Wicker Park, where there will be a reading of the 10 Commandments. I figure if I don't make it to shul tonight, it is at least what I can do within the community to add to my personal study. I fell off the Torah-reading wagon a few weeks ago and have not been properly set back on yet, which is why you haven't seen much in the way of d'var Torah from me. It seems to happen around this time every year, though.

At any rate, I bid you all a chag sameach -- may your homes and mouths be filled with the words of Torah and may your hearts overflow as surely our ancestors did at Sinai.