Galilee Diary: Hearing Torah
On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. -Exodus 19:1
The holiday of Shavuot, as it is described in the Torah (Numbers 28:26) is a harvest festival, when “first fruits” are brought as an offering in the Temple. It has no historical referent, its timing was set according to the counting off of seven weeks from the second day of Pesach. However, the rabbis of the Talmud somehow (creatively, it seems) calculated that the date coincided with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and so it took on the additional meaning of the holiday of the giving of the Torah and that is how it is described in the traditional liturgy.
In secular Israeli culture it is associated with the color white, with dairy foods, and with greenery: kindergarten children come to school the day before Shavuot dressed in white with crowns of leaves. A permutation of Mayday, I suspect. In any case, for those who don’t go to synagogue, it is a day off, and the weather is usually conducive to excursions in nature or to the beach. The unexplained tradition of eating dairy foods has become a kind of obsession fueled by advertising. A generation ago, the kibbutz custom of holding a parade celebrating the first fruits of the fields (and of the plastics factories – and of the baby nursery) was well-known, and an attraction for city visitors. These still exist, but today are seen more as quaint than as a moving symbol of our return to the land.
The medieval custom, the “Tikkun Leyl Shavuot” - staying up all night to study Torah - has long been observed, mostly in Orthodox communities around the world, as a way of connecting with the Sinai component of the holiday. We spent a couple of years in Jerusalem in the 70s, and looked forward every year to the experience of wandering the city all night, tikkun-hopping until we got to the Western Wall in time for a sunrise service and then walked home to collapse. The density of religious communities and scholars in Jerusalem made that experience uniquely possible. There were enthusiastic conversations before and after, as people gave tips on where was cool and what had been boring (the recent Israeli movie “Footnote” has a scene making fun of this aspect of Jerusalem culture).
Since then, the tikkun has become a mass phenomenon all over the country, and the week before Shavuot is packed with pre-holiday tikkunim at community centers and schools, libraries and other institutions, enriched by musical performances and focusing on a broad variety of themes from the heavy to the light (the food, on the other hand, tends to be only heavy). Of course, one can criticize this fad for a certain amount of kitschiness and trivialization. However, it seems to me that it is a wonderful example of the way culture develops, sometimes in surprising directions. The belief that God indeed appeared on Mt. Sinai and revealed ten – or 613 – commandments is not exactly universally accepted by the participants in all these tikkunim. But that doesn’t stop increasing numbers of us from gathering on the anniversary of that alleged revelation to explore together the rich tradition – Torah in the broadest sense – that somehow got started on that day. For the early 20th century pioneers, the return to agriculture was a kind of redemption, and so the restoration of the harvest festival was a powerful symbol. But just as in the rabbinic period the day took on a meaning connected to revelation, so too in modern Israel, the land itself has turned out to be not enough – many Israelis are seeking the spiritual and moral dimensions in their Jewish identity, and are taking advantage of the resources of the tradition in new-old ways to find them.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah