Tonight Jews around the world celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the Summer Solstice Harvest Festival and anniversary of the giving of the Torah. So why do I drink beer? Read onâ€¦
There are times when it is no wonder that the vast majority of our people became disconnected from Shavuot. After all, the destruction of the Temples ended the deep agricultural/spiritual significance 2000 years ago. The emancipation killed the other significanceâ€”the delivery of the Torah to the Jewish people. There was no room ironically in a reformed Judaism for revelation on Mt. Sinai, only an acceptance of some moral guidelines as written in the Ten Commandments.
I say ironic, because we forgot those Ten too.
If we actually learn, discuss, analyze, and live the Ten, we are living highly spiritual lives. For the Ten embody the 613, as the sages of ancient Babylon tell us.
Another irony is that the push for the universal acceptance of the Ten Commandments to be taught about in public schools and put in courtrooms, is not the Ten that Moses and the Jewish people received, but the Ten from King James’s Bible. They got a few things right, and a few mistakes too.
The prohibition on murder is not referring to abortion, and prohibition on stealing refers to kidnapping (human trafficking would be included in this) not shoplifting (that’s prohibited elsewhere.) The first commandment does not include the prohibition on graven images, that is in number two for the Jews.
But then there are times when there is wonder that Shavuot is not huge across the Jewish world. Ok, you have cheesecake, which is universally loved. (I eat tofu cheesecake, but that is another post) You have no expensive mitzvahs, like lulavim or shmura matzos. You have two days in the Diaspora, and only one in Israel, meaning you don’t have to be around relatives for too lengthy a period of time. I mean doesn’t it seem to be just made for today’s busy Jewish lifestyle?
But most importantly, the only part of the Torah that reformers kept as some form of law WAS the ten commandments, and with fun things for kids and families, Shavuot is so well tailored to teach and celebrate the contribution of the Jews to civilization as expressed and experienced by the Big Ten.
Shavuot probably would be bigger too, if it had an easier name. In the Torah it has a bunch of names: Chag Ha Katzir (Feast of the Harvest), Chag Ha Shavuot (Festival of the Weeks), and Chag ha Bikkurim (Festival of the First Fruits). Later the Sages referred to it as Atzeret (withdrawal from regular activities). There was even opposition to labeling this Zman Matan Torahtenu, because everyday must be a day of receiving the torah. For this and a few other reasons, the Talmud calls it Atzeret.
And my favorite customs of Shavuot?
Decorating the synagogue with tree branches and flowers, the All Night Study, and drinking beer. In Monsey, we used to stand in awe at the botanical wonderland created inside Rabbi Rottenberg’s shul, with thirty foot high branches arching over the bimah, and a huge Tallis spread over it as a chuppah, to remind us that we are â€œmarriedâ€ to Hashem on this day. More huge branches, trees, bushes, flowers attached to every surface and part of the shul.
According to ancient sources, we stay up each night of Shavuos learning Torah in order to fix the mistake of our ancestors for sleeping soundly the night before Revelation, to show that we accept the torah voluntarily and enthusiastically, and from the Zohar, that we enter into marriage with Hashem with a full trousseau of Torah learning.
And now the beer. I read in the Netei Gavriel, a encyclopedic series of books on Jewish laws and customs, about having a keg of beer at synagogue for Shavuot.
The story of the giving of the Torah as explained in the Midrash relates that God held Mt. Sinai over the Jewish people, in an Italian Offer. Rashi explains that God held the mountain over their heads like a barrel. A tradition arose to have a barrel of beer in the synagogue, when Jews stay up all night and study til dawn, to remember the giving of the Torah.
So as with last year, I will bring my small keg of beer to shul, and study the Torah and all its wonderful flavors, while pondering how to make Shavuot a mega-holiday without selling out too much. Gut Yontef and Chag Sameach!
Here are links to two pdf’s listing all the commandments that in the Torah that we can do today (without the Temple), compiled in a user friendly format: