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    A Mah Nishtanah for Shavu’ot

    Four questions are asked every Pesach. We could probably also work out four questions for Shavu’ot.

    Two would be, “On all other festivals we have special mitzvot; why on this festival are there none?” and “All other festivals have a date specified in the Torah; why not Shavu’ot?”

    The key to the second question is found in one of the names of Shavu’ot. It has altogether more names than either Pesach or Sukkot. It is Chag HaKatzir, the harvest festival; Chag HaShavu’ot, the feast of weeks; Atzeret, the concluding festival; Z’man Mattan Toratenu, the time of the giving of our Torah; and Yom HaBikkurim, the day of the first fruits. In Italy it is also “the feast of roses” and in Persia “the feast of flowers”.

    The crucial name is Atzeret, “conclusion”, since Shavu’ot is a conclusion or adjunct to Pesach. Pesach brought us freedom; Shavu’ot gave us a law. A free people that lacks direction has no purpose or destiny.

    So instead of establishing Shavu’ot as an independent festival with its own Torah-given date, God linked it to Pesach, saying, “Celebrate your freedom on Pesach, count forty-nine days to be ready to receive your destiny, and you will always know when it is Shavu’ot.” The Midrash finds this hinted in the Torah in Ex. 3:12, ta’avdun et HaElokim al ha-har hazeh – “you will serve God on this mountain”; there is an extra nun (the Hebrew letter for 50) in ta’avdun.

    The first question wonders about special observances for Shavu’ot. True, there is cheesecake and there are blintzes. But tasty as these are, nowhere are they commanded, in contrast to the traditions of other festivals. Matzah, shofar, lulav, sukkah are all specifically required by the Torah, and each is an integral part of Judaism because each focusses on a basic Jewish idea. Shavu’ot is different. It does not celebrate a part of Judaism, but Judaism as a whole. It is not concerned with any one Jewish idea but the whole body of Jewish ideas.

    Hence what marks Shavu’ot is not an aspect of Torah but Torah as a whole. The cheesecake and blintzes help, since they symbolise the fact that milk is the basic nourishment for the body and Torah for the soul. But the real mitzvah of the festival is not for the body but for the mind – the mitzvah of Torah study.

    Some tell you study is not for them. They’re not such intellectuals, they explain. But what they need to be reminded is that in the great days when Torah flourished in eastern Europe, there were also many levels of intellectuality. Anyone who was attracted by Jewish study could always find a chevra on the level with which they felt comfortable. The same, but even more so, is possible today. We can all find our own level and a chevra of like-minded people… or we can create one.

    The message of Shavu’ot is Jewish learning. Without knowledge, you will never know what you are missing. Without knowledge, your Judaism will always be threadbare. With knowledge, you will have inspiration, self-understanding, exhilaration, challenge and blessing.

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