Shavuot, literally the festival of weeks and known to Christians as Pentecost, begins tomorrow night. And this year especially, I find myself excited about some of its special traditions. I love staying up all night studying, talking, and eating cheesecake with friends. I love walking into our synagogue and seeing it covered in fresh greenery, vines twisted about the furnishings and filling the air with their fresh scent. But where did these customs come from and what do they mean?
Like many popular practices there are many and competing views about their origins and meaning and I would love to have people add theirs in the comments below. My own understanding of these three customs begins with the fact that all are significant departures from typical Jewish custom of the last thousand or more years. And the fact that we choose the night on which re recall the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the law, as a time to subvert our usual customs is pretty interesting and I think, quite instructive.
Since the time of the Talmud, rabbis have understood eating meat to be a central expression, even an obligation, of the joy we are meant to experience on holidays. (Sorry Vegetarians! I will explore the vegetarian/carnivore tension in the tradition some other time.) Yet on Shavuot, we specifically eat dairy meals. And yes, that means that grilled fish and a salad would be as proper as blintzes and cheesecake, but they are not as much fun! Please don’t tell my doctor!!
Generally speaking, nighttime was frightening until recent times. There was little cheap, artificial lighting and so most people could not function at night. This left them feeling scared and the practice of being up and about all night long was frowned upon by many religious authorities, both Jewish and not. Again though, we find ourselves flouting that norm on the night we receive the book of norms!
And the greening of the synagogue was seen as sufficiently pagan by some rabbis that they opposed the custom of draping Jewish prayer spaces with the kind of greens which often marked classical temples. Yet Shavuot was the holiday in which this often frowned upon practice became popular. What is going on?
I think that people, whether the “folk” or the rabbis, appreciated that at precisely the moment when we are asked to embrace a whole bunch of rule’s i.e. the Torah, we also need to embrace the fact that there is something beyond the rules. At precisely the moment when people are asked to submit themselves to the law, and there are going to be times in any legal system, no matter how much we might love it, that it feels like submission, those very same people are told that there will always be room for stepping outside the system we embrace.
In other words, this is a system which allows people to leave without telling them that they have abandoned the whole thing. I wonder how often we allow that approach to shape not only our approach to our own spiritual journeys, but to any of the most important relationships in our lives. Is there room to move away without betraying? Is it possible that subverting the system is sometimes the most sacred and loving response to it? How do we decide when that is the case?
These are the kind of questions which keep a system alive and functioning. These are the reasons that I love the practices of staying up all night, eating milchigs (dairy), and filling the synagogue with plants on Shavuot. What about these practices is interesting to you?