Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks” occurs seven weeks after Passover. It starts this year on the evening of June 3 and is celebrated 1 day in Israel and 2 days outside. The confusion over what it celebrates, its name, and the lack of specific Mitzvot associated with it, make the holiday of Shavuot a candidate for one of the most significant, yet under appreciated, Jewish Holy Days.
Shavuot celebrates both the harvest season and the anniversary of God giving the Torah to the Israelites. It’s one of the three major festivals, but unless you grew up in a religious home, you might not know much about it. Let’s do a little holiday association. If I say “Passover”, you would say matzah or seder. If I say “Yom Kippur”, you would say fasting or major synagogue attendance…. “Rosh Hashanah” … the shofar , “Chanukah”…the Menorah or gifts. If I said “Simchat Torah” … you would probably come up with something like Torah rewind. But if I say Shavuos … maybe silence? Or perhaps you would say “lighting the candles” or a “festival meal.” That’s weak since we light the candles on Shabbat and on almost all Jewish holidays and, of course, we never miss an opportunity for a great meal.
What’s in a name? Very little in this case: Day of Atonement is completely clear; Rosh Hashanah is very explicit. Passover is cryptic, but intriguing. Festival of Weeks really underwhelms, considering this is the day when God gave us the Torah, probably the most important event in Jewish history. Shavuot could be called Simchat Torah because that’s really what Shavuot is— a “Rejoicing of Torah.”
Shavuot does have associated traditions, like hearing the reading of the Ten Commandments in synagogue, eating dairy products, and all-night Torah study. But these traditions and the holiday itself have not had much popularity among less religious Jews in the Diaspora. Shavuot reinforces, albeit in a negative way, how important the more popular traditions have become in sustaining Jewish holidays and therefore the Jewish people.