Shavuot’s Open Sky


If the Revelation at Mount Sinai was arguably the pivotal moment in Judaism, its commemoration — Shavuot (June 8 and 9 this year) — has oddly become a private, almost obscure affair compared to its fellow heavyweights on the holiday calendar.

Everyone in town, even on television, knows about Passover, its sibling holiday. Almost all Jews speak of Pesach and Passover interchangeably. But like an old Yiddish relative, no one really uses or even knows Shavuot’s English name: Feast of Weeks? Pentecost? Really, who in the family ever calls her that?

It happens every spring, the model seders all over town, the search for analogies to the Exodus story in other cultures; Passover is up there with Chanukah when it comes to public awareness of basic laws, from matzah to menorahs. On Shavuot, all the more odd for a holy day commemorating Mount Sinai, there are almost no laws, only customs.

But like an elderly relative, those that know her tend to love her and the shared moments. There is an intimacy to the all-night study sessions and the sublime weariness as the sky begins to lighten. There is a charm to watching little children, as in the K’tonton story, stare up at the midnight sky, waiting to see it “open.” There is something relaxed about a Shavuot picnic, as unpretentious as a plucked banjo, in contrast to the opera-like formality and weighty symbolisms of a seder — lovely in its place but who can imagine doing another one seven weeks later?

And yet, that old relative has stories, if not laws, of her own. It’s a day of Yizkor, so light a candle for all the other relatives, no longer here, and for King David and the Baal Shem Tov, too, who died on Shavuot. The holiday was also a pivotal day for the Hungarian Jewish deportation of 1944. It’s a day for the bucolic romance of Ruth, the quintessential holy convert, and its messianic lessons.

Shavuot has seen a lot, and not all of it pleasant. And yet, perhaps the happiness of Shavuot flows from how the broken pieces of the shattered Ten Commandments always shared the ark with the set that Moses didn’t break. That’s what the old relatives want us to know, that we’re family, all of us, the broken ones and the holy ones.

Tell the old stories. Stay up late. Watch the sky lighten.