By Rav Yaakov Bieler, Shavuot 5773
An old adage comparing the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, comes to mind:
On Passover, I can eat where I want, but not what I want.
On Sukkot, I can eat what I want, but not where I want.
On Shavuot, I can eat what I want, and where I want. So why is it only one/two day(s)?
Although RaMBaN maintains that religious restrictions, such as those associated with Pesach and Sukkot, are intended to increase a sense of holiness and an out-of-the ordinary experience, it is entirely understandable why some might find manifold rules and regulations difficult to prepare for and fulfill, and consequently prefer religious occasions where less demands are made. While at least one view in Pesachim 6a maintains that one has to prepare for the complexities of Pesach at least thirty days before the Chag, commentators note that a similar requirement is unnecessary for Shavuot since there are no specific preparations to be made. And since by the Rabbis referring to Shavuot as “Atzeret”, they are obviously paralleling it to the final day of the fall holiday season, i.e., Shmimi Atzeret, nevertheless, from an experiential perspective, just because the Mitzva of Sefirat HaOmer serves as the bridge between Pesach and Shavuot, does not mean that we feel as if this day marks the end of the spring holiday season and/or that it is an intrinsic part of the observances during Nissan, fifty days before.
Perhaps due to Shavuot’s singular and brief nature, it should therefore be thought of as the “Roman Candle” of the Chagim!
What might account for Shavuot’s brevity?
Facetiously, we might explain that Shavuot’s lasting only one day serves as a corrective for the custom of eating dairy during this festival. One of the numerous rationales offered for this practice on Shavuot is based upon the Talmud’s observation in Bechorot 6b that the consumption of even Kosher animals’ milk by humans would not be permitted without some biblical textual justification. Since milk is drawn from a living animal, one might conceptually think of it as “Eiver Min HaChai” (a limb from a living animal), which is prohibited not only for Jews, but for Noachides as well. Among the Talmud’s explanations for establishing a basis for milk being permitted for human consumption is the Tora’s characterizing the desirability of the land of Israel on fifteen different occasions, as “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Would the land be aggrandized if one of the elements that distinguishes it could not be easily used and consumed? Since Jewish tradition maintains that the Tora that contained these verses was given on Shavuot, we commemorate this event by celebrating with dairy foods. Perhaps it is just as well that the holiday is only one/two day(s) because intense consumption of high cholesterol foods such as cheesecake and blintzes could really prove quite unhealthful!
A more spiritual interpretation for Shavuot’s single day commemoration is offered by R. Adin Steinsaltz. Noting that in our liturgy, Shavuot is referred to as “Zeman Matan Toratainu” (the time of the giving of the Tora), in contrast to “Zeman Kabbalat Toratainu” (the time of the receiving of the Tora), R. Steinsaltz writes,
The Giving of the Tora as an act of forming a connection between the Creator and His Creatures is a one-time event…
The Receiving of the Tora is an exceedingly lengthy process…
Even to this day, receiving the Tora remains an “open question”. It is not simply a matter of the spiritual and intellectual capacities of one generation or another. As long as human beings possess free will, the problem of accepting the Tora will be posed anew in every generation…
As a personal-individual experience, it continues to this very day…
A Talmudic homiletic support for R. Steinsaltz’ distinction between the Giving and Receiving of the Tora, appears in a number of places, including Sanhedrin 59a:
R. Yochanan said: A heathen who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written, (Devarim 33:4) “Moshe commanded us a law ‘Morasha’ (for an inheritance); it is our inheritance, not theirs. Then why is this not included in the Noachide laws? — On the reading “Morasha” [an inheritance] he steals it; on the reading “Me’orasa” [betrothed], he is guilty as one who violates a betrothed maiden…
MaHaRShA on Pesachim 49b explains the analogy between Tora and a betrothed woman as follows:
…In accordance with the statement (Avot 2:12) “R. Yosi said…Prepare yourself to study Tora, because it is not (Morasha) an inheritance to you…”, it (the Tora) is to be found in a “corner”. Whomever wishes to pick it up, can pick it up. This is the reason why it is interpreted as comparable to a betrothed person, because the Tora is compared to a woman in several places. And when it was initially given to Israel, it was like someone betrothed. Only after its study (i.e., its being “received”) will it be considered one’s spouse…
Therefore while the Giving of the Tora can be circumscribed within a single day’s time (Shavuot), the receiving of the Tora will take millennia in the life of a people, and an entire lifetime with respect to a single individual.
And then there is the zen-like explanation that a contemporary Tora teacher includes at the end of an essay devoted to the question, “Size Doesn’t Matter–Why Shavuot is Short”:
Finally, we know that in the Torah, size doesn’t matter. It is quality rather than quantity that matters. A one day chag is not less kadosh that a seven day chag.
In the Navardok Mussar Yeshiva, students were awoken in the middle of the night in order to study Tora for five minutes before going back to sleep. The exercise was not only to develop self-discipline, but also to demonstrate that no time, however short, should ever be wasted.
Could Shavuot then serve as an abject lesson regarding making the most of whatever time is allotted to something, in this case, be it one day or seven/eight?
If Shavuot can be considered the “roman candle” of Chaggim, we unfortunately know of examples of individuals who, however accomplished, also live for all too briefly a time.
The only people for me…burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
In R. Yisrael Meir Lau’s moving memoir, Out of the Depths, (p. 151), he quotes R. Eliyahu Lapian, who once explained the biblical phrase (Genesis 18:11; I Kings 1:1) “Ba’im BaYomim ” (coming with days):
There are special individuals who when they present themselves before their Creator, They bring with them their entire lives, without one day lost or wasted.
They were active each and every day of their lives, expanding their knowledge, Serving the public, and helping others. They made the most of each moment.
Perhaps we should recall such people and their actions more often than a few times per year; nevertheless, Yizkor gives us an opportunity to think about those who lived meaningful lives, whether longer or shorter, and hopefully those eternal memories will inspire us to carry on after them, and give them an even more tangible presence in our lives and those who will come after us.
Originally appears on Rav Bieler’s blog