Through years of experience, I have come to realize that Jews seem not to attach the same importance to Shavuot as they do to the other yamim tovim.
Both Pesach and Sukkot have an abundance of rituals that every Jew begins to learn at an early age. On Pesach, we eat matzah and have a seder, and on Sukkot, we sit in a sukkah and shake the lulav. Yet on Shavuot, it seems as if there’s nothing “fun” to do. Why is this so?
As we all know, Shavuot commemorates God’s giving the Torah to us, His Chosen People. This unique event was of such importance that He didn’t want us to be distracted by any rituals whatsoever, so that we may devote all of our attention to this special gift.
The giving of the Torah was so crucial to the world that the first Rashi of the Torah says that the word bereshit (in the beginning) means bishvil reshit (for the sake of the beginning). The word reshit alludes to the Torah. What Rashi is saying is that if the Torah would not have been given, the world would not exist.
There is more, however, regarding the meaning of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which is revealed by examining the timing of the holiday. More precisely, why are we given “seven weeks” without specifying a calendar date?
With enormous ramifications, God was setting the stage for all time when He gave the Torah Sheh B’al Peh (the Oral Torah), which provides, in fact, the justification for rabbinical interpretation of the Torah Sheh B’chtav (the Written Torah). Not only did God say to the sages of history, “You figure out the calendar date of Shavuot,” but He was also saying for posterity that, when questions about the Written Torah arise, Jews are to turn to the rabbis, who hereby have the authority to elucidate such questions.
In the same vein, on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. As we know, Ruth was a convert who came from the nation of Moab. Yet, according to our Written Torah, the Moabite is not to become a member of the Jewish Nation (Dvarim, 23:4). Thus, when the legitimacy of Ruth’s conversion was questioned at the time of the ascendance to kingship of David (Ruth’s great-grandson), the sages determined (Yevamot 77a), with the authority of the Talmud (the Torah Sheh B’al Peh) that we have just discussed, that the exclusion of the Moabites referred to men but not women.
On this and every Shavuot, let us not feel bereft of rituals, but, rather, heartened by our tradition of the all-night study, during which we review and contemplate our lives in light of our two Torahs – written and oral – that have guided us always.