Counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, links these two major holidays. They are related in many ways, yet they differ dramatically.
Passover celebrates our physical liberation from slavery, while Shavuot marks our spiritual deliverance. In the first festival we enact an ancient story, theatrically participating in the narrative. In the latter event, we acknowledge an earth-shattering event, a covenantal moment in which all of Israel encountered God as they personally and communally accepted divine commandments.
In some respects, we might think the latter holiday should loom loftier in Jewish awareness. But that is not the case. In popular practice and in ritual detail, Passover surpasses Shavuot.
The popularity of Passover is undisputed. Jews of all stripes name Passover as their favourite and most attended holiday. This is not to say that all Jews keep all the ritual requirements, but Passover is the most celebrated and the most Jewishly identified holiday. Jews all over the world eat a bit of matzah, gather to tell a story of liberation and, in some form, in some way, remember that they are Jews. The fixed place of Passover in contemporary Jewish identity is exceptional and undiminished.
Shavuot, by comparison, is almost invisible. Few recognize or celebrate it. For most of the Jewish world, this momentous holiday is obscure. Why is that?
The question gains traction when we compare the ritual requirements. Shavuot lasts only two days, involves studying Torah at night and eating lovely cheese dishes. Passover, meanwhile, is quite distinctive, requiring weeks of preparation, eight days of eating matzah, four days abstaining from gainful employment, ritual meals with symbolic foods – some of which are bitter and difficult to eat. The level of domestic work is not just beyond anything else in any religious system, but it seems to be escalating every year in the Orthodox world.
The intensity of this holiday perhaps explains some of the passion attached to it. Yet the conundrum remains. Why does Passover remain so important despite its unique ritual difficulties? And conversely, why is Shavuot so forlorn despite its simplicity and exceptional symbolic significance?
Perhaps Passover is seen as a fun holiday. Surely it is the one that intentionally engages children. Adults connect more readily to notions of freedom, especially from slavery, than to a covenant linked to a list of responsibilities. Eating symbolic foods is way more fun than all-night study – even though there are more Jews studying Jewish texts than ever before in our history.
All of this seemed very odd to me as I listened to many friends groan under the weight of the pre- and post-Passover routines. For many of us, Passover, as it is now celebrated, is unbearable. Every year, someone finds more stringent rules and regulations to infiltrate our routines – I know my pious great-grandmother did not line her sink or use a blowtorch on the oven! Every year, some pulpit rabbi has the gall to say it is not difficult to make Pesach if you do it right! Every year, we are inundated with male rabbinic pronouncements that remove women’s ritual expertise. And every year, the holiday becomes a burden and not liberation.
Why does the Orthodox world extend the complications? Why can’t we retrieve the fun and elasticity of the holiday? And why maintain a second day of yom tov outside of Israel? Are we being punished?
This custom of two days of restrictions and two seders scorns Israel, functioning as though the state does not exist, as though there is only exile, as though no one can fix the Jewish calendar. This custom of adding an extra day of constraints is not noble, it is reprehensible, pushing those who work in the real world to abandon our customs. It is hard enough to take off major Jewish holidays, but adding extra days increases tension and decreases delight in our traditions.
So I ask, why are holidays here different than the same ones in Israel?