By Larry Gordon
What a wonderful time of year this is! Shavuos falls out smack dab in the middle of the week and then we spill right into Shabbos, with summer awaiting us on the other end.
I know, I was wondering the same thing. What happened to the warm weather we should be having at this juncture of the year just about halfway into the month of May? This reminds me of the traditional Shavuos yomim tovim we used to spend at different Catskill hotels with the observance sometimes attached at one end or the other to the Memorial Day weekend, which we miss by just one week this year.
My parents used to like to take the family away for Shavuos, as opposed to any other of the chagim. I always thought the reasons were fairly obvious. First of all, Shavuos is the most abbreviated of all the yomim tovim and the least complicated to be away on. I always thought of this yom tov as being of the simple two-day variety as opposed to the eight days of Sukkos and Pesach because Shavuos marked the singular event of the presentation and acceptance of the Torah, a Divine transaction that occurred between G-d and the Jewish people at Sinai.
Why just two days? Well, in Israel it is only one day, so perhaps a more apt inquiry would be why just one day when the others are more than a full week. There are lots of theories and answers to that question, but I like to think of Shavuos and the focus on the exciting, Divine wisdom of Torah as being an observance that is marked for its quality over quantity. The perfection that Torah offers us can be sufficiently and efficiently marked by one very special singular day as opposed to a multiplicity of days.
But then again, what’s with all the eating? The supermarket people that I speak to on occasion tell me that even though Shavuos is only two days as opposed to the other yomim tovim being four times longer, in a proportionate way, shopping for Shavuos is busier and more lucrative than the other holidays.
My father was fond of saying—and he probably said it every year, and maybe I have written for many years too—that he likes Shavuos most of all because on Sukkos, while you can eat whatever you desire, you cannot eat wherever you would like. On the other hand, on Pesach while you can eat wherever you’d like, you cannot dine on whatever you would like. On Shavuos, however, he would say, you can eat whatever you prefer and wherever you prefer.
And that is also one of the reasons that I think he liked to go to a hotel in the Catskills specifically on Shavuos—no restrictions. We spent some nice ones, especially in the old Pioneer Country Club, which some of you will recall even though it seems to have existed in some other lifetime.
Other yomim tovim away present an assortment of challenges. I think I spent parts of one or two and maybe three Sukkos holidays away, and they were quite difficult. The last time we went, and it was the last time, it rained intermittently just about every day. It did not rain hard enough not to eat in the sukkah, but it rained steadily enough so that if you were in the sukkah you got wet. But you have to understand people weren’t just “not at home” where they can use discretion or do as they please when the weather turns inclement. You also have to understand that you are on display, with people not necessarily watching you, but in a sense you are under a type of casual surveillance where people are cognizant of your every move.
So on this particular Sukkos, people were streaming in and out of the sukkah, some eating in the sukkah, then switching to the dining room, and then when it stopped raining back into the sukkah. The rabbis I consulted indicated that once you return to your home—or in this case an indoor dining room—when it starts raining outdoors, you do not have to return to complete your meal in the sukkah when the rain ceases. But that is good policy when you are in the confines of your own home. When you are away and on display, that’s a different story.
Pesach away is a far different deal. Food is an important and even essential component of every yom tov celebration, but I’m sure you will agree that Pesach is way over the top. It is so painstaking and detail-oriented that sometimes it is just plain more attractive to lock up the house, sell it with the chametz, and don’t go back in until after Havdalah eight or nine days later.
So, baruch Hashem, we are home for Shavuos and I’m spending a lot of time down in my basement office where I do most of my writing. Just on the other side of the glass doors to my office is a second kitchen that we rarely use because we are usually not home for Pesach. We were home for the eight days of Sukkos, but I don’t remember this kitchen down here being such a hub of activity as it has been these last few days.
I hear words like rollatini and lasagna being spoken. I’m sure I heard something about blintzes more than once. Then there was a discussion about talapia with salmon inside; is that possible? Do they make such a thing? As you well know, on this chag there is a serious focus on the preparation of dairy products. There are meat meals too, l’kovod yom tov, but most of the talk and the preparation is about dairy.
And there is a strong and deliberate emphasis on cheese. The root of the dramatic switch in yom tov cuisine is both traditional and symbolic. It is one of those things, I believe, that demonstrates in a definitive way the strength of a minhag—a custom amongst the Jewish people.
Our sages have explained that the dairy dimension of this yom tov is a result of the fact that when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai we became obligated to a series of life-changing requirements. Amongst those changes was the need to ritually slaughter meat or chicken—that is shechitah—if that is what we wanted to dine on.
The newness of the details of so many mitzvos and requirements had the collective Jewish people in somewhat of a halachic quandary. They were not sufficiently familiar with the details and fine points of shechitah, so with the special day of yom tov upon them, they had to take the safe way out and dine on dairy. Where they got the dairy and how they prepared their dishes in that pre-Jamie Geller and Susie Fishbein era is anyone’s guess. We know that they left Egypt with a great deal of livestock including cows for milk and butter and cheese, so I suppose you can use your imagination for the rest.
How can anyone write about Shavuos customs and not mention the idea of remaining awake the entire first night of yom tov to celebrate receiving the Torah by studying and plumbing its heights and depths throughout the night? It is a sometimes difficult but also beautiful thing to endure a complete night struggling to stay awake and finding a second or third wind at about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. as we anticipate the sunrise and the first opportunity for Shacharis.
This has its roots in the idea that the Jews not only slept through the night preceding the giving of the Torah but, believe it or not, they overslept and almost missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it’s important to note that they didn’t wake up late because they were busy the night before or were just lazy. They stayed asleep because they believed that the best way to receive the loftiness of Torah was in a semi-conscious dream state. After all, that is how G-d communicated with Avraham as well as with our forefather Yaakov, as depicted clearly in the Torah.
This time, however, they quickly learned this was not the intention. The objective of Torah in the world we live in is to be fully awake and involved in the world and bring the two, the holiness of Torah and the mundane aspect of the physical world, together. The message was and is today the same. Torah and the application of Torah change the world. We are those chosen agents of change. Chag sameach. v
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