Shavuot appears as a conundrum.
Of all the three ‘foot festivals’, it is the only one whose date is not to be found anywhere in the Torah. In fact, according to the introduction to Rabbi Sacks’ Shavuot machzor/prayer book, he explains that:
He continues by informing us that, until our calendar was fixed in the fourth century CE, the chag could fall on three different days, depending on whether in any given year:
Secondly, we don’t know where the events that we recall on Shavuot, namely Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Israelites, actually took place. Was the mountain in modern day Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia? There are as many theories as there are possible locations.
Thirdly, nowhere in the Torah does it connect the giving of the Ten Commandments to the festival itself! We know that it took place fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt, but as I wrote, we aren’t sure when. The obfuscation of this connection led to numerous arguments later on down the historical line with various groups arguing vociferously as to when Shavuot should be celebrated. Depending on whether you were a Pharisee or Saducee, Bethusian, Samaritan, a member of the Qumram sect of the famous Dead Sea Scroll or a Karaite, you would find yourself recounting the given of the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments or more accurately ‘statements’) on a different day!
This didn’t occur on any other festival and the fact that we uniformly celebrate Shavuot today in Israel on sixth Sivan and in the rest of the world on the seventh as well, attests to its durability and otherworldliness quality. And notice that I haven’t even mentioned cheesecake!
Whether or not the Torah was gifted to us on the fifth, sixth or even seventh of the month doesn’t stop us appreciating an event that took place exactly 3,333 years ago today, tomorrow or even on Tuesday. That we don’t know exactly where it transpired is also not particularly relevant. Every Jew, however connected or disconnected with our heritage knows that, thousands of years ago, somewhere in a distant desert, something transformative happened to our ancestors and our nation. An event that would change the course of world history. A gift that ‘keeps on giving’ to the world’s three monotheistic religions.
The Torah was given to the Jews (or Israelites as they were known then) and then transmitted to the ‘Seventy Nations’.
On a personal basis, at least in my direct family, Shavuot has a distinctive place. My own connection with the chag takes place thousands of miles away from the deserts, to the beautiful city of Paris, where my parents first met, exactly sixty one years ago this evening (the first night of Shavuot).
Let me explain.
Last week, I received a phone call from a volunteer at Jewish Care who gleefully informed me that, to my surprise, my mother had, over the last few years, dictated her life story to another volunteer. This memoir was complete and must have been finished shortly before her passing. Not only that, it also contained family photographs.
You can imagine my surprise and joy to find out about this, although to be fair, I think my mother probably told me about the project a while ago and I’d completely forgotten. This news came as though the sun were bursting through a very dark and rainy sky, bringing with it a warmth that I have not been able to feel for quite a while.
My mother described her life before, during and after the war and included in her memoirs were a detailed retelling of how she met my father.
She had journeyed to Paris from her home in Antwerp to spend Shavuot with friends. On the first evening that she arrived, my father, who was a cousin of these people was also there and they met for the first time. The two of them spent ten days walking around the romantic city of Paris and my father (along with a chaperone who was his cousin) acted as her tour guide, visiting many famous locales including the Notre Dame Cathedral. As an architect, he was extremely knowledgeable and wanted to share his expertise with such a pretty young lady! When the holiday was finished, they returned to their respective homes and that seemed to be the end of it. However, on her birthday which was 26th June, she received the most beautiful bouquet of yellow roses (yellow was her favourite colour) and lo and behold, they were married by the Chief Rabbi of Antwerp on 29th October 1961.
They spent their honeymoon aboard the Queen Mary sailing from Southampton to New York, although they had to contend with a storm at sea, so most of the time was spent on the upper deck. I arrived on the scene quite a few years later.
Shavuot is the festival when Gd established his covenant with us, the Jewish people. It is the anniversary when He, the bridegroom chose us, as his bride. The Chupah took place at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Torah was his Ketubah. Moses was the perfect Rabbi, conducting the service and preparing the Jewish people for the eternal marriage that still exists between our creator and our nation. How could I not appreciate the significance of my parents’ meeting over this particular festival? What started at Sinai, continued in Antwerp and although my mother is no longer with us in a physical form, her legacy, like the Torah that was given to us, will be with our family forever.
Wherefore art thou Shavuot? Right here in my heart.
Chag Sameach to you and your families.