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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


In preparation for Shavuot, I’d like to share with you an article written by a colleague and former neighbor of mine from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld. 

Shavuot never had the marketing potential of the other holidays – no matzah, no colorful candles, no lulav, no shofar, no gift giving. As a result, it is the least known of the major Jewish holidays. It has nothing to promote itself, no symbol to capture the imagination.

What is different about Shavuot that it has so little by way of concrete ritual and symbolisms? What is the meaning behind this overlooked holiday?

The Talmud (Pesachim 68b) records a debate regarding how we are to celebrate the major holidays – whether in a more physical way through feasting, or more spiritually, through prayer and the study of Torah. The Talmud adds that on Shavuot all agree that feasting must be a part of the celebration “for it is the day on which the Torah was given.”

Why does the Talmud see eating as the appropriate way to celebrate Shavuot? Isn’t it a celebration of Israel’s ultimate spiritual gift – our holy Torah? Shouldn’t it call for a spiritual celebration – perhaps by studying the Torah or improving our observance of it? Instead, we are told to spend at least part of the day filling our stomachs!

Why do we celebrate the spiritual gift of the Torah by filling our stomachs?

There is a very important principle behind this. One could easily view the Torah in the following manner. God wanted to give us the opportunity to earn reward in the World to Come. He therefore gave us 613 difficult acts to do in order to receive that ultimate reward. Inconvenience yourself, restrain yourself, frustrate yourself in this world – so that you’ll earn a piece of the next one. The Torah consists of a long list of dos, don’ts and impositions, telling us to deny ourselves what we really want in our hearts. But it’s worth it (presumably) because by sacrificing this world we will at least gain a portion of the next one.

The holiday of Shavuot teaches us that that misses the point of the Torah, entirely.

We eat and enjoy ourselves physically on Shavuot to demonstrate that observing the Torah does not stifle us on any level – spiritual, emotional, or physical. It brings us fulfillment. The purpose of the Torah’s commandments is not to quell our desires or inhibit our inner needs. It is to bring them out and utilize them in the most meaningful and productive manner. The commandments are God’s perfect recipe for allowing man to develop his nature in a positive way and to give expression to his every drive.

At times on the outside we might feel that the Torah involves denial, that it forces us to forgo pleasures we would really like to indulge in, or to put in effort when we’d really like to take it easy. But when we truly look into ourselves, we recognize that that is never really the case. Certainly a part of us wants to cast off discipline and self-restraint. But that is not what we want – what we really want – in life. Shavuot helps us get in touch with our true inner selves – our desire for true fulfillment rather than easy, meaningless distractions. Sure, it takes work; greatness always does. But it’s what we really want in life – and God’s Torah shows us just how to get it.

This is why it is so important to eat on Shavuot. The Torah is not an imposition upon us, a means of trading this world for the next one. It makes us truly happy – in this world as well. There is no sense of affliction or denial, not on any level. So we eat and enjoy ourselves on this wondrous day – a day of fulfillment in every sense imaginable.

This also explains why Shavuot has no symbol. On other holidays we celebrate a specific concept. Matzah symbolizes freedom, the sukkah protection, the shofar prayer. But on Shavuot we are not celebrating one specific idea. We are celebrating ourselves. When we received the Torah we were granted the means for fulfillment, for becoming in touch with our true inner wants and yearnings.

The Talmud (Pesachim 68b) records that every time the scholar Rav Sheishet would finish reviewing his studies, he would say to himself “chadai nafshai” – “rejoice my soul.” The Aramaic word for rejoice – “chad” – also means “one.” The rabbi was not simply expressing his happiness. He was expressing his oneness. The Torah allowed him to truly get in touch with himself, to become one with his inner wants and desires, and to feel truly sated and fulfilled. Because for the true Torah scholar, everything is in harmony. The Torah is true fulfillment – without looking over our shoulders to see what we’re missing. “There is no freer person than one who studies Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:2). The Torah grants us it all. For on Shavuot we are not celebrating a single concept. We are not even celebrating the Torah. We are celebrating ourselves.