Oz Torah: A Shavu’ot prelude.


In old Anglo-Jewry they didn’t use Hebrew names for festivals when they could use English.

They knew of Passover more than Pesach, Tabernacles rather than Sukkot, New Year instead of Rosh HaShanah.

They would have used an English name for Chanukah too if they could; some people who had problems with the guttural “ch” tended to speak of “Konnika” as if it were a car or camera.

credit: www.jewishexponent.com

When it came to Shavu’ot they readily embraced the name Pentecost, despite its Greek and Church derivation (though there were circles that called it Weeks, a literal translation of “Shavu’ot”).

Pentecost means “50”, and of course Shavu’ot is on the 50th day after the beginning of the Omer, but they did not know that the name Pentecost is said to mark the date of the foundation of the Christian Church.

The problem has solved itself, however, with the return of traditionalism to the Jewish world. I haven’t heard of Pentecost for many years, and with the growing interest in Torah study, Shavu’ot, the festival and the name, is back in favour.

The numbers who spend Shavu’ot night in Torah learning are on the increase. Indeed Torah learning is proliferating throughout the year and throughout the world. We are unfortunately still losing some of our Jews but we are gaining so many at the same time. Torah is the star attraction.


In the Jewish enumeration the first principle of the Decalogue is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”.

Chasdai Crescas said that no-one should regard this as a command to believe in God.

He said that all the commandments are matters of free will. We keep Shabbat because we choose to keep Shabbat. We don’t kill, because we choose not to kill.

This cannot apply to the existence of God. The Almighty’s existence: it is an objective fact whether we endorse it or not.

Abravanel accepts this view but says that Principle Number 1 identifies the God who is addressing us in the other nine principles.

Maimonides seems to say the opposite, that this is really a command to believe, but he adds a rider which makes all the difference, that this Principle does not tell us to believe in God’s existence but to recognise the fact that He exists.


Our calendar is full of impressive festivals. Together they present a colourful kaleidoscope. And once upon a time God challenged each one to persuade Him that it was the most important festival of all.

Pesach declared,

“I, O God, am the most important. I stand for freedom. Without it life has no meaning.”

Rosh HaShanah said, “I am the day of creation. I proclaim the Creator amid the sound of the Shofar.”

Yom Kippur said,

“I am the Sabbath of Sabbaths. I cleanse human beings of their sins so they can go forth optimistically into life.”

Sukkot said, “I am the festival, the time of joy when Jews give thanks for their blessings.”

Finally Shavu’ot said simply,

“I stand for Torah. No other festival is as great as me.”

God did not hesitate.

“I accept,”

He said,

“the claim of Shavu’ot. It is the greatest of you all. It stands for Torah: without Torah there is no Judaism, and without Torah no other festival could exist.”

In terms of logic God was right. But people are not always logical. Few seem to agree with God about Shavu’ot. After all, almost every Jew keeps Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach. Some keep Sukkot. But Shavu’ot? That’s the Cinderella.

Without social pressures to support it and colourful symbols to enrich it, Shavu’ot has little appeal. And it is a pity. Because without the message of Shavu’ot a Jew cannot survive in the wilderness of life, just as a traveler without water cannot survive in the arid desert.

The comparison with water is apt. Indeed the sages give sixteen reasons why Torah is similar to water. For example:

“As water covers the whole earth, so is Torah co-extensive with life”…

Many limit religion to a few days and places and for the rest of life take their standards from anywhere. The result? Injustice and evil stalk the streets. No wonder Torah protests.

“Don’t lock me up in the synagogue Ark,”

it says. It yearns to go everywhere with us so that there will be truth, justice and peace at all times and in every place.

“As water means life to the world, so Torah means life eternal”…

Open the pages of Torah. You find yourself in a procession of Jews going back millennia, and at the same time paving the way for generations yet unborn. You find yourself living in this world, and also tasting the World to Come.

“As water cleanses a person from impurity, so Torah cleanses them from what is debasing to life”…

Moral as well as physical cleanliness requires constant effort. Allowing yourself to gratify every impulse is an easy temptation. Torah has a different message.

JH Hertz said,

“It is the mission of religion to stand clear-eyed and unmoved. It must proclaim that there is an absolute ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Thou shalt not’ in human life, high above the promptings of passion or the fashion of the hour.”

“As water comes down drop by drop and fills the rivers, so Torah comes gradually and enriches the mind”…

Judaism says,

All beginnings are difficult”.

The Chinese say,

“The first steps are the hardest”.

But make a beginning and your heart and mind will be moulded and enriched.

It has been said that the good Jew is the person who is always trying to become a better Jew. The good Jew not only keeps Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and Sukkot, but Shavu’ot too. And through Shavu’ot, the good Jew gains Torah and is on the road to being a better Jew.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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