Why Shavuot Has Few Rituals

The focus is theological.

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The ritual itself is post-talmudic, originating most likely in kabbalistic [mystical] circles in medieval Spain. The Zohar, which seems to know of the practice, attributes it to early pietists who perhaps sought to distinguish themselves from their ancient ancestors. According to one midrash [commentary], the latter slept nonchalantly through the night preceding the event and had to be roused by lightning and thunder. Forcing ourselves to go sleepless the night before the commemoration of that momentous event thus constitutes an act of rectification (hence Tikkun). Another Zoharic explanation suggests the image of marriage. At Sinai, the Torah as bride and Israel as groom were joined in eternal union. To recall the feverish preparation of the night before the wedding, pietists reenacted the vigil and labor by studying through the night (Magen Avraham, O.H. 494; J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim u-Minhagim, p. 393).

In time, the ritual gave rise to an extensive collection of texts, which stressed completeness rather than appropriateness. During the course of the night, the group was to recite (rather than study) a few verses from every parashah in the Torah and every book of the Tanakh, including all of Ruth, a few passages from every tractate of the Mishnah, and the passage from the Zohar describing revelation as union. The final text of the Tikkun lists the 613 commandments of the Torah as compiled by Maimonides. What is unfurled in this sprawling canvas teeming with texts is the implicit affirmation that each and every aspect of Judaism is but a branch of the original tree of life planted by God at Sinai. The freedom to interpret the infinite meaning of God's words is the sap that has sustained and yielded this luxuriant growth.

Indeed, the Torah became the bedrock of Judaism not so much by assertion as by ritual. Liturgy reinforced the claim to canonical status. The progressive chanting (not reading) of Torah from beginning to end every Shabbat in the synagogue, whether annually as in Babylonia or triennially as in Palestine, transformed the Jews into a people imprinted by a book. Its narrative functioned as the unifying metahistory of the nation and the building blocks of public discourse, even as its legislation garnered widespread acceptance and adherence. The synagogue developed into the national theater in which Scripture and liturgy converged to reenact weekly the awesome transmission of Torah at Sinai. Every aspect of the ritual was meant to convey the numinous quality of the original drama.

In the Ashkenazic rite [which is practiced by Jews with Eastern European roots], after the Torah has been set down to read, but before the first aliyah, the gabbai recites four verses from Scripture (Psalm 19:8-9, 29:1, 2 Samuel 22:31) that enunciate the conviction that our Torah is just, pure, and perfect, and its divine author without blemish. As he finishes, the congregation affirms in unison with another verse that "Those of you who hold fast to the Lord your God are still alive this day" (Deuteronomy 4:4). This prologue amounts to a creedal declaration explaining the ritual. Nothing less than the embodiment of God's will, the Torah is the Jewish key to salvation.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.