Shavuot: A Jewish Holiday Like No Other



Shavuot, the Jewish Holiday, which is truly like no other, will coincide with Memorial Day Weekend this year. Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated for one day in Israel and two days around the rest of the world, and marks the time when the ancient Israelites entered into a covenant with God, in which received and pledged to observe the Ten Commandments and Mosaic Law.

Many non-Jewish people, as well as non-practicing Jews have very little knowledge about Shavuot’s existence, because it does not contain any type of universal identifying markers as the other holidays, for example matzos on Passover, the menorah on Chanukah, or the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. Unlike the other holidays, Shavuot does not have a specified date like, for example, Rosh HaShanah which falls out the 1st of Tishrei, Passover, the 15th of Nissan, Sukkot, the 15th of Tishrei, and Chanukah, the 25th of Kislev. Instead it identified as occurring 50 days after, according to one opinion, the first of Passover. The timespan of this, according to tradition, coincides with the period of time between when the Israelites left Egypt, and when they officially became a nation with the acceptance of the Covenant.  According to another opinion it occurs 50 days after the first Sabbath of Passover. Nowadays, the 6th of Sivan is the designated date – 50 days after the beginning of Passover.

The holiday of Shavuot generally falls out around May or June, depending on the cycle of the moon of the Jewish calendar year. What contributes to its change of dates each year is the fact that unlike the standard 365 day calendar which is based solely on the solar cycle, each of the 12 months in the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle. However, since Jewish holidays are required to be celebrated during certain seasons (Passover in the spring and Sukkot in the fall), the religious authorities nearly 2000 years ago instituted calendar cycle, where out of a given nineteen years, seven of those years are given an extra leap-month in order to stay consistent with the Sun’s cycle. This differs from the Muslim calendar, which although like the Jewish calendar, follows the lunar cycle, because there are no leap-years, an event like Ramadan could occur in the spring one year and in the fall in another year.

The pre-configured nineteen-year cycle contains a certain benefit as Jews who pay close attention to it could almost always determine on which day of the standard calendar their holidays will occur and as a result plan accordingly. This plays extremely well for Orthodox Jews when holidays fall out immediately following the Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath. Jewish holiday observance is very similar to Shabbat in that performing manual labor, turning on and off electricity, traveling by car or animal, or writing are prohibited. The only difference applies to food, in which during a festival, cooking (over an existing flame) is permitted, and because of that, the sages allowed the people to transport food and other items from a private domain like the home, into a public domain, like the street. This also enables people to take hot showers, which is generally prohibited on the Sabbath, since it requires heating.

However, because the festival contains virtually all the same prohibitions as the Sabbath, this year will make it extremely difficult for Orthodox and observant Jews. While in Israel, there will be one day immediately after the Sabbath, in which they must refrain from turning on and off electricity and driving, in the diaspora, this becomes a double whammy as they will for the most part, be in Sabbath mode for three straight days.

Overall attitudes to the two day holiday of Shavuot immediately following the Sabbath can range from frustrated to incredibly joyous. Traditional Orthodox Jewish women often get stressed when they realized they must prepare food in advance three days, while others exhibiting withdrawal symptoms due to being away from their smartphones for three days. However, many find much to be joyous about, for starters, not having to deal with nagging emails or ringing phones for all that time. Another given plus, is that since Shavuot this year falls out exactly the same time as Memorial Day Weekend, there is no worry about missing too much work, unlike other years when two day Jewish holidays fall out smack in the middle of the week.

Perhaps, adding further to the joy of Shavuot weekend this year is the fact that there is an underlying similarity between this festival and Memorial Day. As Memorial Day honors and commemorates all the brave people who sacrificed their lives fighting for the U.S., a country which was built on basic rights, freedom and liberty, so to the holiday Shavuot, which this year will be like no other holiday. This day marks the culmination of nation-building, beginning 3000 years when the Israelites had their first taste of freedom, to receiving Torah and Mosaic Law, thus binding them as a nation, which as the Jewish people still exists today, and powerfully.

Opinion by Bill Ades
Sources: Personal experience
Photo by djv2130 – Flickr License