A Shavuot Hand-Down

Today is day…wait, I’m not supposed to tell you what day it is in the counting of the omer, the sheafs of grain that were traditionally counted in the lead up from Passover to Shavuot. At least, if you ask, I’m not supposed to give you the precise answer. Though I could give you the answer for yesterday, so that you could do the math from there.

And I’m sure there’s an app for that.

In any case, since we’re fast approach Shavuot, it’s time for a quick look at Shavuot for Humanistic Jews.

Shavuot is actually a bit of a challenge in many American Jewish communities.

Three blintzes - crepes with cheese and other fillings - in a frying pan. Blintzes are traditionally eaten in Ashkenazic Jewish communities on Shavuot.

Blintzes – a traditional Shavuot food in Ashkenazic Jewish communities

It’s not really a holiday that “clicks” with many American Jews and is often somewhat unfortunately timed: Passover is close to Spring Break. Rosh Hashanah through the end of Sukkot are close to the beginning of the school year. Hanukkah is close to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year. Shavuot is near the end of the school year, where about the last thing many people are thinking about is yet another holiday.

The holiday has relatively few distinctive things that happen in the home–it’s primarily a public observance, though eating dairy foods features prominently in home-based observances. And Shavuot’s primary meaning in rabbinic Judaism is associated with the stories of Yahweh giving the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. That’s a change from its origins, which were squarely rooted in the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel. But even the traditional reading from the Tanakh – the book of Ruth – centers on agricultural life as well as acceptance of new members into the Jewish people.

For Humanistic Jews, the traditional Matan Torah (giving of the Torah) narrative isn’t credible. For more on the holiday itself, its development, and how it is celebrated in Humanistic Judaism generally, take a look at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s page on Shavuot. The Congress of Secular Jewish Organization has a long entry on the holiday, too (it uses the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Shvuos), and in light of the traditional reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, CSJO suggests welcoming the diversity of Jewish families into the community at this time of year.

As the SHJ page on Shavuot notes, there are two major ways that Shavuot can carry meaning for Humanistic Jews today. One is as a nature-oriented holiday. As one of the three Shalosh Regalim – the three biblical pilgrimage holidays, together with Sukkot and Passover – Shavuot is tied to the agricultural cycle as a celebration of the first fruits of planting (particularly in the land of Israel).

Shavuot can also be dedicated to Jewish learning, an enterprise that, for Humanistic Jews, expands well beyond Torah study to all facets of Jewish literature. The City Congregation in New York dedicates a Shabbat near Shavuot to just that purpose; so does the Birmingham Temple. Many congregations–humanistic or otherwise–time their confirmation classes to coincide with Shavuot, as well.

If you want to read more, there are always plenty of books. Hayyim Schauss’s The Jewish Festivals has a detailed discussion of traditional observance of the holiday. Arthur Waskow’s Seasons of our Joy is one of many books you can consult for a more modern approach, as are the various volumes of the Jewish Catalog. Both of these books come from the world of Jewish Renewal, so they may not completely suit a humanistic approach, but much of the information is accessible and useful nevertheless.

As always, this is a list subject to revision. If you’ve got suggestions or other resources for secular or Humanistic Jews, feel free to drop me a comment!

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