Home Subscribe Services Support Us

Celebrating Submission

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

All Biblical Jewish holidays but one are distinguished by specific mitzvot, or commandments, that attend their celebration: Rosh Hashana's shofar, Yom Kippur's fasting, Sukkot's booths and "four species," Passover's seder and matzah.

The one conspicuous exception is Shavuot, which falls this year on May 19 and 20. Although the standard prohibitions of labor that apply to the other holidays apply no less to Shavuot, and while special sacrifices were brought in Temple times on every Jewish holiday, there is no specific ritual or "objet d'mitzva" associated with Shavuot.

There are, of course, foods traditionally eaten on the day specifically dairy delectables like blintzes and cheesecake. And there is a widely-observed custom of spending the entire first night of Shavuot immersed in Torah readings and study. But still, there is no Shavuot equivalent to the shofar or the etrog or the seder.

The early 19th century Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev suggested that perhaps the mitzvahlessness of Shavuot is the reason it is referred to throughout the Talmud as "Atzeret" which means "holding back" and refers to the prohibition of labor. The fact that Shavuot is essentially characterized by "not doing" rather than by some particular mitzvah-act, though, may say something deeper.

Shavuot, although characterized by the Torah only as an agricultural celebration, is identified by the Jewish religious tradition with the day on which the Torah was given to our ancestors at Mount Sinai.

That experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of G-d's Torah and His will. That revelation was initiated by G-d; all that our ancestors had to do though it was a monumental choice indeed was to receive, to submit to the Creator and embrace what He was bestowing on them.

Indeed, the Midrash compares the revelation at Sinai to a wedding, with G-d the groom and His people the bride. (Many Jewish wedding customs even have their source in that metaphor: the canopy, according to sources, recalls the tradition that has the mountain held over the Jews' heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the breaking of the tablets of the Law.)

And just as a marriage is legally effected in the Jewish tradition by the bride's simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did the Jewish people at Mount Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts to them.

That acceptance may well be Shavuot's essential aspect. A positive, active mitzvah for the day an action or observance would by definition be in dissonance with the day's central theme of receptivity.

And so the order of the day is to reenact our ancestors' acceptance of the Torah pointedly not through any specific ritual but rather by re-receiving and absorbing it. Which is precisely what we do on Shavuot: open ourselves to the laws, lore and concepts of G-d's Torah, our Torah and accept them anew, throughout the night, even as our bodies demand that we stop and sleep.

The association of Shavuot with our collective identity as a symbolic bride accepting a divine "marriage gift," moreover, may well have something to do with the fact that the holiday's hero is... a heroine: Ruth (whose book is read in the synagogue on Shavuot); and with the fact that her story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.

It is unfashionable these days indeed it violates the prevailing conception of cultural correctness to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words' most basic and positive senses.

But it might well be precisely what we Jews are doing on Shavuot.

Happy, and meaningful, anniversary.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use, sharing and publication, provided the above copyright notice is appended.



View Complete List

Keeping the Faith
Rabbi Berel Wein - 5771

Dad Silence
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky - 5761

Freeing the Spirit
Rabbi Naftali Reich - 5768

Frumster - Orthodox Jewish Dating

The Image Of Father In The Window Saved Him
Rabbi Yissocher Frand - 5772

Exact Measurements of Punishment
Rabbi Yissocher Frand - 5760

A Little Light Chases Away a Lot of Darkness
Rabbi Label Lam - 5760

Looking for a Chavrusah?

Speak for Peace
Rabbi Yaakov Menken - 5760

8 - The Symbol of Eternity
Rabbi Label Lam - 5773

Looking for Our Brothers
Rabbi Label Lam - 5767

> The Telltale Sign
Rabbi Naftali Reich - 5767

The Strong and the Weak
Rabbi Berel Wein - 5767

The Light of Devotion
Rabbi Yehudah Prero - 5757


The Greatest Miracle of all Times
Rabbi Pinchas Winston - 5772

Light From Darkness, Take Two
Rabbi Pinchas Winston - 5766

Rabbi Pinchas Winston - 5775

Tainted Intent
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky - 5762

Project Genesis Home

Torah Portion

Jewish Law



Learn the Basics




Ask The Rabbi

Knowledge Base


About Us

Contact Us

Free Book on Geulah! Home Copyright Information