The Biggest Jewish Holiday You've Never Heard Of
In my first post for this site, I said that, for all the crazy hype over Hannukah, most people had never heard of one of the most important Jewish holidays. It’s the very next one on the calendar, going down tonight: Shavuot. Well, since then, millions of letters have been pouring in from my devoted readers across the globe, begging me, PLEASE, PLEASE, rabbi, tell us what that Shavuot is all about!! PLEEEEEEASE!!!!!
Okay, I’ll do it. Here goes:
Shavuot, Part I
Shavuot literally means, “weeks,” and that’s because it commemorates the counting of seven weeks – that is, 49 days – after the spring holiday, Passover, at the end of which two loaves of wheat were brought as an offering in the ancient temple in Jerusalem. “Whoa,” you’re thinking, “that’s weird – God likes bread?” Well, Shavuot is one of three pilgrimage festivals in ancient Israel, each of which was tied to a different part of the agricultural cycle. Jews were all about that farming life back in the day! So these holidays were times to thank God for food that had grown (and pray that it kept growing) and offering up a part of that food was way of saying, “Hey, thanks, God. Great job with the whole nature thing.” Going up to Jerusalem was like giving God a spiritual high-five. And everybody knows God loves high-fives.
Shavuot, Part II
But that’s not all! Rabbinic tradition also links Shavuot to the day the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai – aka Revelation. So the story is that the Jews were freed from Egypt, took off into the desert, and 50 days later encountered God on a mountaintop and heard the Ten Commandments and it was awesome. Today, the way lots of Jews celebrate this event is to stay up all night studying the Torah. OMG, all-night study session!!! Seriously, nobody knows how to party like the Jews. Am I right?
One more fun fact!
Okay, that much I knew from rabbi school. But then I went to do some serious, high-level research (on my old friend Wikipedia) and guess what I found?! It turns out that in the Christian tradition, they also have a Shavuot celebration, and they call it.. PENTECOST!!! How intense! It sounds like a Heavy Metal album about the Armageddon. But it’s a Greek word that literally means ‘50th day,’ so there you go, same basic idea: the day after the 49 days of seven weeks.
This Jewish-Christian connection got me thinking, though, how the concept of revelation is central in so many religious traditions. The basic idea that you could have an incredible moment of discovery, and suddenly a whole new understanding would open up to you and you would be forever changed – that notion has captured the imagination through all of world history.
Religious Revelation Moments
So I there I was, still on Wikipedia, and I decided to NERD OUT and lose the next hour of my life clicking around looking at revelation moments in various religious traditions. Here are the highlights of those very scholarly pursuits:
Christianity – Like I said, they’ve also got a Pentecost. But for them, it also commemorates a day that the Holy Spirit suddenly descended upon the twelve apostles and they started speaking in tongues. Whoa!!!
Islam – Muslims are definitely all about that revelation. They believe that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad by God, word for word.
Hinduism – ‘Rishis’ is the term for sages who are said to have experienced divine revelation of cosmic truth, which they translated into the first sacred texts of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas.
Buddhism – This tradition begins with the story of Siddhartha Guatama sitting under the Bodhi tree until he suddenly reached Enlightenment, a sudden awakening to truth. Definitely sounds like a moment of revelation to me.
Secular Revelation Moments
It’s not just spiritual traditions that have this phenomenon. Secular culture is also seeking moments of revelation, though it might be more likely to use words like ‘inspiration,’ or ‘discovery.’ But these discoveries can also make for great “revelation” stories:
– Newton sitting under the apple tree, almost like science’s Buddha, bonked by a falling fruit into a sudden understanding of the Universal Law of Gravitation.
– Or, even earlier, the story of Archimedes shouting out “Eureka! (I have found it!)” when he realized how to measure the volume of irregular objects.
The world of science mythologizes those moments when a new truth about the universe is uncovered by the power of the human mind. Where religion celebrates revelation and art celebrates inspiration, science celebrates discovery with equal reverence. It’s no coincidence, after all, that we call the great period of advancement in reason and science, ‘The Enlightenment,’ the same word we use to describe a Buddhist revelation of truth.
A Fundamental Human Experience
My point is not that it’s all exactly the same thing. Of course there are major differences, not just between religion and science, but between each religion’s particular description of revelation. But there is something common in all of these phenomena – a basic human fascination with that moment of sudden clarity and illumination, when we see something important that was previously hidden from view. We long for those moments, because they change us in powerful and important ways. So when they happen, we celebrate them.
Judaism’s big revelation moment will be celebrated tonight in communities around the world. But probably everyone has a moment, either in their cultural tradition or in their personal experience, of some incredible awakening. So while we Jews are having our raging study-party, I encourage everyone to seek out their own moments of revelation, and to celebrate the power of that profound human experience.
Maybe stay up all night meditating. Or painting. Or reading Wikipedia entries, clicking one after another, all night long, like a madman.
As for us Jews – watch out, cause we’re about to get Pentecostal up in here.