There are very few laws and customs pertaining specifically to Shavuot, despite the importance of the day as commemorating Revelation and the Giving of the Torah. Maimonides only has a few passing references to it in his codification of Jewish Laws. The central authoritative code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, has lengthy passages on Passover and Sukkot, but only a brief paragraph on Shavuot. There are special prayers that are said. The Book of Ruth is read along with certain Biblical passages including the Ten Commandments. There is a custom to decorate the synagogue and the home with an abundance of flowers, as it is also a harvest festival. And finally, there is the custom of staying up all night in studying Torah and Torah-related texts, so that we should not be caught sleeping when Revelation comes again.
Our Relationship with Torah
On Shavuot we celebrate the moment in time when the Torah was received at Mount Sinai. A moment we call “Revelation.” But do Jews believe the Revelation happened? What is our relationship with Torah?
The Reform Movement has said, “Reform Jews accept the Torah as the foundation of Jewish life containing God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God. We see the Torah as God inspired, a living document that enables us to confront the timeless and timely challenges of our everyday lives.”
Ongoing Revelation means that Torah didn’t just happen at one moment in one place. It is happening even now, even here. At this, and now this and now this very instant. It continues to unfold in every generation in richer, more relevant ways.
In May, 1999, the Reform Movement put forth a “Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism.” The first such statement was in 1885 and was called the Pittsburg Platform, setting forth the guidelines that would define Reform Judaism for the next fifty years. In 1937, a revised statement of principles were adopted called the Columbus Platform. A third set of rabbinic guidelines, the Centenary Perspective, came in 1976 on the occasion of the centenary of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Over twenty years later, when so many were striving for religious meaning, moral purpose and a sense of community, another set of principles was developed to define Reform Judaism for our time. This “Statement of Principles” was written based on the three central tenets of Judaism, God, Torah and Israel.
For Shavuot, we share below what our Principles say about our relationship to Torah:
“We affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life. We cherish the truths revealed in Torah, God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God. We affirm that Torah is a manifestation ofahavat olam, God’s eternal love for the Jewish people and for all humanity.
“We affirm the importance of studying Hebrew, the language of Torah and Jewish liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people’s sacred texts. We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach.
“Through Torah study we are called to mitzvot , the means by which we make our lives holy. We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of thesemitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.
“We bring Torah into the world when we seek to sanctify the times and places of our lives through regular home and congregational observance. Shabbat calls us to bring the highest moral values to our daily labor and to culminate the workweek with kedushah, holiness, menuchah, oneg, joy. The High Holy Days call us to account for our deeds. The Festivals enable us to celebrate with joy our people’s religious journey in the context of the changing seasons. The days of remembrance remind us of the tragedies and the triumphs that have shaped our people’s historical experience both in ancient and modern times. And we mark the milestones of our personal journeys with traditional and creative rites that reveal the holiness in each stage of life.
“We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in tikkun olam ), repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursuetzedek, justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice. We affirm the mitzvah oftzedakah, setting aside portions of our earnings and our time to provide for those in need. These acts bring us closer to fulfilling the prophetic call to translate the words of Torah into the works of our hands. In all these ways and more, Torah gives meaning and purpose to our lives.”
Have a happy Shavuot, and may this year you discover what Torah means to you.