Maurice Michaels

Rabbi Maurice Michaels

This week’s Progressive Judaism column comes from Rabbi Maurice Michaels

Spending Shavuot in Israel meant that I didn’t have to explain – yet again – to my Orthodox friends why I was only celebrating for one day. There is a general practice that Israeli shalichai tzibbur are employed in some synagogues to lead Shavuot services the following day.

Of course, I am aware of the ‘no changes policy’ to the second day of the diaspora chag, even though the calendar has been fixed for about 16 centuries.

However, there should never have been a second day Shavuot because, unlike the other Biblical chagim, the date is fixed not by a particular day of a specific month, but by counting 50 days from Pesach.

So having begun the counting on the evening of the second day of Pesach, there is only one day that follows 50 days later. Thus, even in the diaspora, it is an anomaly to have a second day of Shavuot.

My concern, though, is not how many days we celebrate, but that we ensure we do celebrate and how. I have always regarded Shavuot as the Cinderella chag. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have all the solemnity and grandeur. Succot is noted for the lulav and etrog, as well as the succah. Pesach is about seder and exotic foods. And Shavuot has… cheesecake!

Now I have nothing against cheesecake, in fact I’m rather partial to it. But it’s hardly enough to sustain the continuity of this special day. Yes, of course it’s also about Torah, but unfortunately Simchat Torah with all its jollities has taken a monopoly on that. And the truth is that Torah, for most of British Jewry, is a minority sport.

So what can be done about bringing Shavuot into the 21st Century, as a meaningful chag for modern Jews?

This coming week members of Alyth will meet our local Catholic counterparts for an occasional discussion. The topic this time is Covenant. And Covenant is actually what Shavuot is all about. Perhaps a greater understanding of that will help us celebrate in future.

• Rabbi Maurice Michaels is a Leo Baeck College faculty member and part of the Alyth clergy team