June 6, 2024
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The Underlying Messages of Shavuot and the ‘Shalosh Regalim’

How can we achieve a better understanding of what God wants us to learn from the Shalosh Regalim? Rabbi Neil Lauer’s “The Tripod” (2022) attempts to do this for us.

Rabbi Lauer—who has semicha from Yeshiva University—has spent much of his life commuting from Teaneck to his business in Brooklyn. As such, the book is filled with clever analogies related to commuting.

Most profound is one at the beginning: “Approximately two hundred thousand people pass through the main bus terminal in New York City every weekday. The experience within the terminal … varies greatly from person to person. Many simply traverse the station on their way to and from work. In the morning, they proceed directly from their buses to the subway or street … You know the type, eyes fixed on what lies directly ahead of them, oblivious to their surroundings, walking at a pace that—outside of New York City—may be considered jogging. … Others possess a much different view of the terminal and the function it serves. The terminal is home to many businesses focused on personal convenience—such as a drug store, barber shop, shoe repair, watch repair and post office, to name a few. For those who enjoy a fuller appreciation of what the bus terminal represents, the experience there is a much more rewarding one … Such people view the terminal as contributing significant value to their daily lives.”

The analogy is to how observant Jews experience the Jewish holidays. Essentially, he views some as just running through the holidays, largely oblivious to their deep messages. (And I plead guilty to running through the terminal this way for 30 years.) But others go through the holidays (the terminal) slowly and use the holidays to make their lives better and more meaningful.

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Let us first focus on the Shavuot holiday: This holiday is very unusual. The Torah gives it almost no special mitzvot. All its halachot today are found in only one section in Shulchan Aruch (Ohr Chaim 494). The Torah does not even give this holiday a specific date on the calendar.

In the Mishna and Tosefta, the holiday is always referred to as “Atzeret,” even though this word is not used regarding the holiday in the Bible. The Sages’ use of the term “Atzeret” means that our Sages viewed the holiday in a fundamental way as a concluding festival to Pesach—as Shemini Atzeret is to Sukkot. See, e.g., Pesikta DeRav Kahana, chapter 28, page 431. Just that here, the appended holiday is seven weeks later, instead of one day later. (But admittedly, Pesach and Shavuot are linked by the Omer count.) (Perhaps the real issue is why Shemini Atzeret—as a concluding festival—is only one day later and not seven weeks later. See the previous source.)

As to the meaning of the word “Atzeret” in the context of biblical holidays, fundamentally, it means “a day of gathering.” See my “Words for the Wise,” page 22. It does not mean a day of stopping from work.

How does Rabbi Lauer understand Shavuot? He thinks the linkage to Pesach approach is inadequate because “it would be reasonable to expect that the observance at the end of the count would closely resemble the one at the beginning. At the climax of one’s count, however, instead of finding a Pesach-like extended, robust observance, one finds a one-day festival with no unique rituals and no articulated lesson.”

Here are some of his thoughts on the meaning of Shavuot:

The Torah’s presentation of Shavuot is all about what isn’t there. Shavuot, on a Torah level, represents the case of the missing festival.

He observes that we find the same phenomenon within the “shira” portions of the text of the Torah where empty space is utilized to draw the reader’s attention to the need to look beyond the literal meaning of the words.

The agenda to encourage a person to actively seek out the aggadic significance of the festival (Matan Torah) is reinforced by the historical dimension of the holiday, in which we commemorate national revelation. The lesson of revelation—the fact that God communicates with humanity—is that there is an entirely different dimension beyond our view. Revelation illustrates that there is more to life than what we can readily perceive.

Aggadah’s relationship to halacha and God’s obscured role in the world all share a similar framework, where most of the time a key component is concealed from view.

Shavuot’s truncated nature reflects the fact that the concept it represents has not yet been fully realized in a widespread way. We received just a taste of prophecy at Sinai. In the future, Olam Haba will represent a sustained and closer relationship with God.

Intentionally leaving something out can be an invitation to investigate further. Shavuot—with its understated nature—emphasizes the need to look beyond the obvious.

Rabbi Lauer points out that in the case of the korban of Shavuot, one is given six more days to bring it if one forgets. So on a deeper level, Shavuot really is a seven-day holiday. There is obviously more to this holiday than meets the eye.

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For much of the book, Rabbi Lauer tries to obtain a deeper understanding of the “Shalosh Regalim” in general. He realizes that they must be a homogeneous unit in some way. But in a simple way of looking at them, they have disparate natures. He explains: “When comparing the rituals of the three festivals the Torah groups together, one finds three disparate holidays—not three similar ones. They have different durations, focuses and components. If left to our own devices, it is unlikely that we would have grouped the cleaning and dietary restrictions of Pesach, the alfresco dining and portable vegetation of Sukkot, and the relatively brief and undemanding Shavuot together as a unit; yet we find that the Torah does just that.”

In addition to the obvious differences between the holidays and their rituals, he reminds us that on Pesach, we are told “lemaan tizkor” (Deuteronomy 16:3), while on Sukkot, we are told “lemaan ידעו” (Leviticus 23:43). Moreover, Shavuot and Sukkot are described as holidays of “simcha,” while Pesach is not. Rabbi Lauer spends much time trying to understand the meaning of each of these regalim and how they complement one another and together form a unified whole.

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Rabbi Lauer’s book raises many interesting questions. He writes in the beginning that “some readers will find the issues raised in the book more compelling than the answers suggested,” and they will adopt alternative explanations. He explains that he will still be satisfied as this will also be a fulfillment of the book’s ultimate goal “to magnify and glorify our precious Torah.”

The book ends—as it begins—with an idea relating to commuting: “By deepening our appreciation of the regalim, and committing to the ongoing development of our relationship with God, may we all be zoche—one day soon to get a seat on the bus to the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.”

P.S. The book has a fantastic endorsement by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Although he no longer takes the bus into New York City regularly, he deeply appreciates Rabbi Lauer’s analogies due to the 30 years that he did.

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