Shavuot leaves me feeling sour

I don’t need an excuse to eat cheesecake — so why is this festival such a big deal?

By Simon Round, May 6, 2010

It's rare that I write a column about anything to do with religion. Sure, I've got an O Level in religious studies and went to Hebrew classes about twice a month (the other two Sundays I would bunk off to the park with my brother), but there are people better qualified than I am to talk intelligently about Judaism. In fact, there are hamsters better qualified than me to talk intelligently about Judaism.

However, I make an exception this week to tip you off about the festival of Shavuot. If you are a Shabbat-observing-wait-till-there-are-three-stars in-the-sky-before-you-turn-on-the-telly kind of Jew, feel free to stop reading now. For the rest of you, I bet you hadn't even clocked that a week on Tuesday there was a festival coming up. If you recall anything at all about Shavuot, it is probably only that this is the time to eat cheesecake.

The trouble is that this is a festival without a strong Unique Selling Point. You don't have to give up eating bread, you don't have to fast for an entire day, in fact you don't need to give up anything except not making cheesecake. Neither are you required to do much - there is no significant shofar blowing, you don't have to wave twigs or fruit about, you don't have to eat in the open air if you don't want to, and there is no candle-lighting.

This is supposed to be a harvest festival to celebrate the first fruits and the early barley harvest. Except, of course, no one does - unless you happen to be a farmer in the eastern Mediterranean, that is. Over here, very few of us are harvesting anything at the moment. The best we can do is take a little time out to ponder the successful gathering in of the British asparagus crop, those rather tasty Jersey Royal potatoes and, of course, the purple-sprouting broccoli.

And, needless to say, this is a particularly bad time of year to be lactose intolerant.

The trouble is that this is a festival without a strong Unique Selling Point

However, despite all these reservations, Shavuot can be fun - two days in the year when, for reasons I still do not fully understand, everyone sits around tucking into large portions of a particularly yummy dessert, plus ripe Camembert, full-fat cream cheese and milk by the crate-load.

But is this enough? Sure, we are also meant to be celebrating the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai but there is no evidence at all to suggest that this actually happened in May.

We might as well celebrate the law-giving in July while eating summer pudding, or in November while munching on a delicious treacle tart (with a nice big dollop of custard).

To use a football analogy, giving Shavuot Yomtov status is the equivalent of awarding a European place to the winner of the Carling Cup. Synagogue attendances simply do not justify it.

Therefore there has to be a strong case for giving the Yomtov to Chanucah or Purim - festivals that people actually remember to celebrate. Shavuot can safely be downgraded and renamed National Dairy Couple of Days perhaps.

Of course, we will need a popular vote, a mandate, for these changes to be confirmed but in election week I think it is fitting to conclude that, in the immortal words of Nick Clegg, this is a matter on which you can make a difference.

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't.

    Last updated: 1:27pm, May 25 2011


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