Family & Education

So, bread wasn't good enough for Shavuot?

After weeks and weeks of home schooling, Josh Howie is in no shape for another Yomtov. And besides, what's all this about cheese?


After a pretty tough lockdown I’m still smarting from the harsh timing of the kids returning to their Jewish schools only to break for holidays the following week. And now, after finally getting a burst of childfree bliss and being able to commence with the reconstruction of careers and psyches, I nearly cried upon seeing the kids are going to be off school yet again. 
Pesach I could reluctantly get behind, fair enough, the exodus from Egypt’s a pretty big deal, I guess it top trumps exodus from your kids. But on the school calendar, noting the days marked off for ‘Shavuot’, my response was more like ShavuNOT! 
Bundled in with all the S festivals, Simchat Torah, Succot, Saturday, wedged at the periphery of my observance levels, I’ve never had the need to examine Shavuot properly before. In years past I’ve just associated it with getting off peak deals for mini-breaks or hitting theme parks when they’re empty. And judging by the number of yarmulkes dotted about on the rides at Thorpe Park, Legoland, and even incongruently Peppa Pig World, I assumed I must’ve been on to something.
During the first lockdown last year Shavuot utterly skipped me by, and this year, with Tesco vouchers depleted and cereal box tickets unsaved, a lack of rollercoaster action has me questioning what precisely is the purpose of this ‘holiday’? If I’m being forced to suffer unnecessary engagement with my children, I’d at least hope for there to be a good reason. 
Reluctant to confirm my ignorance to my rabbi, I turned instead for answers to my alternative source of all things halachic, Wikipedia. With a topping of for true depth. Not too dissimilar from  how my ancestors for millennia must’ve sourced their information from The Jewish Book of Why.
Anyway, turns out this ‘Festival of Weeks’ is all about celebrating the finishing of the seven weeks of the wheat harvest. Whoop dee doo, how did that get major festival status? Nice to see that even before government subsidies and daylight savings, farmers were wielding their power. Look, I don’t want to be conspiracy minded, but you’re telling me that the first festival after you’re forced to chuck out ALL your bread and cereal, just happens to be for wheat?! I mean, come on, open your eyes people! Coincidence, or industry lobbying back in the day? 
Later on when Judaism was being tweaked in the diaspora, did the Sages put their hands up and admit those farmers had gotten to them? Embrace the Atkins. No, they doubled down. 
“Oh yeah we totally forgot to tell you, this also happens to be the day when Moses gave us the Torah. Must’ve slipped our minds.”
“Right, let’s drop all the wheat stuff then, just make it about the Torah?”
“Well no. Every day should be about receiving the Torah, keep the wheat.”
“Even without Eretz Yisrael or the Temple?”
“Look the schools are staying closed! Buy bread.”
And that’s how we celebrate Shavuot, by eating lots of wheat based goods. Nope. Well what about some WHSmiths book vouchers then? Nah. We eat cheese. Why on earth cheese, and what if you’re lactose intolerant aka American? Well the Hebrew numerical value of halav is 40, which is how many days Moses was up Mt. Sinai. I’ve got to be honest, it kind of feels like those Sages were reaching.
So not only do the kids have to stay home, I’m supposed to add even more to my lockdown weight. Wonderful. And while I’m stuffing my face with cheese I can stay up all night studying the Torah. Hmm, I’ll tell you what, instead, why don’t we celebrate Shavuot by dropping the kids off at school where they can spend all day studying Torah? That works for me, I’ll even put a Babybel in their snack bag.
If not, then might I at least instead suggest a new system for ranking the Jewish holidays. Let’s base it on the Football League system, which I admittedly know little about, but was able to call my rabbi. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach are obviously all top tier Premiership, but every few years let’s make the other festivals fight it out for relegation between major and minor status. 
Surely ready for the big time is Tu Bishvat Birthday of the Trees, riding high on environmental concerns. But it’s Purim that definitely needs to come up from the Championship League. Now that’s a holiday where school days off should be obligatory. Purim itself so we don’t have to stress about the kids’ fancy dress costumes, then the morning after so we don’t have to do the school run with a hangover. 
Just have a little think about it while you’re nibbling on your cheese.

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