How I Spent My Shavuot

Odd as it might seem, the recent report that a library at Yemen Children’s Hospital was named after Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris, that terrorist Samir Al-Kuntar spoke at the naming-ceremony and that little girls read poems in honor of the occasion brought back a Shavuot memory.

According to the report, which originated in a Yemeni news service and was translated by MEMRI, the local Province Governor expressed pride “that the Arab nation has stalwart resistance [fighters] like Samir Al-Kuntar.” In 1974, Mr. Kuntar murdered an Israeli father in front of his four-year-old daughter and then smashed the little girl’s skull against a rock with a rifle butt.

Every Jewish holiday is special in its own way, but Shavuot, which falls on May 29 and 30 this year, is unusual: it has no specific “active” observances, nothing like Passover’s seder and matzoh, or Sukkot’s booths or “four species,” or Rosh Hashana’s shofar-blowing.

The 18th century Chassidic master known as Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev perceived something subtle in that fact. Shavuot, he noted, is identified by Jewish tradition as the anniversary of the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Since the act of accepting is an inherently passive one, he explained, the holiday is pointedly devoid of physically active observances. It is a time of receiving the Torah anew, and most appropriately expressed through Torah-study.

Hence, likely, the ancient Jewish custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot immersed in the texts of our tradition.

Every year I experience a personal Shavuot miracle; it is one that I suspect is shared by many others. By the end of our family’s festive meal on Shavuot night, the prospect of staying awake an hour, much less six or seven, seems an impossible one. Yet, somehow, entering the study-hall, some holy energy seems to seize me, and, even as my mind and body increasingly rebel against the deprivation of slumber, my soul jumps for joy.

Seven years ago, my then nearly12-year-old son Dovie – today a strapping 19-year-old studying in yeshiva in Israel – insisted on joining me in study in the large main sanctuary of a local synagogue, which was crowded with scores of Jewish men and boys doing the same.

The two of us, salt-and-pepper-bearded, could-stand-to-lose-a-few-pounds father and reddish-haired, dimpled and determined son, spent most of the night engrossed in Talmud. We began with a page of the tractate he was studying in school – a long passage dealing with the imperative of alleviating an animal’s pain – and then turned to several pages of another tractate he and I regularly learn together – which concerned the status of land ownership in Jerusalem.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him. We paused over the course of the night only for him to participate in classes for boys his age in an adjoining room, taught by an older yeshiva boy.

The experience was enthralling, as it always is, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (and at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during the prayer service that followed at 5:00 AM, Dovie and I both “made it” and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed. But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank G-d for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (though only in the word’s most simple sense) over the holiday. Apparently, during the precise hours Dovie and I were studying holy texts, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being “lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.”

“I encourage him, and he should do this,” said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. “I hope to be a martyr,” he said. “I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself.”

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuot and to my own son, and I thanked G-d again, from the bottom of my heart.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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