Most Jewish holidays have a ritual or physical symbol connected with them, a means of accessing the import the day. In the spring we rid ourselves of leavened products; in the fall, we build temporary structures; in the winter we light special candelabras. The holiday of Shavuot is an anomaly. There are no rituals that need to be performed, no special blessings to be pronounced. This is a holiday of pared-down simplicity, symbolized by the custom in Eastern Europe of making paper-cuts (called “shavuoslekh” in Yiddish) to decorate the home and synagogue.
The one custom for Shavuot is to stay up all night studying Jewish texts. This custom itself was enabled because of a particular innovation in food technology, as historian Elliot Horowitz has explained: the availability of caffeine. Horowitz discusses how once the stimulant became widely available in the 16th century, it enabled even the most sluggish among Jewish scholars to remain in a roused state through the early morning hours of Shavuot. Somehow this tension, between the corporeal (of our need for stimulants, or at least rest) and the spiritual aspects of awaiting revelation feels particularly Jewish to me, given the way our religion is rooted in the body.
The study of text on Shavuot takes no fixed form. Compilations of texts for this nocturnal holiday do exist, and they contain excerpts from the Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, and kabbalistic texts, but these are suggested modes of study. You could read anything really - Art Spiegelman’s Maus or stories by Amir Gutfreund. Shavuot is a time for Jews to focus on what it means to have a text and grapple with it, to be and to celebrate being the people of the book.
But, what does it mean to be the people of the book these days?
Recently, I went with my 10-year-old daughter to our local Borders, which was having a going-out-of business sale. My daughter looked at me and said, “I don’t think there will be any bookstores when I’m grown up.” This is a child who is notoriously pessimistic; she often fears that she will miss the school bus or doubts that she’ll able to finish her homework. I am usually quick to reassure her. In this case, I couldn’t. I think she’s right.
I believe that Jewish books as objects will endure even if we move, as we seem to be doing, to a culture in which our texts are wholly electronic. It’s difficult to imagine the Torah ever being read from a Kindle for a congregation; we need rituals around our readings. So, we will have to stay in the corporeal and spiritual once again, using modern book technology as it is valuable, while taking time to sniff the ink on our handwritten Torah scrolls.
Read the full article on Tablet Magazine.