Why Shavuot Has Few Rituals
The focus is theological.
Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
If observance were a function of theology, Shavuot would be the most widely observed of Jewish holidays. But precisely the opposite is the case among modern Jews. No major festival suffers from greater neglect. Yet Shavuot, which caps the period of seven weeks since the second Passover Seder and simply means "weeks," is rife with gravity. As the liturgy for the day constantly reminds us, Shavuot commemorates the divine gift of Torah received at Mount Sinai, in consequence of which Judaism spawned a text-centered religious community, possibly the first in human history. Shavuot, then, is about the essential and unique nature of Judaism, a portable religion based on a canon susceptible to unending interpretation. At Sinai, freedom from slavery was recast into fidelity to law and literacy.
But that defining content is not enough to imbue Shavuot with power or popularity. And the reason tells us something about the workings of Judaism. Shavuot is ritually bereft. Unlike Pesach or Sukkot, it lacks a set of distinctive practices that would convey experientially its meaning and message. There is nothing comparable to the seder or Sukkah for Shavuot, no absorbing home ritual that might unite family and friends in preparation and observance.
The commemoration of revelation is largely confined to the synagogue. The few paragraphs devoted to Shavuot in the Shulhan Arukh [Jewish Code of Law] deal solely with the adjustment of the liturgy (Orah Hayyim, 494). Nothing ever came to replace the bringing of first fruits to the Temple on Shavuot, which expressed the festival's older agricultural meaning. To shift the impact of Shavuot from nature to history did preserve its character as a day of thanksgiving, but without the ritual choreography that could engage the solitary Jew. Disembodied theology has never been the fare of popular religion.
In short, Shavuot begged for ritual enhancement and this is the need increasingly met by the custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the practice of spending the first night of Shavuot awake in the study of Torah in heightened anticipation of the anniversary of its revelation. Usually done together with at least a minyan [quorum] of participants, the rite, like the seder, is one of re-enactment. With the first crack of dawn, group study turns to communal prayer, culminating in the reading of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai in the unnamed third month of Sivan after the exodus (Exodus 19:1). The combination of extraordinary acts--an all-nighter followed by a sunrise service--created exactly the kind of experiential ritual able to express the particularity of Shavuot. In the last decade both in Israel and America, the ritual in one form or another has caught on among non-Orthodox Jews in ever widening circles. Many synagogues are now lit throughout the night and have multiple services in the morning for early birds and regulars.