Shavuot may be the most important holiday you’ve never heard of. It’s the festival when we celebrate receiving the greatest Jewish gem of them all: the Torah. Did you know it takes a scribe an entire year to hand-write a single Torah scroll, using a goose-feather quill to write out all 304,805 letters? Here’s some more Torah trivia to impress your friends and family this Shavuot:
- According to tradition, when Moses went up Mt. Sinai for 40 days, he received the entire Torah from G-d. (Hence “the Five Books of Moses.”) Also, because the Israelites overslept on the morning they received the Torah — d’oh! — it’s customary to stay awake all night studying before Shavuot.
- A Torah is a sacred document, so making one is serious business. Each Torah scroll is hand-written by a trained scribe called a sofer who learns more than 4,000 Judaic laws before starting. He uses a quill, permanent black ink and sheets of parchment made of a kosher animal’s skin. Each stylized letter he makes must be written with precision, since a single typo or misshapen letter would invalidate the entire scroll. You think you have a high-pressure job?
- The completed parchment sheets are sewn together with cow sinews to create a long scroll. Each end of the scroll is sewn into and rolled around an ornate wooden rod, called atzei chaim, “trees of life.” The resulting Torah weighs about 25 pounds. Fully dressed in silver ornamentations, it can weigh twice that much. Tradition holds that if you drop a Torah on the floor — the terror of every b’nai mitzvah kid — you and every witness must fast from sunrise to sunset for 40 straight days as penance. Nowadays, people often give tzedakah instead.
- On Shavuot, we eat dairy meals to remind us that at Mt. Sinai we were innocents nourished by Torah just as babies are nourished by milk. Or maybe it’s inspired by the phrase “the land of milk and honey,” or because the Torah is likened to milk in the Songs of Solomon. Or maybe it’s because in gematria, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “milk” equals 40…? Whatever the reason, we feast on blintzes and cheesecake. Chag sameach!