Shavuot by Tnuva
As one might expect of the Jewish state, the holy days of the Jewish religion are national holidays. A good example of this is the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) which begins this year on Tuesday night May 18. While it is possible to go about one’s business in the diaspora without even realizing that Shavuot has come and gone, this could never happen in Israel. For one thing, on the day of the holiday all government offices, banks, and businesses are closed, and children begin their second day of a three-day holiday. Additionally, several weeks before the holiday, Tnuva, Israel’s huge food company (which almost has a monopoly on milk and milk products), takes great care to tell every person in the State of Israel: “Shavuot Tnuva--An Israeli Celebration.”
The Tnuva juggernaut for Shavuot is quite impressive. In the weeks before the holiday, one cannot walk by a dairy case anywhere in Israel without realizing that Shavuot is approaching and that Tnuva is ready to help you celebrate. There are sales on dairy products, introductory offers for new product lines, and a tempting array of cheesecakes--including a “cheesecake kit for easy and fast preparation” of the holiday’s signature dessert. Of course, all this “Bounty” (the English word for “Tnuva”) is accompanied by a huge advertising blitz in newspapers, on television and radio, on billboards, and in a “magazine for Shavuot” that is inserted into your newspaper about a week before the holiday. On the cover of this glossy, full-color “special magazine for the holiday of Shavuot,” one reads: “Tnuva is happy to present you with a complete collection of recipes, tips, advice, and stories for the Shavuot holiday.”
In the magazine, Tnuva speaks of Shavuot as “the most Israeli of holidays” because of the old kibbutz tradition of displaying the plentiful yields (crops and livestock) on this day. In the center of the magazine there is a beautiful photograph of various fruits and assorted cheeses with the words (obviously meant to sound like a biblical injunction): “On the holiday of Shavuot, you shall make for yourselves a Tnuva holiday table.”
The bulk of the magazine consists primarily of recipes that make excellent use of the Tnuva Dairy (and are accompanied by colorful photographs of the finished products). Tnuva dutifully provides several of the traditional reasons for eating dairy products on this, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to Israel. One of these reasons uses the technique known as “gematria,” which assigns a numerical value to each Hebrew letter. The numerical value of “milk” (“halav”) = 40 = the number of days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai when he received the Torah. Playfully, Tnuva points out that 40 reduced to a single digit = 4 (4 + 0) and that the word “Tnuva” (whose total = 463) can also be reduced to 4 (4 + 6 + 3 = 13 = 1+ 3 = 4). “And maybe,” says Tnuva in the magazine, “here begins our deep connection with the holiday of Shavuot.”
Tnuva is thus largely responsible for making sure that the Israeli public knows well in advance of the approaching Shavuot holiday. And since the company is willing to expend a large amount of capital on its Shavuot campaign, it would seem that a large segment of Israel celebrates this holiday--as far as Tnuva is concerned.
This is not to say that the holiday is a deep religious experience for most Israelis. For the secular portion of the population, the holiday is an opportunity for a long weekend at the beach. This leads to an interesting religious question, given the Jewish legal principle that says that a person who is ignorant of a law is punished less severely than someone who knows the law but who consciously violates it. Following this line of reasoning, it could be argued that the situation of a Jew in the diaspora who goes to work on Wednesday May 19 without realizing that it’s Shavuot is less severe than an Israeli who violates religious law on the holiday--since all Israelis know that the day is a Jewish holiday.
Precisely at this point, however, is where the modern religious Jew parts ways with the ultra-Orthodox. While from a legal perspective the secular Jewish diaspora position on Shavuot may have its advantages, in terms of Jewish culture and Jewish peoplehood, I believe that the Israeli situation is much to be preferred over a diaspora Shavuot. As long as the traditions of the Jewish people are still current in Israel’s vocabulary, one can hope for a reconstruction or a transvaluation of these traditions to suit a broad spectrum of Israeli society. Even if a person’s celebration of Shavuot consists of eating more dairy products than usual around this time of year, that person is exercising some degree of ethnic and national responsibility--which I think is all to the good. So buy your (preferably Tnuva) dairy products, and have a Happy Shavuot.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger