Shavuot: Bringing Torah to the People

By Vincent Calabrese

For the last few centuries, Jews have practiced the custom of staying awake through the night of the festival of Shavuot to study Torah. On the holiday that commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to the Israelites, we aim to cultivate an air of feverish excitement, downing cup after cup of hot coffee as we make our way toward the reading of the Ten Commandments at sunrise. There we hear of how, amid fire and thunder, the entire people bore witness to God’s revelation. Crucially, God’s covenant was made not just with the elders or the priests, but with the nation as a whole–when Moses retells their sacred history to the Israelites at the end of their forty years of wandering, he again emphasizes that every stratum of the people is included in and responsible to the Torah: “your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).

Sadly, Jewish history has not always borne out this promise–instead, access to the Torah has often been determined by economic class. One poignant example of this shameful truth concerns Hillel the Elder, one of the greatest teachers of the early Rabbinic period. In his youth, Hillel was a day laborer, and, after setting aside half of his daily wages for his family’s livelihood, would give the other half to the guards who controlled access to the house of study. One day, he was not able to earn his normal wage and so was barred from entry. Desperate to learn, Hillel climbed to the roof in order to listen to the Sages’ discussion via a skylight, but nearly froze to death in a blizzard (Yoma 35b). In another story set a few generations later, we once again hear of these gatekeepers: when the imperious Rabban Gamliel is temporarily deposed from his position as leader of the Rabbinic community, one of the changes made to the culture of the study hall is the removal of these guards, which brings about a dramatic increase in the number of students learning Torah (Berakhot 28a). Though the greatest of our sages nearly lost his life due to the economic barriers dividing him from Torah study, it took some time for the forces of reform to abolish this unjust stratification of the community. 

Today, the Jewish community in the United States must once again face the truth that Torah and mitzvot are not equally available to all. We face an overwhelming economic challenge. In the Haredi community, Judaism is indeed made affordable, though this often comes along with a policy of thoroughgoing cultural and linguistic separatism – and sometimes with conditions of endemic poverty. While this approach does have the decided merit of not making Torah observance into a province of the rich, the cultural and educational stances it demands are not acceptable to many American Jews. So for its part, the non-Haredi observant community has committed to the lifestyle of the upper bourgeoisie: thus they are pushed to live in some of the most expensive neighborhoods of the most expensive cities, to send their children to a small circle of elite universities, and above all are expected to commit to a system of private Jewish schools with tuition costs in the tens of thousands of dollars a year. Jewish day schools, which for decades have been trumpeted as the most powerful tool in ensuring the maintenance of a Torah-observant lifestyle, have come to be an unacceptable economic burden.

This status quo is not sustainable. We cannot expect a religious subculture in which every family is expected to make half a million dollars a year, in which parents are funneled into a narrow range of high-earning professions and children are expected to attend only the most elite universities, to last very long. Nor is it just: it excludes from Jewish life those who cannot pay, and over time has deleterious effects on the public morality of the Jewish community, as Jews become increasingly drawn into politics that aim to protect and grow private wealth at the expense of the commons. 

Our Torah is too precious for us to allow it to languish within a gated community. Today, we are once again called upon to make good the Torah’s self-definition as a covenant addressed to the entirety of the Jewish people, and to remake our political and economic reality so that the economic walls keeping Jews from the blessings of Torah are knocked down for good.


Vincent Calabrese holds a doctorate in Religion from the University of Toronto and is a Rabbinical student in the Advanced Kollel of the Hadar Institute.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons