This post is brought to you by Emily Paul, a historian and heritage professional volunteering for the Ottawa Jewish Archives.
Earlier this May, the Jewish community celebrated Shavuot, an important holiday that may leave some outside the religion saying “Sha-what?” Despite the fact that it is one of three major pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar, Shavuot isn’t as well known as occasions such as Passover. In fact, writer J.J. Goldberg even wrote an article entitled “Shavuot – The Zeppo Marx of Jewish Holidays.” Jokes aside, while Shavuot may lack general notoriety, it celebrates the fascinating foundation of the Jewish faith and shares a connection with one of the OJAs most popular artifacts. Read on to learn more!
– Shavuot –
Sometimes also known as the “Feast of Weeks” or “the Festival of the Giving of the Law,” the celebration of Shavuot is rooted in fascinating historical, cultural, and agricultural events. For example, Shavuot coincides with the early summer grain harvest, and in ancient Israel ancient males had to “appear before God in Jerusalem” and bring an offering of their harvest’s first fruits. However, the most apparent cause to celebrate Shavuot is because it commemorates Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt.
Shavuot is observed in several ways, including the eating of dairy products such as blintzes, goat’s cheese, and even cheesecake. Indeed, if you’re looking for some dairy indulgences to enjoy next year, check out Alyce Baker’s article in the Ottawa Jewish E-Bulletin titled “Shavuot – Time for Sweet and Light Dairy Treats.” Other Shavuot traditions are grounded more in religious in religious practice. For instance, specific excerpts from the Torah are read during worship in the Synagogue, specifically from the Book of Ruth. As well, some stay awake the night before and participate in individual or collective study of the Torah.
Through the sharing of dairy products, worship at the synagogue, and partaking in group study sessions, one could argue that Shavuot is a holiday that focuses on what is most important: connecting with your community. One undebatable element that is central to Shavuot is, of course, the Torah.
The Ottawa Jewish Archives cares for several Torahs at their facility, but one stands out from the rest as singularly significant: Sefer Scroll 1336.
– Ottawa’s Sefer Scroll –
Those who have visited the Greenberg Families Library will recognize this eye-catching item, as this Sefer Scroll has been proudly displayed outside its doors for 20 years.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a Sefer Scroll is a handwritten copy of the Torah that is produced according to extremely strict standards of production and contains the five books of Moses. On top of its masterful production and religious significance, this artifact is also known as a Memorial Scroll. What is that, you may ask?
Through Nazis looting during the Second World War, innumerable Torahs and similar items were seized and very often damaged, destroyed, or otherwise lost. If fortunate, however, some items were relocated to places such as Prague where, after the war, roughly 1,100 Torahs were recovered. Efforts were made to repair as many items as possible, but some were deemed too damaged to be restored. This presented a conundrum, as many believed such items could still serve a higher purpose. And so, it was decided that such Torahs would be used for educational purposes and were loaned out for display in cultural and educational centres all around the world (for more information, visit their website).
A visit to the Memorial Scroll website reveals that Ottawa’s Sefer Scroll 1336 originated from the small town of Ivanovice in what is today known as the Czech Republic.
These Memorial Scrolls serve as a poignant memorial and a tangible starting point for conversation and education. Indeed, anyone who has seen Scroll 1336 on display would surely agree that Sefer Scroll 1336 achieves those goals.
– Connections: Past and Present –
Reflecting on the “lesser-known” holiday of Shavuot and the well-known artifact of Sefer Scroll 1336, an interesting theme can be detected: that of community, connecting, and persevering.
Take, for instance, Moses’ journey up Mount Sinai that is at the heart of Shavuot. At the base of the mountain crowds of people huddled, afraid, their futures uncertain after escaping the oppressive rule of Egypt. And then, comes hope from above. Now, consider the history of Sefer Scroll 1336. It too tells the story of a people oppressed, afraid, and uncertain, who somehow manage to make it through one of the darkest periods in history. Emerging, in fact, with a desire not just to survive, but also to thrive.
J.J. Goldberg, “Shavuot: The Zeppo Marx of Jewish Holidays,” Forward (May 12, 2010), https://forward.com/opinion/127963/shavuot-the-zeppo-marx-of-jewish-holidays/.
Alyce Baker, “Shavuot — Time for sweet and light dairy treats,” Ottawa Jewish E-Bulletin, May 6, 2021, https://ottawajewishbulletin.com/voices/shavuot-time-for-sweet-and-light-dairy-treats.
Memorial Scrolls Trust, “Our Story,” https://memorialscrollstrust.org.