What Ben Franklin, Mount Sinai and Kegs Have in Common
Jews around the world this week celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, a summer solstice harvest festival and anniversary of the giving of the Torah. It’s also described in the Torah as a joyous celebration of the wheat harvest, with challah offerings, and according to Kabbalah, symbolizes the wedding of the Jewish people and God. So why do I drink beer?
While conducting some research on Shavuot a few years back, I came across an important footnote in the Netei Gavriel, a encyclopedic series of books on Jewish laws and customs. The Netei Gavriel, amid discussions of customs and practices around Shavuot — eating dairy food, decorating the shul with plants, flowers and grass — mentions the custom of having a keg of beer at synagogue for Shavuot. Yes, a keg of beer.
Let me explain.
The Jewish people had left Egypt, and traversed the desert, and were encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai in the stark harshness of the desert. There, at the base of the mountain, they encountered God. According to tradition, this is when we received the Torah.
One of the stories from the Midrash about the giving of the Torah relates how the Jewish people decided to accept the Torah. It was, as Don Corleone said in The Godfather, “an offer that [we] could not refuse.”
God lifted Mt. Sinai over the heads of the assembled People of Israel and then asked us if we wanted the Torah. If we said “no,” God would drop the mountain on top of us.
Lest one think that this Midrash is speaking in metaphorical terms, Rashi explains that God literally held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people “like a barrel.”
In the middle ages a tradition arose in Eastern Europe, based on this Rashi, to have a barrel of beer in the synagogue, when Jews stay up all night and study until dawn to remember the giving of the Torah.
Today, having a keg of beer is within reach of everyone thanks to the proliferation of mini “kegs” for about $20. No need to worry about deposits and taps, these small kegs have enough beer to make a bunch of people happy.
After a few years with the smaller keg, I decided to go for an upgrade last year. We will have a keg of cold, fresh, at our Shavuot program this year at Pico Shul.
And while drinking your beer this Shavuot, remember the important words of Benjamin Franklin, “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
L’Chaim, success and joy in your learning, Gut Yontef and Chag Sameach!