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I learned as a child in an observant Jewish family that the most important holidays in Judaism are:

  • Shabbat, celebrated every week;
  • the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are ten days apart in the fall;
  • and the three agricultural festivals: Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.

Ah, Shavuot. Least-known and most boring of the major holidays. Far outstripped by its trivial younger siblings, Purim and, of course, Hanukah (as are most of the others). I always liked Shavuot, as a kid–I liked all of the holidays–but it caused me a little trouble. Like the other five of the above Big Six, and unlike Hanukah or Purim, it requires strict observance: in my family, no writing, travel except by one’s own power, or spending money. And you go to shul during the day. Mix those facts with people’s ignorance of its existence, and you get this exchange:

Student: I’ll won’t be here on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s a Jewish holiday.

Teacher: Another one?!

To be fair to the schools, I think this exchange took place only in my head, or between me and friends. The teachers were very professional and respectful of our civil rights. And I was a good student and kept up with my work despite the two-day embargo on writing. Oh, that’s another thing that makes Shavuot an odd one out. Unlike its triplets, Passover and Sukkot, which are a week long each*, it only gets two days (in fact, I started this on the first day of Shavuot, Sunday’s busyness intervened, and now I’m posting just in time for the end of the holiday). What the heck?

All right, so what is Shavuot? It celebrates the receiving of the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai. By tradition, this took place seven weeks and one day after the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. By way of celebration, one eats milchig, dairy–in the United States, blintzes are traditional, as is cheesecake for those who like that sort of thing (I do not)–and in the services, the central scripture is the book of Ruth. It’s a story of harvest, and also of refugees, so it’s a lovely fit.

Some questions I either never asked, or don’t remember the answers to:

Gustave Doré, who understood the verse about the “horns of light” emanating from Moses’ head. Michelangelo, on the other hand, thought they were literally horns and portrayed Moses that way, greatly increasing life’s difficulty for generations of Jews whose anti-Semitic neighbors thought they had horns, like popular images of Satan. Gorgeous sculpture, though.
  • Tradition says Moses was up on Sinai for 40 days. But the people received the Torah 50 days after leaving slavery. So did the people take ten days to get to Sinai, and then receive the law after 40 more? Or did they take 50 days to get to Sinai, and didn’t actually receive the law until day 90? Ten days seems like a pretty quick trip; I don’t know precisely where they fled from, but Google Maps tells me it’s a walk of 3 1/2 days from Cairo to Mt. Sinai. Make it an entire people, including very old people, sick people, and small children, and maybe bringing some goats and such, and ten days seems unlikely. But if it took them 50 days to get there, first of all, that’s a really long time for a short distance, and second, it makes 50 days a strange interval to choose between Passover and Shavuot, since day 50 wasn’t when they got the Torah, but when they started waiting impatiently for Moses’s trip up and down the mountain to be completed. I could probably find out a lot more just by reading these chapters of Exodus, but I think I’ll just raise the question and let someone else research the answer.
  • “The receiving of the Torah” is very confusing because, well, by the time Shavuot comes around, we’ve been reading the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, from the beginning since fall, and it has been mostly history. Did God give Moses the story of the Garden of Eden? I realize as I write this that what our teachers meant by “God gave us the Torah” was “God gave us the law,” which is a smallish part of the Five Books. The rest of the Torah is the story leading up to, and following, the revelation at Sinai.
  • Also, there’s that whole Moses bringing down the two tablets thing. I had this vague sense that Moses brought down the Ten Commandments and that was it. Again on reflection, it’s clear that the images of Moses bearing the tablets are a visual metaphor for his bearing the entire Law in his mind.
  • Why dairy, anyway? There are various theories, none very convincing. I always kind of figured it was just to give dairy a boost. Usually, holiday meals are fleishig, meat meals, I suppose because meat is expensive and appropriate for special occasions. Ours almost always featured chicken or, at Hanukah, brisket. Since observant Jews can have either one of these items or dairy desserts (you can’t eat milk for some hours after eating meat, nor meat for at least half an hour after eating dairy), this means you never do end up having cheesecake for dessert, nor cheese blintzes as an appetizer. So Shavuot is their moment. Or maybe, as in the joke about the Pope and the Wonder account, there was some lobbying from the dairy producers of the Jewish world.
  • I still don’t know why only two days, instead of a week.
  • And the biggest question, which I know I did ask as a child, but if I got a satisfactory answer, I have no memory of it: since this is the anniversary of receiving the Torah, why isn’t it the day to celebrate the same? Shavuot is celebrated in Sivan (June-ish; the Jewish calendar is lunar and so it doesn’t always line up with the Gregorian calendar). Why is Simchat Torah, the day of Rejoicing in the Torah (and one of my favorite holidays in my devout days), attached to Sukkot way back in Tishrei (October-ish), instead of to Shavuot?

So it turns out that little Shavuot packs a lot of questions. Whether you have any answers to them or not, if you celebrate Shavuot, I hope it has been a happy one and that you enjoyed every bite of your milchig meal.

*Though only the beginning and end of the week have strict rules. The days in between, Chol Hamoed, are pretty much like any weekday, except that in the case of Passover, of course, bread and grains are still off the menu.


I asked my daughter for a drawing prompt, and she texted back, “Wires.” Then I drew for about 90 seconds and fell asleep. I did more tonight, enjoying the play of abstraction.

But also, between that prompt and missing my wife, I noticed a substation (I think that’s what it was) and took a couple of photos. Most people don’t feel tenderness upon seeing electrical infrastructure, but when your sweetie is an energy policy wonk, they evoke pleasant memories of traveling together and hearing about the substations, transformers, distribution and transmission wires, etc. I’ll draw that tomorrow, during the long limbo of cross-country travel. Wires, continued.

I found the loveliest reference photo for my last leaf drawing, but got only about 1/20 of the way through actually drawing it before I had to go to sleep, and in the subsequent two days I haven’t had any more energy for that or the new daily project of some other kind of art: I have COVID. It seems like a mild enough case, and I hope it will remain so, but it is still sapping all my oomph.

Righteous rage, and the fervent wish that no one else endure what my family did, will power me through tomorrow’s service, which is on the real connection between guns and freedom. Of course I will be preaching via Zoom. Then I can return to pampering myself until I am energetic enough for the few days of work I’d planned for this week.

Art will return when it returns, and I’ll post it here when it does.

Columbine / Aquilegia, and coral bells / Heuchera
Douglas iris
Dicentra / Bleeding hearts

I enjoyed spending several days on this (and I think I blanked out entirely yesterday!) but it’s good to declare it done–something that’s often hard for me.

Presenting a very small, young, short-lived part of a tree that grows to be very tall and old, a Coast Redwood.

I’m very, very close to writing the Dewey Decimal number on all the books in my office. Before anyone gets worried about incipient OCD (cue my wife saying: “Incipient?”), hear me out.

There are about 10% of my books that I never know how to categorize. My office shelves have sections: worship resources like meditation collections. Scriptures of various religions. Philosophy. Religious education, preaching, fundraising, and other practical arts of ministry; fine. But then pastoral care shades into spiritual memoirs, books on healing through writing and art, others on aging, etc. And do books about our spiritual relationships with money go with fundraising or spiritual something-or-other?

Not the bookshelves in my office, except in my dreams. Photo by Emil Widlund on Unsplash

And which books are history, which philosophy, which theology . . . ? I often find myself holding a book, trying to decide what shelf to put it on, and wondering what Dewey would have to say about it. (That’s Melvil Dewey, creator of Dewey Decimal Classification [DDC]. Not John Dewey, who maybe goes with Philosophy or maybe Humanism or maybe Unitarian Universalist History . . . )

Usually, I go with my gut. I figure, wherever I classify it in my own mind, that’s where I’ll look for it. That worked for a while, but it’s gotten harder as my library has grown. Plus, some of my most interesting books seem to cross categories.

Someone has already done all this work: Dewey and those who have further refined his categories over the years. So I’m leaning toward hitching a ride on their labors by putting books where the DDC would. Generally, this number is listed on the same page as the publication information. But to actually categorize them all means not only looking at those (at least for that non-obvious 10% or so), but remembering them. Making little piles, maybe, of the 210s and 220s and so on. And how will I remember which pile is which as I sit on my office floor, surrounded by books?

You see where this is headed. If I’m going to make a lot of little piles, it’s just as easy–and a lot clearer–to simply put the DDC number onto a label and stick it where I’ll see it, such as, oh, say, the spine of the book. Then, putting them all in order, and keeping them in order, will be easy and not depend on my memory at all.

The only catch is, when it’s all done, I will have an office that looks like a library, and people might look at me strangely. I don’t suppose that’s much of a change.

I’ve learned that the white streaks on many conifer needles are, on close examination, actually close clusters of little white dots or patches. So what are they? Collectively, they’re called stomatal bloom. Each is the wax that lines a stoma, or opening in the surface of the leaf. Stomata allow the exchange of gases between the interior of the leaf and the air outside; in other words, they are how a tree breathes, excretes, and conducts photosynthesis. They are completely fascinating and also beautiful. I’ve come across this particular photo in a few different places on the web, so I am not the only one who finds it arresting:

The underside of a leaf of Tradescantia zebrina. The majority of the surface is made up of epidermal cells with the occasional stoma – a pore in the leaf which can open and close to control gas exchange, primarily to mimimise loss of water vapour while still taking up carbon dioxide. In this species the stomata cells are green (due to chlorophyll) while the epidermal cells are red in colour due to additional pigmentation. Photo by Zephyris under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The leaf pictured above is from Tradescantia zebrina, a.k.a. Wandering Jew, a somewhat problematic common name that some people, I was amused to discover, have proposed replacing with Wandering Dude. Wandering Dudes are common houseplants and not trees. So back to my wax-lined, whitish stomata.

Many of the needles I’ve been drawing have stomatal bloom, resulting in streaks or stripes whose number reveals the pattern of stomata on the tree in question, and therefore making a handy way for would-be tree identifiers to tell various conifers apart. I have already developed a keener eye for the many species of these trees and the differences among them, due to this project, but I can’t remember which ones are which. Today’s might be easier to identify, because the underside of the leaf has such a broad swath of stomatal bloom that it has been dubbed the Pacific silver fir. Unfortunately, its natural range begins in the very northwest corner of California and heads north from there, so I’m not likely to see it on a walk around Palo Alto, but I’ll keep my eye out for the silvery undersides that might indictate Abies amabilis far from their mountain home.

How does one show this needlesl’s tiny white dots and squiggles using colored pencil on white paper? With difficulty, and eventually impatience and a quick end to the attempt. Sometimes I’m just too tired to put in the effort, but I’ll have many more opportunities.

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