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May 17, 2018 3:52 pm

Dairy, First Fruits, and More: Welcoming Shavuot With Customs of the Season

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – I’ve often heard, and many rabbis lament, that Shavuot is the only major Jewish holiday that many Diaspora Jews have never heard of, let alone celebrated.

If you are one of these newbies to the holiday, its origins, and its practices you’re not alone.

For starters, the two-day holiday (celebrated for just one day in Israel) begins this year after Shabbat on Saturday, May 19 and ends at nightfall on Monday, May 21.

Shavuot means “weeks” in Hebrew. It arrives seven weeks after Passover and concludes the counting of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover. More widely known is that it celebrates the moment some 3,330 years ago when the Israelites interrupted their wanderings in the wilderness long enough to stand together at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, amid thunder and lightning, they were given nothing less than the secret power — God’s living laws in the form of the Torah — that would guide and propel their descendants into becoming the longest-running religion on Earth.

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For Moses, brokering the giving of the Torah was the high point in an illustrious career as God’s right-hand man. For the recently freed slaves, the revelation at Sinai was a chance to experience God directly when they agreed unanimously that “we will do and we will hear.”

The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, and marks the wheat harvest in Israel. The Torah teaches us to bring the first fruits of our harvest to God on Shavuot, but since the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Jews have had nowhere to bring these fruits.

There is little else in the Torah to guide our celebrations, except the command to refrain from work.

There are, however, quite a few old (and some newer) traditions for celebrating the holiday:

  • All-night (or at least late-night) learning. Tikkun Leil Shavuot (“Repair of Shavuot Night”), instituted by the mystics of Tzfat in the 1500s, is so named because the tradition is to stay up all night learning to make up for our ancestors oversleeping on the morning they were to receive the Torah. After a full night of study, many attend early services and enjoy a communal breakfast before stumbling home to bed. Families whose kids need their sleep often hold late-night Jewish storytelling parties.
  • Cheesecake, blintzes, and other dairy delights. This beloved tradition (at least for the lactose-tolerant) reflects the Israelites’ 40-year trek to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Another connection: Jews compare the words of Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey.
  • An extra charitable deed or act of kindness. Based on the command the Torah gives us (Vayikra 23:22) to leave the corners of our field unharvested so the poor and the convert can come and take it at night (a Jewish sensitivity: gleaning in the dark, they won’t be embarrassed by their situation).
  • Decorate homes and synagogues. Some fill their homes with greenery for the holiday, as do some synagogues.
  • Celebrate converts. This honors Ruth, the most notable Jew-by-choice, whose dramatic story we read on Shavuot. Ruth, destined to be the great-grandmother of none other than King David, was known for her commitment and for stating, “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”

Here is how various sects celebrate the holiday:

Reform

Celebrating the receiving of the Torah is one reason that Reform and Conservative congregations have long scheduled their confirmation ceremonies for teens on the holiday.

Shavuot also gives an opportunity for Jews to learn together, says Rabbi David. A case in point: For the first time this year, his congregation will be learning late into the night at a local diner with members of two other synagogues.

“The story of Ruth reminds us to welcome the other, the Jewish imperative of social justice, and creating a safe place and insisting on human dignity for everyone,” he says.

Conservative

One up-and-coming theme among Conservative congregations is a focus on celebrating the natural world. So says Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“At some congregations, they march around the shul with baskets of produce as a way of reenacting the bringing of the bikkurim, the ‘first fruits,’ and at others, they learn at their Tikkun Leil Shavuot about the Jewish theme of protecting our world. But there is a greater emphasis now on the environment,” he said.

Rabin also notes that the book of Ruth resonates with Conservative Jews. “Ruth is both part of a tribe, the Moabites, singled out as the enemy, and yet is seen as the paradigm of the act of choosing Judaism, so much so that the messiah is destined to come from her. That Torah can have internal contradictions and still be divine is a core tenant of how Conservative Jews tend to see Torah.”

Orthodox

At synagogues like Beth Joseph Congregation in Phoenix, Arizona, teens and adults turn out for all-night learning, followed by early services the next morning.

“In order to satisfy them spiritually we know we need to satisfy them physically,” says Rabbi Harris Cooperman, who directs development at the Phoenix Hebrew Academy and is one of some eight teachers of a wide range of Torah topics that night. As for the snoring that sometimes greets his talks, he takes it in stride. “It’s a normal human function,” he says. “The main thing is for them to be able to function the next day and be in shul for the Ten Commandments. If they can function enough to do that, it’s great.”

Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston is offering some creative spins on late-night learning, with some classes leaving enough time to switch out so both mom and dad get a chance to learn, with other classes just for women and still others scheduled for the daytime so congregants can sleep and be refreshed.

Chassidic

Besides staying up all night long learning Torah (fueled by equal parts cheesecake and coffee), many observant Jews also emphasize the importance of involving children in the Shavuot festivities. “That’s because, before God agreed to give the Torah to the Jewish people, He required guarantors,” says Rabbi Mendel Bluming, co-director of Chabad Shul of Potomac, Maryland. “The Jews offered their children as guarantors that we’d treasure the Torah and make it our guide in life. And that’s why we honor the children and make sure they’re in synagogue to hear the Ten Commandments.”

But adults have plenty to learn from the small guarantors, adds the rabbi. “They have an openness and trust that can easily be lost to cynicism as we grow older,” he says. In order “to show the sweetness of Torah,” the kids who come to the Chabad House can expect ice-cream in 10 colors, one for each commandment, and a “mountain” of toppings.

On the second day of Shavuot, the Yizkor memorial service is recited.

Despite the different emphasis and traditions, in many ways Shavuot is a “surprisingly trans-denominational holiday,” says Rabbi Sara Sapadin, an adjunct rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El on New York City’s Upper East Side. “When you really look at it closely, you will see that we all celebrate the giving of the same Torah and in many of the same ways.”

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