After Shavuot: Tachanun
For many Jews, Shavuot comes and arrives so quietly and goes unnoticed, you’d think the festival’s name was really Shhhhh-vuot. And that’s a shame since it brings an important message plus charming customs that all of us could easily observe and enjoy.
Although Shavuot is a brief holiday, a small element of celebration continues for a week afterward. When we have a Beit haMikdash, Jews who come to the Beit haMikdash for aliyah laregel ( pilgrimage for holidays) bring a special korban (offering). That korban may be brought for a full week – Shavuot itself, plus 6 days.
To mark those days when one could bring this celebratory korban, we do not say tachanun for 6 days after Shavuot.
(Mishneh Berurah 131:36)
What is Shavout?
Shavuot is the holiday following seven weeks after Passover that celebrates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai during biblical times.
How do we celebrate it?
Shavuot is one of the pilgrimage holidays, with a custom to eat diary products. In synogogue, there is a custom to read medieval poems and the Book of Ruth, as well as staying up all night during the first night of Shavuot to learn Torah. What does it mean? The holiday is associated with the grain harvest, and also depicts the covenant to keep the Torah the Jews made with God on Mount Sinai. What is the history behind Shavout? The holiday of Shavuot fulfills the the religious observance of the grain harvest of early summer as well as the ritual to appear before God in Jerusalem three times a year with the first fruits from their harvest
Pesach is about freedom: the Omer journey of 49 days is about learning what it is to be free. Shavuot is about guidance (Divine Guidance, that is). Freedom without guidance can result in random actions, impulsive behaviors, and dangerous explorations (think of many teens). At Shavuot we receive the great gift of Divine Guidance to help us use our freedom well.
What do we need to do to actualize this gift?
- 1. Humility. Recognize that we don’t have many (if any) of the answers we need to make good use of our freedoms. Often, we struggle to even conceptualize the questions!
- 2. Openness. Being prepared to accept offered advice is a sign of maturity. Even being open to the possibility that guidance might be useful is crucial.
- 3. Resolve. Being humble enough to know we need guidance and being open to receive it are useless steps unless we gather the resolve to follow through. Resolve requires a sense of the possibility of a changed future.
- 4. Change. Not intention, not simply kavvanah (though that is necessary), but actual change in attitudes, behaviors, actions are the indicator of really accepting the guidance we are given.
The Tachanun Prayer
I was visiting a synagogue this week and after the silent Amidah everyone sat down and put their heads on their arms, like a sleeping position. I have never seen that before. What is the reason for this?
The prayer you witnessed is called “Tachanun,” meaning “supplication of compassion.” It is also called “nefillas apayim,” “falling of the face”. This is a prayer of particular intensity and expresses a unique level of closeness to God, through which we literally “fall on our faces” immediately after the silent Amidah prayer by sitting down and resting our faces upon our arms to recite the prayer. It’s a tradition from the Talmud which teaches that when one places their head upon their arm in submissive prayer after the Amidah, this intense, heartfelt prayer will be accepted by God and will achieve powerful results. (Bava Metzia 59a) Sephardic and Chassidic Jews preface this prayer with the recitation of the “viduy” confession of wrongdoings. This is followed by the recital of the 13 Attributes of God’s mercy expressed in His forgiving of sin, utilizing the closeness of the Amidah to achieve atonement.
On Mondays and Thursdays, the days we read the Torah, there is a lengthy prayer inserted before Tachanun called “vehu rachum” or “He, the merciful one.” This is a heartfelt plea to forgive the Jewish people of their wrongdoings, end our duress in exile and return us back to our Homeland with the rebuilding of the Temple. Mondays and Thursdays are considered, in Jewish tradition, to be days especially endowed with God’s mercy. Therefore we add extra supplications to tap into that outpouring of compassion.
More about Tachanun