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.
First, some historical background. Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot was one of the three times during the year when the Israelites made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. On Shavuot they brought two loaves of bread baked from the wheat of the new crop plus samples of the first fruits.
To prepare for the pilgrimage, farmers inspected their crops and tied red threads around any fig, pomegranate or bunch of grapes that looked ripe. These fruits, along with wheat, barley, olives and dates, were then piled into baskets and carried in processions to Jerusalem. (Farmers who lived far away arrived, obviously, with raisins instead of grapes, but nobody gave a fig about that…)
Leading each procession was a flutist and an ox, its horns painted gold. Everyone who crowded into Jerusalem — rich and poor, alike — felt the joy of the festival. Half the day was devoted to study and the other half to eating and drinking. It was a time of happiness and thanksgiving.
But with the fall of the Second Temple and the Exile, the pilgrimages stopped, and the themes of Shavuot became Revelation, Covenant and Torah. What had started out as a harvest feast was transformed into a festival commemorating an event unparalleled in the history of the Jewish people. The giving of The Law–Z’Man Matan Torahtaynu.
The Bible does not come right out and say that the Torah was given on Shavuot, but Talmudic interpretation tells us that fifty days after the Exodus, on the sixth of day of the Hebrew month of Sivan — the date of Shavuot — the Torah was given. Shavuot can be considered the birthday of the Jewish religion and, as such, it deserves our attention.
The following are some easy and essential ways to commemorate Shavuot:
One, two, three, Go! To services!
The Torah portion read on the first day of Shavuot includes the Ten Commandments — the basis for the Covenant and for all civilized life. This declaration of ethical behavior and loyalty to God had never been heard until it was written in the Torah. To hear the words on Shavuot should be required listening for all of us.
Another part of the service that gives it a special flavor is the chanting of the Akdamot, a mysterious hymn that celebrates the glory of God, the devotion of Israel and describes the delights to be brought by the Messiah.
Also read on Shavuot is the Book of Ruth.
This story makes the gentle argument that belief is as important as birth, and teaches the lessons of loyalty, tolerance and love. It’s worth hearing again, too.
Find time for Study
Legend has it that on the day the Ten Commandments were to be given, the children of Israel overslept and God had to wake them up. To atone for our slug-a-bed ancestors and to show gratitude for the Torah, the Kabbalists of medieval Safed set aside the eve of Shavuot for Tikkun L’el Shavuot–the Service of the Night of Study. When it came to lesson plans, these Kabbalists meant business. Their staggering curriculum included Bible, Prophets, and other sacred Jewish texts.
Now, even though staying up all night learning Torah isn’t as fashionable here as it was in old Safed, we could still do our bit. Design a Create-Your-Own-Study-Group, either at home or in the Synagogue. Study as long and as late as you want. Really serious scholars could greet the dawn with a Blintz Breakfast! Think about it. Since we are the People of the Book, shouldn’t we at least know what’s in the book?
Bring the Harvest Inside
Get masses of greens and fresh flowers and bring them into your house. Encourage your kids to make decorations like shevuos-lekh–colorful paper cut-outs of flowers, animals and bible figures–to tape to the windows.
Prepare a Shavuot Meal
According to folklore, Shavuot is the best holiday. Why? Because on Passover we can’t eat what we want. On Sukkot we can’t eat where we want. On Rosh Hashanah we can eat only after saying lengthy prayers. And on Yom Kippur we can’t eat at all. But on Shavuot we can eat what, where, when and as much as we want! But always dairy. Again, why? Reb Mendele Kotzker explained that we eat milk products on Shavuot because the Jews, when they received the Torah, were like babies who could only drink milk. (Ah, the creative wisdom of the rabbis!)
So whip up a batch of blintzes or cheese kreplach–dumpling. Then spread them with these Shavuot jams–Sephardic and simple.
1. A mixture of 2 T. honey and 2 T. shredded coconut.
2. A mixture of 2 T. honey and 2 T. sesame seed.
3. A mash of 2 T. honey, 3 T. ground almonds, 2 T. ground walnuts plus a dash of cinnamon and cloves.
So there you have some of the hows, whys and wherefores of the observance of Shavuot. For an in-depth history plus wonderful Shavuot stories, games, crafts, songs, and recipes, look into The Family Guide to Shavuot published by the Baltimore Board of Jewish Education; The Shavuot Anthology, by Philip Goodman (Jewish Publication Society) and a manual by Lillian Ross titled Whither Thou Goest.
Now, go and enjoy Shavuot!
This story originally appeared on JewishFamily.com.