6 Sivan 5777 / May 30-31, 2017
Shavuot is a Hebrew word meaning "weeks" and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot, like so many other Jewish holidays began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. Shavuot was distinguished in ancient times by bringing crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Shavuot, also known as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, dates from biblical times, and helps to explain the holiday's name, "Weeks." The Torah tells us it took precisely forty-nine days for our ancestors to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai (the same number of days as the Counting of the Omer) where they were to receive the Torah. Thus, Leviticus 23:21 commands: "And you shall proclaim that day (the fiftieth day) to be a holy convocation!" The name Shavuot, "Weeks," then symbolizes the completion of a seven-week journey.
Special customs on Shavuot are the reading of the Book of Ruth, which reminds us that we too can find a continual source of blessing in our tradition. Another tradition includes staying up all night to study Torah and Mishnah, a custom called Tikkun Layl Shavuot, which symbolizes our commitment to the Torah, and that we are always ready and awake to receive the Torah. Traditionally, dairy dishes are served on this holiday to symbolize the sweetness of the Torah, as well as the "land of milk and honey".
Bring Shavuot Home With You!
Shavuot celebrates both the grain harvest, and the day that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It also marks the conclusion of the counting of the Omer. For our ancestors, Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals. They would gather their first fruits and march to Jerusalem in a grand procession. Baskets were woven with gold and silver, oxen were gilded and festooned with garlands, and there was much singing and dancing and festivity. Think of how much fun it would be to actually do this lovely procession with your family and your neighbors.
But alas, we live in New York City, and we aren’t going to march to Jerusalem with decorated oxen. What can we do instead that will make this holiday come alive for us?
There are no actual requirements regarding this festival. You don’t have to do anything. But don’t let that fool you. If you do nothing, you are letting this lovely festival slip through your fingers.
No requirements mean you can be free with what you choose to do. Choose to do something that is meaningful and joyful for you.
Tradition dictates that people do a number of things on Shavuot:
The reading of a liturgical poem
A dairy meal
The Book of Ruth
Decorating with greenery
All-night Torah study
The Festival Committee has examined these customs and we have expanded on them. If you want to read a liturgical poem with your family, by all means do so. A dairy meal is easy and fun. It usually consists of blintzes and cheesecake, which everyone likes. The Book of Ruth has many scenes that describe the grain harvest, and it’s also about Ruth, a Moabite, becoming a member of the Jewish people, which means embracing the Torah. The truth is that no one knows on what day the Torah was given, but it was decided to add that aspect to Shavuot as Jewish life transitioned from agrarian to urban.
What else can New Yorkers do that would make this holiday come to life?
- You can camp out, just as our forebears did at Mt. Sinai. Drive somewhere where you can camp, climb a mountain, and camp out. That more than anything might bring the ancient spirit of the giving of the Torah to life.
- If you want to stay home, bake some bread in honor of the grain harvest.
- Get yourself out to the country and visit an orchard or gather early wildflowers.
- Give out Ruth Awards. Ruth was known for her kindness. Create an award for acts of kindness in your home.
- Have that dairy meal, but make it a pizza and an ice cream social.
- Torah study is always stimulating, but if you want a modern spin on that, try a movie night. Get a bunch of Jewish-themed movies such as Hester Street or Crossing Delancey, and there are scores of Israeli movies you can get as well. A movie night with pizza and ice cream can only be fun and it could start an annual tradition. Remember to keep a Jewish theme and include some discussion.
For activities to do with children, check out the following web sites that have easy crafts projects: