Shavu’ot - Celebrating Our Covenant with God
Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, received its name because it occurs seven weeks after the first day of Pesah. Although Shavu’ot always begins on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, it is the only festival whose date is not specified in the Torah. The Torah merely tells us to count seven complete weeks after the first day of Pesah and the next day is the festival we call SHAVU’OT.
The Torah calls Shavu’ot “Hag Habikkurim” or “the holiday of the first ripe fruits” and it reflects the original agricultural connection to the biblical festivals. Shavu’ot celebrated the beginning of the summer harvest, when the wheat crop first ripened and when the earliest summer fruits for which the land of Israel was famous - pomegranates, dates, figs, grapes and olives - were first ready for harvesting. The Mishnah describes the elaborate processions made by the farmers as they brought these first fruits to Jerusalem.
In time, this agricultural dimension of Shavu’ot was subordinated to a different theme, one with both religious and historical qualities. The Torah relates that Israel arrived at Mount Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt, but does not specify the day of the month. But such a hint was sufficient for rabbinic tradition to connect the events at Sinai with Shavu’ot, the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesah. In time, the events at Sinai supplanted the agricultural aspects of Shavu’ot and eventually predominated. Today almost everyone thinks of Shavu’ot as the day when God revealed the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai and almost none, except in Israel, notes any agricultural associations with the holiday.
When the transformation from a predominately agricultural holiday to a holiday celebrating receiving the Torah took place is impossible to determine. This transformation is shrouded in mystery and scholarly debate. But the theme of receiving the Torah at Sinai so predominates the other aspects of Shavu’ot that all the customs of the festival relate to that theme alone.
CELEBRATING SHAVU’OT AT HOME: Shavu’ot begins this year on Saturday night, May 26th. The Festival begins with candle-lighting after 9:26 pm. This late start for lighting the candles is determined by Shabbat, which only ends at 9:26 pm.
The procedure for lighting candles on Shavu’ot is exactly the same as for Shabbat. The blessing over the candles is:
The blessing over the candles is followed by the Shehehe-yanu blessing:
On the second night, we again recite the Shehehe-yanu blessing.
After lighting the candles, we make Kiddush over a cup of wine. There is a special Kiddush for Festivals which is found on page 334 in our Siddur Sim Shalom. The Kiddush is concluded on both nights with the Shehehe-yanu blessing. It is customary to recite the HaMotzee over two loaves of Hallah, because the Torah refers to an offering of two loaves of bread made from the newly harvested wheat. Some people place the loaves side by side, symbolizing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Shavu'ot.
There is a custom of eating triangular shaped latkes or kreplakh on Shavu’ot. Rabbi Irving Greenberg attributes this custom to the witticism that says that three-sided foods remind us that God gave a three-part Torah (Torah, Prophets and Writings) to a three-part people (Kohen, Levi, Israel) through a third born child (Moses who had an older brother, Aaron and an older sister, Miriam) during the third month of the year (Sivan).
The other dominant home custom on Shavu’ot is to eat dairy foods. The favourites among Ashkenazi Jews are cheesecake and blintzes. The explanations for Shavu’ot being a milikh-dik or dairy festival vary. Some connect dairy foods with the idea that the Torah, which was given on Shavu’ot is compared to milk and honey. Still others attribute the connection to the tradition that once the Jews received the Torah, they were required to eat kosher meat. Since kosher meat was not immediately available, the Jews ate dairy foods at Mount Sinai. A third suggestion is that dairy foods are an allusion to the messianic period, when even carnivorous animals will become vegetarians. Whatever the origin of the custom, eating dairy foods on Shavu’ot is clearly the most universal home custom on Shavu’ot.
CELEBRATING SHAVU’OT IN THE SYNAGOGUE: Once the transformation took place that shifted Shavu’ot from a predominantly agricultural festival to one that celebrated Israel’s receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the rituals and traditions that grew up around Shavu’ot began to reflect this shift. The fact that Shavu’ot has no specific Mitzvot or religious commandments that are uniquely part of the observance of Shavu’ot was explained by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch as a sign and a symbol that there should not be one ritual that becomes associated with the celebration of receiving the Torah, since the Torah is all encompassing. Nonetheless, our customs and traditions have focused on Torah study and Revelation as the way to ritually mark Shavu’ot.
On the eve of Shavu’ot, Saturday night, May 26th, after the Ma’ariv service, many synagogues, including our own Shaare Zion, engage in a late night study session called a Tikkun Leyl Shavu’ot. This year we will be joined by both Beth El and Shaare Zedek Congregations. The Tikkun Leyl Shavu’ot is a sixteenth century mystical tradition that proposes that Torah Study, especially in the middle of the night, can repair and fix the imperfections of the world. In fact the word Tikkun literally means "to fix" or "repair". The mystical idea of an all night study programme was predicated on the biblical tradition that Israel, the Jewish people, remained awake all night when God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. Parallel to the all-night study session is the Talmudic ruling that the Torah reading on the first day of Shavu’ot be the Revelation at Mount Sinai and the reading of the Ten Commandments. Similarly, the Haftarah for the first day of Shavu’ot is the first chapter of the prophet, Ezekiel, in which Ezekiel describes God’s throne that appears as a luminous chariot. The chariot or Merkavah as it is called in Hebrew has been the subject of tremendous mystical speculation that has produced an enormous amount of literature. Rabbi Irving Greenberg points out that just as Pesah symbolizes the premier date for Israel’s final physical redemption; so, too, the Haftarah of Shavu'ot also alludes to a messianic age of spiritual redemption in the future.
The only prayer that is unique to Shavu’ot is a long alphabetical poem called Akdamut that describes God’s revelation. The poem is read after the Kohen is called to the Torah on the first day of Shavu’ot.
Some synagogues read The Book of Ruth on Shavu’ot, in part because the setting is in the land of Judah at the beginning of the summer harvest; in part because Ruth, a Moabite woman, chooses to set her destiny with the Jewish people and the God of Israel; partly because Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David. Ruth’s choice of Judaism reminds us of our ongoing obligation to renew our covenantal relation with God. God chose our ancestors at Sinai; we need to choose God daily by observing the terms of the covenant, the Mitzvot. The connection between Ruth and King David further emphasizes the messianic theme of Shavu’ot, by reminding us that the spiritual redemption of our people will be inaugurated by a messianic figure, who according to tradition, will be a descendent of King David and of Ruth.
Finally, in keeping with the sweet traditions of Shavu’ot, the Kiddush on both days of Shavu’ot will feature Ice Cream Sundaes. We invite you to bring your children to services, especially on the first day of Shavu’ot, Sunday May 27th when we will hear testimony from some of the participants in this year’s March of the Living. On Monday, May 28th, in addition to the Yizkor service at 10:45 am, we will also dedicate the Memorial Plaques that have been added to our Memorial boards since last Shavu’ot.