Dear TEE community,
I have a theory that many American Jews don’t know about or observe Shavuot because the Religious School year always ended before the holiday. In Reform congregations, it was often the occasion for the 10th grade Confirmation ceremony but since that was essentially graduation it still didn’t teach us about Shavuot. There are a couple of other reasons why Shavuot might not be anyone’s favorite Jewish holiday. Unlike Sukkot and Passover, there isn’t an engaging practice like the sukkah or seder. In contrast to those festivals as well, it is only one (or two) days long which doesn’t leave a lot of time to celebrate. Shavuot also tends to fall at the end of the secular school year when families are busy with other events.
But Shavuot deserves more attention. After all, it commemorates the gift of the Torah, the formational text of our tradition. It offers an opportunity to reflect on our commitment to Jewish teachings and the role they play in our lives. The rabbis considered the study of Torah equal to all the other mitzvot because it informs every aspect of our lives. As we discover in our weekly Shabbat Torah study sessions, the questions raised in the text remain central today. Like our ancestors, we also seek to live full and meaningful lives and understand our imperfections. We, too, are concerned with the use of power, changes in society, how to care for others, and what constitutes justice. The fact that we continue to find inspiration in these ancient words is itself worth celebrating.
While not as elaborate as other festivals, Shavuot does have some lovely traditions associated with it. Perhaps the most well-known is the custom of eating dairy foods. There are numerous folk explanations for this but I can imagine the fact that it’s birthing season had a lot to do with it. Ashkenazi Jews enjoy blintzes and cheesecake while Sephardi treats for the festival include cheese bourekas and soutlach.
Less well known is the custom of decorating one’s house and the synagogue with flowers and greenery, based on the legend that Mt. Sinai burst into flower when the Torah was revealed. Fragrance plays an important part in the holiday, so sweet smelling plants were included and a special blessing for them said in the synagogue. According to the Mishnah, Shavuot is the day on which God decides the productivity of trees during the coming year. For that reason, there was a practice of bringing trees into the home and synagogue to pray for them. Because the covenant between God and Israel is sometimes seen as a marriage, flower-decorated chuppot (canopies) are erected on the bimah of some synagogues.
One Shavuot tradition which is growing in popularity is the tikkun leil Shavuot (“Erev Shavuot preparation”), the practice of staying up all night to study. The custom began among the Jewish mystics of Safed. Scholars have documented how its practice increased with the spread of coffee into Europe in the 17th century. Today there are study sessions in many, if not most, synagogues and, thanks to the pandemic, numerous options for participating online.
Many of these aspects of the holiday will be included in our Shavuot celebrations on Sunday, May 16. For full details about our outdoor, in-person morning celebration and about our evening services, click HERE. For my grandmother’s cheesecake recipe, click HERE. I hope you will join us!
kol tuv / with good wishes,
Rabbi Drorah Setel