Note that the material here can also be used in tandem with what is provided in our other sections re: discussions, lessons, activities.
- Dairy and Vegetarianism: It is customary to eat dairy on Shavuot. One reason given is the description of Torah as akin to milk and honey. Another is that in immediate celebration after receiving the law, there was no time to kasherpots according to the new precepts. Another perspective is symbolically getting as close as possible to a purer state, akin to olam haba / a next and better world, while celebrating this gift of Torah and a raised level of being.
Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook himself (first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine) felt that the complexity of laws regarding kashrut generally and slaughter for meat were both actually meant to discourage its consumption. In regarding vegetarianism as a higher ideal to aim for, he pointed out that Adam and Eve did not eat meat and that in the account of creation we were informed that plants were provided to serve our food needs (Genesis 1:29). He was far from alone in his opinion of such an ethical ideal, the subject going way back to discussions by scholars even in medieval times.
- When? : Shavuot is celebrated on the 6th day of Sivan which this year starts the evening of the 14th of May. It is one day long in Israel, thus continuing through the 15th. It lasts two days outside of Israel, so concludes the evening of the 16th.
- Isru Chag / אסרו חג – This is a mini-festival for liturgical purposes, which follows a pilgrimage festival, in effect to sort of stretch the holiday a little. The basis for this is “Hold on to the festival, even as it departs” (Psalms 118:27). The term isru chag literally means “bind a festival”.
- Tikkun Leyl Shavuot / תיקון ליל שבועות refers to a ‘preparation’ night for Shavuot. This is a custom of gathering together to spend the entire night studying and discussing Torah. Traditionally, in an effort to symbolically cover ‘everything’, one would include a small part from each book of the Tanach / Bible and from each section of the Talmud. (For those celebrating two days, some would have stamina for a second night and devote this to reading Tehilim/ Psalms). Less traditionally, with some advance deciding and preparation, whoever is gathering may choose what will be studied and/or discussed together that night, be it some portion of Torah etc., or some particular theme emphasis, etc.
- Aseret Hadibrot / עשרת הדברות / the Ten Commandments appear in Exodus 20:2-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. According to tradition, these were given to Moshe that day to serve as the first outline and basis for the rest of Torah legislation and all laws in Judaism.
Not everyone is aware that there are actually different ways to separate these commandments depending upon one’s particular religious faith. In the Jewish version, dividing and numbering basically go like this – 1) I am the Lord Your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt. 2) Worship no other gods / no idolatry. 3) Do not take the name of G-d in vain. 4) Remember and keep the Shabbat. 5) Honor your parents. 6) Do not murder. 7) Do not commit adultery. 8) Do not steal. 9) Do not bear false witness. 10) Do not covet.
Note that there are basically two or three subdivisions in concepts and directives here. The first four commandments concern identity of and relationship with G-d. The last six concern how we deal with people. The fourth and fifth commandments also can be said to reflect an overlap or link between those two other subdivisions, falling more in the intimate realm of home and family.
- The Torah portion read at the service (Exodus 19 and 20) recounts the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.
Among some communities and congregations, the Torah would customarily be passed on this occasion from person to person.
- Shavuot is never mentioned in the Torah itself specifically as the time that we received that Torah. It is referred to in this sense for the first time actually in the Talmud. The basis given by the rabbis was where the Torah states that on the third new moon after the Israelites left Egypt (e.g. 1st of Sivan) they entered the Sinai wilderness (Exodus19:1). So identifying the chag additionally with Zman Matan Toratenu could be a reasonable supposition. It would also make sense to add to an already existing older festival that fell around that time.
- Megilat Rut / מגילת רות – The Book of Ruth is especially suited to being read on Shavuot, typically as prelude to the afternoon service (on the first day when celebrating two). For more, please see “Let’s Talk About It”.
- Akdamut / אקדמות is a ninety verse long liturgical poem that is read before the Torah portion on Shavuot. Meaning “introduction” in Aramaic, it was composed in the 11th century supposedly by the French rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nahorai. It has three basic parts- the 1st extols G-d, the 2nd discusses a persecuted but stubborn Israel that refuses to give up its faith, and the 3rd describes a future with the arrival of the hoped-for messiah. Akdamut was an Ashkenazi addition. Some Sephardim instead recite the Azharot / אזהרות (“exhortations”) – a liturgical poem form of the 613 mitzvot / commandments.
- Confirmation was conceived of originally by the Reform movement in the late 19th century to serve as a replacement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, since it was felt that an older age was more suited to a rite of passage of taking on more adult responsibilities. While the Bar Mitzvah milestone did not fade out as expected, this confirmation addition did take hold nonetheless and spread eventually into many Conservative congregations as well.
The connection to Shavuot thematically works especially well (not only in terms of the school calendar), as this was when we as a people reconfirmed and expanded our covenant with G-d.
At the younger end of the student spectrum, children at the age of 3-5 were often brought for the first time into their yeshiva on Shavuot. They would be given sweet things to eat like honey and cake to symbolize that Torah study was a sweet and positive pursuit.
- There is a custom among some of baking a special challah with a ladder-shaped braid on top. This is because the Hebrew letters that make up sulam(ladder) and Sinai result in the same numerical sum, and both would also be associated with ascending, akin to spiritual gain in accepting Torah.
- Some eat three-sided kreplach / dumplings on this occasion. It’s attributed to such reasons as three kinds of Jews – Israelites, Levites and Kohanim, three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), three components to TaNaCh (the Hebrew Bible), etc.
- Chag HaBikurim / חג הבכורים / Festival of the First Fruits – Besides bringing a barley offering at Passover, we were actually directed to take first fruits from any land we might own to the Temple through the period extending from Shavuot to Sukkot (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). By first fruits, the Torah means the seven species. These would be barley, wheat, vines, pomegranates, figs, dates and olive oil (Deuteronomy 8:8).
- It is a custom to decorate one’s home and synagogue with greenery and flowers, especially fragrant ones. Many also wear white (or at least a white shirt). Younger children in Israel often create and wear a zer prachim (flower wreath for one’s head).
Besides the seasonal aspects, this time is also thought of as the judgment day of trees according to the Talmud.
On kibbutzim, emphasis on nature and agricultural elements were brought back more, and thus sometimes include agricultural processions, dance and music presentations.