grain_400x300Shavuot is one of the major festivals in the Jewish calendar. It is one of three “pilgrimage festivals” defined in Biblical times as days on which Israelites from throughout the Land of Israel were required to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to bring offerings from their harvest. The other two pilgrimage festivals are Sukkot and Pesach.

All of these holidays have both agricultural as well as historical/religious significance. Shavuot marks the grain harvest of the early summer and the holiday is also known as z’man matan torateinu, the celebration of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

There are many ways in which Pesach and Shavuot are linked. Conceptually our tradition teaches that freedom (Pesach) by itself is incomplete and lacks significance; only when the road leads to Sinai (Torah) can the real meaning of redemption from Egypt be understood.

Freedom allows Torah—the creation of a covenantal community with the goal of the establishment of a just society. Pesach and Shavuot are also connected by the period of the counting of the Omer. The Omer was a harvest-offering brought to the Temple on Pesach. The Torah indicates that after seven weeks of counting a holiday is to be observed on the 50th day; Shavuot.

It is quite remarkable that in the present day we can observe the renewal of the agricultural component of the Shavuot celebration. In Israel today primarily on kibbutzim Shavuot is observed by recreating part of the ancient Shavuot pilgrimage. This included a procession of people carrying baskets filled with the various offerings to be brought to the Temple. Many kibbutzim replicate this process with children carrying baskets filled with the agricultural bounty of the land.

These celebrations suggest both the historical experience of the past and represent the effort in our own times to engage in rituals and observances that are particularly meaningful in the modern context. The modern State of Israel has achieved tremendous success in the agricultural sector and this is a source of great pride in the country. Shavuot becomes an opportunity to connect with the past and to celebrate and embrace the realities and accomplishments of the present.

In the absence of the agricultural context in the primarily urban centers in which we live, we may wonder how to make a meaningful connection between the agricultural and historical/spiritual aspects of Shavuot. The great scholar and teacher of the last century,

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that paying attention to the natural world can lead us to a greater understanding of the spiritual aspects of our tradition. He writes:

Only in moments when we are able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world are we able to understand what happened…at Sinai. Revelation means that the thick silence which fills the endless distance between God and the human mind was pierced and man was told that God is concerned with the affairs of man; that not only does man need God, God is, also in need of man…A.J. Heschel, God In Search of Man

Heschel reminds us how important is our sense of appreciation and our recognition of the daily wonder around us. If our minds and hearts are open to these experiences on a regular basis, only then can we attempt to reach for the understanding of an event so immense as revelation. At the same time we acknowledge the importance of ongoing learning to ensure that we continue to receive Torah in a meaningful way.

Chag Sameach!

Shavuot Customs and Observances

Staying up all night to learn Torah
on the first night of Shavuot
Spreading greens and flowers in
the synagogue on Shavuot
Eating dairy foods on Shavuot
There are several explanations given for learning throughout the night on Shavuot (referred to as tikkun lel Shavuot). One reason is simply that studying Torah is an appropriate way to celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. Additionally, there is a notion that in anticipation of recounting the events at Sinai the morning following the tikkun, we would not be able to sleep anyway as we contemplate the experience of Revelation.
There exists a beautiful custom of decorating the synagogue and homes on Shavuot with flowers and greens, recalling the beautiful vegetation we are told civered Mt. Sinai. In addition this custom acknowledges the agricultural roots of the festival as well.
The custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuot has several explanations as well. Some trace the origins of the custom to Biblical verses, including Exodus 3:8 which refers to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Another common explanation suggests that after the Israelites were given the Torah at Sinai, they became aware of Jewish dietary laws. Rather than consume meat that had previously been prepared, but not in accordance with these laws, the people ate only dairy foods after the Revelation.
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Want to chat about Jewish hoidays or Jewish life? Debbie Goodman would love to answer your questions either via email or by phone at 303.316.6317.
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