By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
At sundown on Saturday, May 23, Jews around the world will start the two-day holiday (which lasts only one day in Israel) of Shavuot. Also known as the Festival of Weeks because it marks the completion of the counting of the Omer period—which is 49 days long, or seven weeks of seven days—Shavuot is one of the Jewish calendar’s shalosh regalim pilgrimage holidays.
Unlike the other two pilgrimage festivals—Passover, which is marked through the retelling of the Exodus story at the seder, and Sukkot, which is celebrated by building a hut or sukkah outside one’s home—there is no definitive ritual associated with Shavuot in the text of the Torah. As such, many Jews struggle to connect with the holiday, which has yet another name: “Chag HaKatsir,” meaning the Harvest Festival.
But despite its undefined nature, Shavuot “is a gift of a holiday,” says Roberta Miller, a teacher at Chicago Land Jewish Day School in Chicago.
“It’s when we got the Ten Commandments, God’s greatest present to the Jewish people,” she says.
In that spirit, here are seven ways to infuse some meaning and minhag (tradition) into your Shavuot this year:
It is traditional on Shavuot to eat dairy foods. Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, says some believe this is because the scripture compares Torah to “honey and milk… under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah for the first time, they learned the kosher dietary laws and didn’t immediately have time to prepare kosher meat, so they ate dairy instead. Baking and consuming dairy foods can differentiate Shavuot from other holidays, says Miller.
“We all have very strong memories associated with scent. If I smell a honey cake, I think of my grandmother and Rosh Hashanah. The smell of cheesecake generates a connection to Shavuot for my kids,” she tells JNS.org.
Miller also suggests ice cream cake. In her family, Shavuot marks the first ice cream cake of the season, and that knowledge builds anticipation for the holiday. Just as no one in her house is allowed to eat matzah until the seder, she says, no one gets ice cream cake until the first night of Shavuot.
For families with young children, games are a great way to educate youth about the messages of Shavuot. Miller suggests counting games.
“You can count up to 49 of anything: 49 ways Mommy loves you, 49 things you are grateful for,” she says.
For slightly older children, Miller offers a Jewish commandments version of Pictionary®, in which before the holiday children draw their favorite commandment or commandments on a notecard. The cards are mixed up and put into a box or bag. Then, the family gets together, members draw picture cards, and someone acts out each commandment while participants guess which commandment it is and why it is important.
On the second day of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of the first Jew by choice. Frisch explains that it is also a story of welcoming the stranger and inclusivity. Shavuot is the perfect holiday for inviting new friends over for a meal, or for opening one’s home to people who are interested in learning more about Jewish traditions, says Frisch.
- Jewish learning
Taking part in a tikkun leil Shavuot—a night of Jewish learning—is another Shavuot custom. Many traditional Jews stay up all night on the first night of the holiday to study Torah. Today, many non-observant Jews aren’t affiliated with a particular synagogue. As such, Frisch suggests hosting a communal night of learning (not affiliated with any particular religious sect or institution) that can draw in a more diverse mix of Jewish learners.
“Jewish learning is being reclaimed,” Frisch tells JNS.org, adding that it is necessary for that learning to be accessible.
For people who live in smaller communities without a formal Shavuot learning event, Frisch says there are multiple online sources that can be used to organize a grassroots evening of learning at an individual’s home.
“Jewish learning doesn’t have to be Biblical texts. … Torah is more than the Five Books of Moses. It could be liberal values or social justice or just a discussion about Jewish identity or Jewish laws,” Frisch says.
- King David birthday party
Tradition has it that King David, Ruth’s (as in the Book of Ruth) great-grandson, was born and died on Shavuot. Miller suggests holding a King David birthday party—featuring decorations, cake, ice cream, and gifts.
“Use it as a learning tool,” she says, noting how the party can springboard into a historical discussion. “What would you write on a card to [King David]? What do you want to ask him? What would he want for a present? What would he put in the goody bag that he gives to each of us?”
On Shavuot, it is customary to decorate our homes and synagogues with flowers and plants. Ruthie Kaplan, who lives in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem and is a former Hebrew school teacher, tells JNS.org that following this tradition of surrounding ourselves with the lushness of the natural world could “add a lot of beauty to the day.”
Shavuot comes in the late spring or early summer, when the weather is perfect and the flowers are blossoming. Kaplan says that is “the perfect time” to connect with nature and appreciate the beauty of the world that God created for us.
- Setting goals/reflections
Kaplan says that a deeper reading of the Book of Ruth can transform Shavuot from simply another Jewish holiday into an opportunity to set goals and resolutions. Ruth, she says, believed in something (Judaism) and followed through on her belief.
“That story of Ruth excites me and really comes to life on Shavuot,” says Kaplan. “Ruth is open to the truth and therefore she sees it and she is willing to be honest with herself. For anyone searching and struggling, Ruth is a good role model for life.”
What’s Happening on Shavuot
AMHERST – Jewish Community of Amherst Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, Saturday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. with a dairy/pareve potluck desert buffet; Topics of study TBD; services May 24 at 9:30 a.m., 742 Main St., (413) 256-0160 or email@example.com.
AMHERST – Shavuot at Chabad House at Amherst, Evening Services, Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24, 8:30-9 p.m., followed by free community four-course holiday dinners; Sunday and Monday, May 24 and 25: Morning Service 10 a.m.-1 p.m., followed by free community kiddush and lunch; Sunday, May 24, Torah Reading of the Ten Commandments and Ice Cream Party noon, followed by lunch; Monday, May 25, Yizkor memorial service 12:30 p.m.; All night Torah study on Saturday night, May 23, from 11 p.m. till dawn., 30 North Hadley Road, (413) 626-7820.
GREAT BARRINGTON – Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, services on Saturday, May 23rd in celebration of Shavuot and the confirmation of six seniors from its confirmation class; 7:30 p.m., 270 State Road, (413) 528-6378 services will begin at 7:30 p.m. and all are welcome to attend.
HOLYOKE – Congregation Sons of Zion Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Saturday, May 23, 8:15 p.m., Choose a section of the Tanach and tell how the section relates to you or come and listen (Books available for loan or purchase in the synagogue office; Sign up in advance); followed by make-your-own sundaes in social hall, 378 Maple St., (413) 536-5669 or firstname.lastname@example.org
HOLYOKE – Rodphey Sholom services Saturday Night, May 23 after 9:03 p.m., with Tikkun (all night study session) following and dairy supper; Services on Sunday May 24 and Monday, May 25 at 9:15 a.m., with kiddush lunch Monday, guests will include students from Yeshiva University’s Torah Tours, 1800 Northampton St., (413) 534-5262.
LEOMINSTER – Congregation Agudat Achim Shavuot Services, Sunday, May 24 at 9:30 a.m., 268 Washington St., (978) 534-6121.
LONGMEADOW – Community Tikun Leyl Shavuot, May 23 at 9 p.m., refreshments followed by study sessions, bring your own texts, use ours, or study with Rabbi Mark Shapiro (Sinai Temple), Rabbi Amy Katz (Temple Beth El), Dr. Ira Pollack (Congregation B’nai Torah), Rabbi Chaim Kosofsky (Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy), or Rabbi Max Davis (Congregation B’nai Torah) and others, at Congregation B’nai Torah, 2 Eunice Drive, (413) 567-0036 or email@example.com FREE & open to the public
NORTHAMPTON – “God, Science and The Planet: Our Longings and Responsibilites,” Congregation B’nai Israel Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, co-sponsored by Beit Ahavah and Prayground Minyan, Saturday, May 23, 6:30 p.m – late in the evening, with blessings for new babies, brief evening service, panel discussion on Rabbi David Seidenberg’s book, Kabbalah and Ecology, breakout sessions with rabbis, late evening study sessions, and refreshments, 253 Prospect St., (413) 584-3593.
PITTSFIELD – Congregation Knesset Israel Shavuot Saturday morning service, May 24, 9:30 a.m. and Festival Minha/Maariv at 7 p.m.; Monday, May 25, service at 9:30 with Yizkor around 10:45 a.m., 16 Colt Road, (413) 445-4872.
SPRINGFIELD – Forest Park Minyan Tikun Leyl Shavuot – May 23, 10:30 p.m., Torah, friendship, and treats with the theme, “Biblical Personalities,” 124 Sumner Ave., (413) 567-0036 or firstname.lastname@example.org, FREE & open to the public
SPRINGFIELD – Cantabile Concert and educational program with Temple Beth El and Sinai Temple on Saturday, May 23 at 7:30 pm; Celebrate the holiday of Shavuot with our friends from Sinai Temple at a concert and educational program at Temple Beth El, followed by a short service led by the clergy of both synagogues, and concluding with dessert buffet, sponsored by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, at TBE, 979 Dickinson St., (413) 733-4149. FREE & open to the entire community
WESTBOROUGH – Congregation B’nai Shalom Erev Shavuot Service led by the Confirmation Class of 2015, followed by festive Oneg Chag on Saturday, May 23 at 7 p.m., 117 East Main St.; 3rd Annual Congregation B’nai Shalom Shavuot Ice-Cream Meet-up on Sunday, May 24 from 4– 5 p.m. at Uhlman’s Ice Cream Stand, 234 E. Main St., Westborough (rain date May 25).
WILLIAMSTOWN – Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams and Congregation Beth El of Bennington, VT Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, May 23, 8 p.m., at Williams College Jewish Religious Center, short & sweet festival service; followed by learning, noshing, espresso milkshakes, email@example.com
WORCESTER – Congregation Beth Israel Tikun Leil Shavuot on Saturday, May 23, 7 p.m., at home of Rabbi Aviva Fellman, with potluck dairy se’udah Shlishit, followed by communal study, maariv and more study; RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
WORCESTER – Congregation Beth Judah Young Israel of Worcester, Sunday, May 24, First Day of Shavuos, Shacharis at 9:30 a.m., Mincha and Maariv at 7:40 p.m.; Monday, May 25, Second Day of Shavuos, Shacharis, 9:30 a.m., 889 Pleasant St., (508) 791-2800.