By: Rivka C. Berman, Contributor
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Commemorating the revelation at Mt. Sinai inspired many of Shavuot’s customs. Many also tie into the agricultural meaning of the day.
The Scroll of Ruth
Harvest time is the setting of the Ruth’s story – just right for reading at Shavuot which is the Chag Hakatsir, harvest festival.
Eating Dairy Food
Beyond Cheesecake and Blintzes
Ukrainian Jews bake loaves studded with a little ladder shaped from extra dough. The ladders symbolize Moses’ ascent to Sinai. Ladders with five rungs recall the five books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Seven rungs on a bread ladder are symbols of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot.
Some Sephardic Jews bake a seven layered bread called siete cielus, or seven heavens, based on the Midrash that Moses ascended to heaven to learn the Torah.
Greek Jews customarily bake a honey-and-yogurt bread. Throughout the rest of the year, Jewish custom frowns on baking dairy breads because of the potential for being accidentally used with a meat meal.
German Jewish specialties included kauletsch, cheese challah.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
From another perspective, receiving the Torah at Sinai was like a marriage between God and the Jewish people – with Moses as matchmaker and the Torah as the ketubah, marriage certificate. Like an antsy bride, we have trouble falling asleep the night before our wedding. To symbolically prepare ourselves we learn Torah to review the highlights of our sacred relationship.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot programs may be sponsored by your synagogue. Times vary, but the sunset to dawn model is not usually followed. (Popular formats: 7:00 p.m.- 12:00 a.m., 8:30-11:15 p.m., and 8:30-10:00 p.m.)
Study can be structured, in the form of a lecture or a discussion group. Participants can study in chavrutot, pairs, individually or in groups. It’s up to you.
Like the midrashic association of the Mt. Sinai event with a marriage ceremony, Reform rabbis have created a mock wedding ceremony as a closing ceremony for a Shavuot night study session.
In the ceremony, representatives from the community are chosen to stand under a chuppah, marriage canopy with the Torah. A passage is read from the Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9-14) as a statement of recommitment to accept the Torah. "You stand on this day all of you before the Lord… to enter the covenant."
In a brief responsive reading the assembly repeats the words that the Jewish People used to accept the Torah: Naaseh V’nishma, we will do and we will learn. Then a variation of the ketubah is read. (God plays the groom, Jews are the bride, and Moses gets an honorable mention as the shadchan, matchmaker.) Afterward the Ten Commandments are read. Like a marriage ceremony, the Shavuot ceremony ends with a stomp on a glass and a rousing round of Mazal Tov u’Siman Tov! May it be good luck and a good omen!
Guided Imagery for Leil Shavuot
"Think about how the whole world is sleeping while you and your friends and Jewish groups like us in many other cities and lands are studying words of Torah. How rich is our tradition! How fortunate you feel" – from "A Guided Shavuot Imagery"
Mystics add another reason for this practice: G-d responded to Adam and Eve’s partaking of the Tree of Knowledge by dulling all the senses involved in their sin. Only the power of scent was left intact. (Evidence: One whiff of a waxy crayon evokes kindergarten memories; a mothball’s pungency lands you straight into a grandparent’s coat closet.) By giving the Torah, G-d renewed the world and began repairing the breach by tugging on the one sensual thread, scent, that had never been severed.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) is known for weaving kabbalistic mysteries and practical advice into fantastic stories. A fitting occupation for the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the originator of chassidic thought. R’ Nachman advocated hitbodedut, secluded prayer in one’s native language. Before the morning prayers on Shauvot, he was known to run through the green fields surrounding his adopted hometown of Uman, Ukraine. "If we would only merit to hear the voice of each blade of grass singing praise to the Creator, then we would merit to sing a true song to G-d."
Often confirmation is scheduled to coincide with the Shavuot holiday, which commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments. It’s a good time of year for this celebration. First, Shavuot falls out around June – the month of graduation ceremonies. Second, the symbolism of receiving the Torah is highly appropriate for the confirmation because it marks a deeper acceptance of Judaism.
Confirmation is generally takes place between ages 15 to 18.
Ceremonies vary. Confirmands might lead a portion of the Friday night services. They may be asked to write a presentation, such as one on the theme "Where we are. Where we are going." One goal of confirmation is to keep teenagers involved in synagogue life, so they may be given responsibilities/privileges such as handing out the prayer books, changing the page number display during services, or acting as ushers.
Mazor Guide to Shavuot, Pentecost, brings you much more about the holiday, its meaning and its traditions... See the links below.
MazorGuide Recommended Reading
- ArtScroll Edition
The ArtScroll Series presents the comments of the classic giants of ancient and contemporary times in a logical, comprehensible manner, like a master teacher on an exciting voyage of intellectual discovery.
To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life
Mazor Guides: Wealth of Information and Resources
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