Shavuot: Jewish festival honors revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai

Crowds gather at the Western Wall at sunrise

Jews gather at the Western Wall at sunrise. It is traditional to stay awake all night in Torah study for Shavuot, and in Jerusalem, this all-night study is followed by gathering at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, JUNE 8: Greenery and flowers adorn synagogues tonight, mimicking the top of Mount Sinai, as Jews wrap up a seven-week period of anticipation known as the Counting of the Omer. The Counting of the Omer ends and gives way to Shavuot, the celebration of the day G_d gave the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. Due to the counting of seven weeks leading up to Shavuot, this holiday is also known as the Festival of Weeks.

FREEDOM: FROM PHYSICAL TO SPIRITUAL

The ancient festival prompts many stories and interpretations. One of them emphasizes this: The movement from the Counting of the Omer to Shavuot connects the physical freedom in the Exodus with the spiritual freedom of the presentation of the Torah. During Passover, which was weeks ago, Jews acknowledged the physical freedom given to the ancient Israelites through the Exodus; more specifically, this physical freedom was acknowledged on the second day of Passover, when the Counting of the Omer began. Each night since, observant Jews have remembered the current count of days until they reach day 49. Today—day 50—Jews recognize the official presentation of the Torah. This, the 50th day, is also sometimes called Pentecost, although the Jewish religious associations with the holiday are different than the Christian Pentecost.

Did you know? Shavuot is one of the Jewish observances that differs, depending on location. In Israel, it’s one day; in the rest of the world, it’s two days.

Loaves of brown bread, crusty

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

OMER, GRAINS AND FIRST FRUITS

Ancient Israelites marked the spring grain harvest for seven weeks. (“Omer” is an ancient unit of measure.)

When that first harvest ended at Shavuot, farmers would bring an offering of two loaves of bread to the Temple of Jerusalem. In the same manner, the first fruits of Israel (Bikkurim) were brought to the Temple on Shavuot. In a grand display, farmers would fill baskets woven of gold and silver with the Seven Species—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates—and load the glittering baskets onto oxen whose horns were laced with flowers. These oxen and farmers would travel to Jerusalem, marching through towns and met by music, parades and other festivities.

To this day, many Jewish families display baskets of “First Fruits,” including foods of wheat, barley, grapes, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

SHAVUOT: DAIRY, RUTH & ALL-NIGHT TORAH STUDY

Among the many customs associated with Shavuot are the consumption of dairy products and the reading of the Book of Ruth, along with, for many observant Jews, an all-night Torah study. Several explanations exist for these traditions. One is that Jews recall the night the Torah was given and how the ancient Israelites overslept; although Moses had to awaken the ancient Israelites, Jews today remain awake throughout the night, all the while giving thanks for the Torah. In Jerusalem, the all-night Torah study ends with the procession of tens of thousands to the Western Wall at dawn.

Work is not permitted during the entirety of Shavuot.

Looking for dairy recipes to prepare for the holiday? This Jewish blog offers Kale and Mushroom Quinoa ‘Mac and Cheese,’ and Haaretz suggests Yam, Goat Cheese and Rosemary Quiche.

For more holiday inspiration, enjoy …

Author Debra Darvick offers her introduction to Shavuot from her popular collection of real-life stories: This Jewish Life.

 

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Passover: Jewish families worldwide gather for the Seder and a joyous festival

Note: The morning of April 19 in 2019 begins the Fast of the Firstborn, in which observant firstborn sons fast to commemorate the salvation of firstborns in ancient Egypt.

Table set with food items, fancy and plates

A table set for the Passover Seder. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 19: The intensive search for chametz is over, and tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passover—the most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. After weeks of painstakingly ridding their homes of chametzany grain product associated with fermentation—Jews join family and friends for a Passover Seder (ritual meal). It’s the 15th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and tonight, the seven- or eight-day festival of Passover begins, commemorating the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. (Jews in Israel observe Passover for seven days, and Jews of the Diaspora observe eight.)

Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the Seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn, for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom. The Passover Seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the Seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through a recitation of the Haggadah.

Did you know? In Jewish families, young and old get involved in cleaning out the chametz as a way of remembering this key part of the Exodus: As the Israelites left Egypt, they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a common element on Seder tables.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. The omer, a unit of measure, is used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

MATZO: THE 18-MINUTE CHALLENGE

Bowl of matzo soup on wood table

Matzo ball soup, common fare for Passover. Photo by Amy Ross, courtesy of Flickr

Baking matzo is no easy feat: only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

Many Jewish families switch to different dishes, eating utensils and cooking equipment to avoid any contact with traces of foods containing chametz. Chametz is defined as anything involving biological leavening, which includes simply wetting grains and letting them stand for more than 18 minutes. Five grains, in particular, are identified: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats.

THE SEDER

The Seder includes many steps and lasts for hours. (Stressing over the pressure of hosting a Seder? Take some advice from a cookbook veteran in this article from the Washington Post. Or, try a Passover app.) All adults present at the Seder are required to drink a total of four cups of wine during the Passover Seder, and further, the Mishnah commands that even the poorest man in Israel has an obligation to drink. Interspersed throughout prayer and stories are the breaking of matzah (unleavened) bread; the washing of the hands; the eating of the symbolic elements on the Seder plate; and, of course, the eating of the holiday meal itself. The whole evening ends with a joint exclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

For the next seven days—or eight, in the Diaspora—Jews will partake of no chametz at any meal. Jews commonly enjoy foods such as potato starch cakes, Gelfite fish, chicken soup with matzah balls and generous amounts of egg.

SEDERS, THE LAST SUPPER—AND A COMMON LINK

Christians teach that Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem was to observe Passover, forever linking the two sacred seasons. Yet while biblical scholars disagree on whether Jesus’s Last Supper was an actual Seder, “Christianized” Seders are widespread at this time of year—and the practice appears to be growing among evangelicals. Sometimes called “baptized” or “Messianic” seders, the traditional Jewish ritual is changed to turn the meal into a remembrance of Jesus’s Last Supper.

This practice has always been controversial in interfaith settings, though, and Jewish leaders note that the practice distorts their traditions. That’s why the world’s largest Christian church, the Catholic church, forbids its parishes to Christianize the Seder. Instead, Catholic leaders encourage their billion-plus followers to visit authentic Seders—or to invite a rabbi to lead a model Seder to demonstrate the ritual for Christians. Catholic bishops say that “the primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of restaging the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided.” Many Jewish leaders welcome this approach to sharing their traditional meal.

Invited to a Jewish Passover Seder? The proper greeting is “Happy Passover” or “Happy holiday,” which in Hebrew is “Chag samayach” (hahg sah-MAY-ahk). A Seder plate will be located on most Seder tables, on which are symbols of various aspects of the Passover story. A Haggadah (hah-GAH-dah), a text in Hebrew and English that tells the Passover story and its meaning for each generation, is read during the meal. There are hundreds of different versions of the Haggadah, with many focusing on different elements of the holiday or interpreting it from a particular perspective, such as feminism or ecology. Learn more at ReadTheSpirit’s helpful resource, Ask an expert what to do at a Passover Seder.

Looking for interactive resources, stories, recipes and hosting ideas for Passover? Check out ReadTheSpirit’s own Feed The Spirit column for a recipe for homemade matzoh balls, or visit Chabad.org, the Jewish Virtual Library, Aish.com and Wikipedia.

Care to read more?

Over the past decade our online magazine has published more than 100 Passover-themed stories, and we can heartily recommend some of our most popular holiday reading:

Debra Darvick shares Passover reflections from her popular book, This Jewish Life.

Our Feed The Spirit columns, over the years, have published delicious Passover stories—and some tasty recipes. Here’s a story that includes a vegetable Kugel you can make at home. And here’s a column with a great recipe for potato gnocchi, because that preparation can be made kosher for Passover.

Fanny Neuda’s Passover prayer was written more than 150 years ago and was recovered by poet Dinah Berland—and Dinah gave us her permission to publish that prayer 10 years ago! Since we first published that text, thousands of readers around the world have read that prayer in our pages.

Rabbi Bob Alper also is famous coast to coast as the rabbi who does clean standup routines—and often has appeared on stage with comedians who are Christian and Muslim to promote interfaith understanding. Bob has written many stories and two books for us over the past decade. Here’s one of our most popular Bob Alper columns about the stories he tells in Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.

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Passover: Share matzo, embrace Jewish history & partake in the venerated seder

Passover setting, embroidered cloth

From Nina Paley, courtesy of Vimeo

SUNSET MONDAY, APRIL 10: The traditional search of homes for chametz is officially over, and tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passoverthe most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. After weeks of painstakingly ridding their homes of chametz—any grain product associated with fermentation—families sit back and relax as they join with relatives and friends for a Passover seder (ritual meal).

Tonight begins the seven- or eight-day festival (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight), as Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. This ancient story of freedom defines Judaism to this day. Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn; for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom.

Interested in viewing the photo at the top of this page as an animation? Check out the link, here.

CHAMETZ: THE LINK TO PASSOVER

Bowl of soup with matzo balls, vegetables

A bowl of matzo soup. Photo by Amy Ross, courtesy of Flickr

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products? In Jewish families, young and old get involved in cleaning out the chametz as a way of remembering this key part of the Exodus: As the Israelites left Egypt, they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. In the wilderness, the Bible says, God provided sustenance. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

Which 2017 household products do not require Passover certification? The Jewish Press offers a free downloadable guide to Passover-safe products, kitchen guidelines and more.

Matzo is made from flour and water that is mixed and baked in 18 minutes. As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN—TO SEDER

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere. Attending a Passover seder is a universal expression of Judaism.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.

 

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Passover: Jews gather ’round the seder table, share stories and history

Passover table set with candles, plates, glasses

A table set for Passover. Photo by April Killingsworth, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 22: Jewish families around the globe sit down to seder tables and remember the ancient, biblical story of freedom as Passover begins.

Recalling the liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus, Passover is so named because of the 10th plague of ancient Egypt, which was, quite literally, a Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children, but passed over the homes with Jewish children.) The Seder meal, undertaken after sunset, may also be attended by non-Jews or friends of Jews. The meal is replete with centuries-old rituals, stories, readings, songs and lively discussions. The Passover period of 2016 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 30.

Want fresh Passover recipes and more? Check out Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column, which features a mouthwatering take on charoset (plus a timely explanation of Passover’s annual date on the calendar).

Think Passover isn’t rooted in real food? Think again! A second FeedTheSpirit column features a guest columnist who grew up as a Jew on a sheep farm—and offers a real-food perspective that seamlessly links traditional perspectives with today’s most relevant issues.

Invited to a seder and not sure what to do? Learn about all of the Jewish holidays, what a seder looks like and so much more with Michigan State University’s recent release, 100 Questions & Answers about American Jews.

PASSOVER: CHAMETZ, ISRAEL AND THE SEDER

In the weeks and months before Passover, Jewish families meticulously clear their homes of any type of leavened grain, known as chametz. The removal of the final chametz can even be made into a fun ritual game, for which children often get involved. For the Passover meal, many Jews may cook with a separate set of cooking utensils and host dinners with a “clean” set of dishes—that is, items that are put aside especially for Passover and have never come into contact with chametz. Any leavened grains in the home may be temporarily sold to non-Jewish friends or neighbors.

Close-up matzah cracker, broken

A matzah cracker. Photo by Avital Pinnick, courtesy of Flickr

According to tradition, the Jewish people left ancient Egypt to follow Moses once they had been freed. They left in such a hurry, however, that the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—and, thus, Passover breads are unleavened. Called matzah, the unleavened bread is consumed throughout Passover. In Israel today, Passover lasts seven days; outside of Israel, Passover is eight days.

Passover seders—typically, the most attended events of the Jewish year—last several hours or more. Table settings, foods served and even the ceremonial prayers used are precise and carefully selected. During the seder, the story of Exodus is commemorated through readings from the Haggadah. Multiple food courses are served during the meal, and children enjoy many of the songs and activities.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day, the omer—a unit of measure—begins being used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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Passover: Jews commemorate the Exodus with seders, matzo & prayers

Silver pewter cup with matzo crackers on white cloth with blue letters in Hebrew

A cup of wine and matzo for Passover. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 3—Jewish families around the world begin one of the most important holiday periods of the year, recalling the ancient liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus. After having forced the ancient Israelites into slavery for many years, the Pharaoh of Egypt refused to obey God, and the consequential 10th plague was, quite literally, the occasion of the famous Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children with the exception of the children in Jewish families, whose homes were passed over.)

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere. Attending a Passover seder is one of the most universal expressions of Judaism. The Passover period of 2015 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 11.

Want more on Passover food traditions? You’ll enjoy Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column—with a recipe, of course. In a second FeedTheSpirit column, Bobbie describes the fascinating custom of scouring the house to remove every scrap of “chametz” before Passover—and she adds another recipe (and this one is gluten free)!

This year, holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton and Jewish scholar and author Joe Lewis are collaborating on our coverage. Next, here is …

JOE LEWIS ON PASSOVER

Passover is about skipping: “When I see the blood, I will skip over you” (Ex. 12:13). The Hebrew root for the word “skip” is P-S-Ch. It’s used for a limp (Lev. 21:18 and 2 Samuel 4:4), for wavering between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21) and for hip-hop dancing of a pagan sort (1 Kings 18:26; Robert Graves suggests that bird-like strutting was a feature of ancient ritual dance). But as any dancer knows, you have to know what to skip and what to stress.

So don’t skip on the preparations: a zealous spring cleaning to clear leaven from the house, and careful transfer of ownership of remaining leaven to someone who’s not Jewish.

Don’t skip the food: you give up pasta, flour, bread and edible breakfast cereal, but there are lots of ways to prepare matza (or matzah) from matza balls to matza bagels. There must be at least a hundred varieties of matza kugel, and if you only serve 99 at your seder, what’s wrong with you?

Plate with six compartments for egg, lettuce, bones, red sauce and pate

The Seder Plate contains symbolic items at the Passover seder table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Don’t skip through the Hagadah (some people spell it with two gs or one h): although we’ve been reading the same book for centuries so some of us have it memorized; and although our true obligation is to discuss what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be free, rather than to read our service by rote; and although everybody is hungry before the Seder meal and a little tired and tipsy after it; and although it’s late and the kids will be unmanageable the next day; someone is sure to say—with good reason—“We mustn’t skip this next part.”

Don’t skip services. Every day of Passover is a special day in the synagogue, with extra sections added to the daily morning service, so you wouldn’t want to miss it.

But don’t go overboard! What happens if a little rodent should bring some leaven into the house, our sages asked in the Mishnah, the ancient compilation of Jewish tradition (Pesachim 1:2). Ah, they answer, if you worry about these possibilities that are beyond your control, there’s no end to it.

To Passover there is an end: after nightfall on the eighth day, the festival is over and we resume our usual diet.

STEPHANIE FENTON ON PASSOVER

Our long-time holidays columnist reports on the many ways men, women and children experience these festivals and milestones. This year, she spotted these news items and resources:

A Supreme Court justice recently penned a feminist reading of the Passover story, released by the American Jewish World Service and presented as something that could be used during the Passover seder. (Washington Post reported.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of three women currently sitting on the United States Supreme Court, has more recently become known as the Notorious RBG—though her focus on gender equality is anything but new. The short essay, entitled “The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover,” highlights five imperative women of the Exodus story, including Moses’ mother, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ sister.

Cook up memories with Australian Jewish Holocaust survivors, as is detailed in this recent story by ABC. After learning the heroic stories of three brave survivors, cook up the recipes—they’re included in the story. Passover cakes and more, along with videos of the inter-generational families, add depth of connection to Passover and the seder.

Looking for interactive resources, stories, recipes and hosting ideas for Passover? Check out Chabad.org, the Jewish Virtual Library, Aish.com, My Jewish Learning and Wikipedia.

PASSOVER AT A GLANCE

Following Moses, the Jewish people left Egypt so quickly that, tradition says, the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—so Passover breads are unleavened.

Prior to the start of Passover, all chametz (leavened grain) is removed from the house. The removal of chametz can be an intensive and precise ritual—and it’s a lot of fun if parents involve young children in the final hunt for chametz. Matzah (unleavened bread) is eaten at the Passover seder and throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through a recitation of the Haggadah.

Passover lasts for seven days in Israel, and eight days outside of Israel. During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. The omer, a unit of measure, is used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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