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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Shavuot: Cheesecake and the Book of Ruth close the Counting of the Omer

Cheesecake with chocolate ganache and fresh berries on top

Cheesecake is a popular dessert for Shavuot. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MAY 23: The days of counting have ended and the Festival of Weeks has finally arrived: It’s Shavuot, the Jewish festival marking the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Since the second day of Passover, devout Jews have been dutifully counting each day—with the “omer,” a unit of measure—to illustrate the important link between Passover and Shavuot. Duly, it was in the days of the Temple that Shavuot also celebrated the wheat harvest, when pilgrims would travel from far and wide to ceremoniously present the Bikkurim (first fruits) and new wheat crop in Jerusalem.

Note: Shavuot is celebrated for one day in Israel, and for two days in the Diaspora.

Our coverage of this holiday, which is little known outside the Jewish community, involves three of our writers, this week …

First, since Shavuot’s most memorable custom in Jewish homes involves food—Bobbie Lewis devotes her FeedTheSpirit column to the holiday (and includes a delicious recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese).

Second, before regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton provides some of her timely links to share with friends—we’ve asked the Jewish scholar and publisher Joe Lewis (Bobbie’s husband) to provide his perspective on Shavuot:

“There’s an old story about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, the mystical pietistic strain of Judaism. When the Jewish community were threatened, he would go to a secret place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer—and the danger would pass. His disciples passed on what they could, but as generations came and went they could no longer find the secret place, light the special fire or remember the words of the prayer. Only the story remained, but even that was powerful enough to save the people.

Shavuot was once a harvest holiday, but in their tragic history the Jewish people were expelled from their farmland, and their agricultural holidays lost their immediate meaning. The Torah instructs us to count each day from Passover, the spring festival, to Shavuot, the early harvest. A farmer could watch seeds sprout and grow, thankful for each day of favorable weather and anxious for the next. Such meaning is a memory hard to recapture.

The meaning of many Shavuot customs has faded. Why do we mourn in the period of counting, mark Shavuot as the anniversary of the Revelation at Sinai, eat dairy foods or read the story of Ruth? We offer explanations, but they are not conclusive. The gesture remains but its meaning escapes us; we live in loss. Still, as we seek to recapture the ancient significance, we instill our customs with fresh relevance, even if we can only tell the elusive story of the vibrant past.”

SHAVUOT AT HOME

Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton adds …

Modern observance of Shavuot includes the decoration of homes and synagogues with festive greenery. Tradition says that this floral décor stems from long-repeated accounts that Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit.

Row of cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce drizzled over all

Cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce. Photo by Eliza Adam, courtesy of Flickr

Several explanations are offered regarding the consumption of dairy on Shavuot—among them that King Solomon referred to the Torah as “like honey and milk”—and cheese blintzes, cheesecakes, milk and more are commonplace on the Shavuot table. (Wikipedia has details.)

According to other traditional stories, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites went to bed early and then overslept; to mend this act, many Jews stay up all night on Shavuot to study the Torah. In Jerusalem, it has been custom since 1967 to gather at the Western Wall before dawn and join the sunrise minyan that follows the all-night Torah study.

Seven ways to start family traditions for Shavuot are shared in this article by JWeekly, but by way of cuisine, several sources dish up cheesecakes and blintzes for every taste:

  • Sweet and savory recipes—including an indulgent Rugelach Bread Pudding Cheesecake—are at My Jewish Learning.
  • Going light on dairy? Incorporate dairy with an accent of cheese instead of the whole block, with these recipe ideas from JewishVoiceNY.
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