Beth El's Guide to Shavuot

Beth El's Guide to Shavuot

May 15, 2018

Shavuot (weeks in Hebrew) is one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals, which celebrates the beginning of the wheat harvest and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. The commandment for the Shavuot festival comes from the Book of Exodus Chapter 34:22 “And you shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of the wheat harvest and a festival of gathering at the turn of the year.”

YOM TOV FESTIVAL DAYS

Since the second day of Passover, we have been literally counting the days until Shavuot. Since we live in the diaspora, we celebrate two Yom Tov days on Shavuot (as we do with all festivals). This year, the Yom Tov days fall on Sunday, May 20th, and Monday, May 21st.

Day 1: Sunday, May 20th - To celebrate the Shavuot festival, we recite the Hallel service, the Psalms of Praise and celebration. We will also chant a special piyyut (a medieval liturgical poem) called Akdamut, a unique ritual observed only on Shavuot. This beloved and bizarre poem asks permission of G0d to recite the 10 Commandments with proper reverence. At 90 verses long, Akdamut is one of the longest of these liturgical poems that were extremely popular in the middle ages (But don’t worry! We’re only reading selections and not the whole thing during services here at Beth El!). The Torah portion we will read on the first day of Shavuot, tells the story of how we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The reading culminates with the public chanting of the 10 Commandments. We will also read selections from the Book of Ruth. We closely associate the story of Ruth with Shavuot because of its focus on the wheat harvest, and because we commemorate the yahrzeit of King David, who is the descendant of Ruth.

Day 2: Monday, May 21st – In the diaspora, we observe a second Yom Tov because of the new moon. During Temple times, witnesses were required to report to the Sanhedrin (the ancient Jewish court system) that they had seen a new moon, which would then determine the length of the month (which is why some months have 29 days, and some have 30 days). If no witnesses had seen the new moon, then it would be announced on the following day, hence why there are sometimes two days of Rosh Chodesh. The Sanhedrin would then send messengers to alert the people that the new month had begun. In communities that lived outside of Israel, sometimes the date of the new month was in question, and so a second festival day would be observed, just to be sure that the holiday was observed at the appropriate time. There are but two exceptions to this diaspora second-day rule. If you can guess correctly, you might win a prize. Please send your guesses to Ritual Director Ben Kreshtool ([email protected]). Ben will notify all correct answers via email. The second Festival day is an opportunity to remember loved ones we have lost. Accordingly, we recite Yizkor after the Torah service on May 21st.

SHAVUOT CUSTOMS

  1. In a tradition dating back to the days of Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575), it is customary to stay up all night studying Torah on the night of Shavuot. There is a legend that says the gates of heaven open at midnight and God will grant your most secret wishes on this Holy night. Speaking of Shavuot learning, we invite you to join us for “Sinai to Social Justice: How Jewish Social Entrepreneurs Embody Torah Values,” a panel discussion with three Beth El members that will explore the role Torah values play in social entrepreneurship.
     
  2. As with many Jewish holidays, there are special foods associated with the holiday. On Shavuot, it is traditional to eat dairy foods. There are several reasons for this custom. First, the Song of Songs teaches us: “Your lips, O my bride, drop honey; honey and milk are under your tongue.” Song of Songs is understood as an allegory for God’s love of the Jewish people, and this verse alludes to the sweetness of Torah. Milk is also a life sustaining substance to infants, and so the Torah is compared to milk, given to the Jewish nation in its infancy at Mt. Sinai. So, cheesecake and blintzes have become popular foods to eat on Shavuot.
     
  3. It is also customary to decorate your house and the synagogue with flowers and greenery. A beautiful Midrash (early Rabbinic interpretations and commentary on the Torah) teaches us that Mt. Sinai blossomed with fragrant flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah.

Shavuot service times at Beth El are as follows:

Saturday, May 19th
7:30 pm - Mincha
8:00 pm - “From Sinai to Social Justice: How Modern Jewish Social Entrepreneurs Embody Torah Values.”
9:00 pm - Dessert Nosh
9:30 pm - Ma’ariv
9:40 pm - Group Torah Study

Sunday, May 20th
10:00 am - Morning Services with Special Religious School Awards Presentation (See May Voice page 17 for award and recipient information)
12:00 pm - Brunch Kiddush & Ice Cream
6:00 pm - Evening Services

Monday, May 21st
10:00 am - Morning Services (Yizkor recited)
12:00 pm - Italian Kiddush with sundaes