IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT THE CHEESECAKE
Have you ever been to a Jewish event that doesn't include cheesecake? I mean really, think about this carefully before you answer. Yeah, even if it’s a Kosher meal and you have to wait the requisite six hours between eating meat and dairy (that’s another discussion) chances are at some point, the cheesecake makes an appearance. This is pretty amazing especially considering so many Jews are lactose intolerant…just ask my family.
However, I digress. That isn't the point of this discussion. The main focus is Shavuot. Yes, Sha-vu-ot. It’s a holiday that signals the end of the period that began with Passover and concludes with Shavuot and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Yes, those Ten Commandments. The ones he came down the mountains with after forty days and saw his people dancing with a golden calf. The same ones he dashed against the ground and had to return to the mountain top and humbly ask God for a do-over. Oops.
So, you might be wondering what Shavuot and cheesecake have in common with one another. Good question. There are several reasons for dairy desserts: one is that as the Israelite's wandered in the desert they were reminded that they were traveling to the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8-17). Another is that since they were on the move, they would not have had the ability to obtain and slaughter meat according to ritual (laws of kashrut) principles. And finally, there are scholars who have traced Jewish customs and rituals and claim that spring harvest festivals characteristically featured dairy dishes, perhaps because cheese was produced during that season (myjewishlearning.com).
As for me, I think it’s because it’s really delicious. However, if you don’t like cheesecake, try ice cream or eclairs or any other dairy based dessert; and, if you are lactose intolerant, go for something you just enjoy that gets you in the spirit of indulging and look for any excuse to eat that—and chocolate. In my opinion everything is better with chocolate.
STANDING AT SINAI
Seriously though, Shavuot is a lot more than just eating dairy desserts. It is really about commemorating the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Jewish tradition tells us that when the Israelite's stood at the base of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments (literally Ten Words) from God by way of Moses, it was as if the entire Jewish world—past, present and future was standing there with them.
This is why when these words are read in the synagogue the entire congregation stands for the recitation. It is the only time we stand for the reading of Torah; all other times we stand when the Torah is removed from the ark and when it is returned to the ark. We stand out of respect when the ark doors are opened and closed, but we do not stand when any other Torah portion is read.
We stand for the Ten Commandments because we are recreating the scene on Sinai as if we are receiving them for the very first time. If you have never experienced a Shavuot service, I encourage you to attend one; there is something special about unrolling the Torah and standing to hear those verses with which we are so familiar.
ADDING NEW TRADITIONS
One of the principals of Reform Judaism in the mid-1800’s in Germany was the replacement of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony in favor of a Confirmation service around the same time as a traditional Bar Mitzvah would take place. In the United States, this tradition was further expanded to include girls and then eventually moved to 10th grade instead of 8th grade.
Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements joined the Reform movement in these changes, although the Conservative movement continued to encourage young men to become Bar Mitzvah according to the age-old tradition. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan was actually in the forefront of the inclusion of girls becoming Bat Mitzvah when his daughter was the first girl in the United States to become a Bat Mitzvah in 1922.
Unfortunately for so many girls, it was many decades before it became standard protocol. It should be noted that Judith Kaplan read, not from the Torah, but from her Chumash, which is the Torah in printed form rather than a scroll.
During the middle of the 20th century the Reform movement began a shift back to embracing B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies for young men and for the first time opened the opportunities for young women as well. The Reconstructionist movement followed and eventually the Conservative movement began encouraging all students to become B’nai Mitzvah—sons and daughters of the Commandment.
The Confirmation ceremonies took place on Erev Shavuot—an evening of high drama with the standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments, each Torah dressed in a white mantle (cover), the confirmation students in their robes and the ancient memories fresh as if it were yesterday that we heard the recitation of the words of God for the first time.
Today, many of the Confirmation services are held on the Shabbat closest to Shavuot and some congregations choose dates that do not conflict with exam schedules and graduation ceremonies of local high schools and universities; but whenever the service takes place, it evokes the same sense of wonder and awe, and of identity and connection for each new generation.
In addition to the reading of the Ten Commandments, study of the Book of Ruth has a prominent place within the context of Shavuot. If you remember the story of Ruth (very briefly), she was a woman who was widowed and instead of leaving to return to her people (the Moabites), chose to stay with her mother-in-law (Naomi) and return to her family in Israel.
After Naomi’s repeated attempts to encourage Ruth to remain in Moab instead of returning to Canaan (Israel) with her, Ruth replies in one of the more well-known biblical verses: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16). By stating these words she is portrayed as having proclaimed her loyalty to Naomi and her desire to join Naomi’s people—the Jewish people.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “no one has better defined the combination of peoplehood and religion that characterizes Judaism: ‘Your people shall be my people” (‘I wish to join the Jewish nation’), ‘Your God shall be my god’ (‘I wish to accept the Jewish religion’). (”Biblical Literacy,” pg. 359)
This is the reason many women who convert to Judaism take Ruth as their Hebrew name. For them, Ruth epitomizes the ultimate commitment in choosing Judaism.
So, you may still be wondering about the connection. It’s a somewhat tenuous thread—Ruth is considered by many to be the first convert to Judaism. In the same sense, all those physically present at Sinai when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and those of us who symbolically receive the Ten Commandments each year, choose Judaism again and again.
In honor of our receiving of the Torah and accepting the responsibility of being people of the commandments, we honor Ruth by reading her story each year along with the Ten Commandments. As we honor the generations who came before us, the tradition is that we study late into the night, pouring over texts that enable us to continue to grow as God’s people.
A CALL TO SOCIAL ACTION
One of three harvest festivals (the other two being Sukkot and Passover), Shavuot is an opportunity to once again reconnect with our agricultural roots. Many of us have forgotten that the original meaning of Shavuot was the demarcation between the grain harvest and fruit harvest.
In biblical times, Shavuot ended the period that began with Passover and counted the first offering of barley grain to the Temple. Today, since we are able to enjoy most foods throughout the year, we have lost touch with the cycle of the growing seasons.
This becomes a great opportunity to go beyond the commemoration of the receiving of the Torah, late night study sessions, and eating cheesecake and blintzes by adding a social justice component to our observance. We can use this occasion to delve into other scriptures such as the commandment in Genesis 2:15 “to till it and to tend” our world, using and guarding our resources for future generations. The Torah is filled with lessons about caring for the earth, putting in checks and balances and living in harmony with God and the universe.
Given the times in which we live, the prevalence for natural disasters that abound, concerns about water resources and extreme temperatures throughout the year, Shavuot seems like the perfect time to reconnect with the world around us.
There are a myriad of projects in which you and your family and extended circle of friends can participate. This type of activity is perfect for an interfaith family—everyone can join in and you will know that you are offering an opportunity to embrace Judaism on a whole new level in a way that includes everyone.
WHAT ABOUT OUR CHILDREN?
Like all Jewish holidays, involving children is simply about adaptation. Everything discussed here can be modified to include children of all ages. For example, instead of simply eating cheesecake, think about making ice cream—a great family friendly activity. And, since spring in many locations means fresh strawberries, include an environmental connection by picking some strawberries for your ice cream.
Let your children help you decorate the table with fresh flowers you purchase from a local farmer’s market or wildflowers you pick (please make sure it is a location you are permitted to cut first!). Or, buy some cotton fabric and let your children decorate a table cloth for your festive dinner.
PJ Library has several good books appropriate for Shavuot. If you have children and have not signed up for PJ Library books, please do so. This is an absolutely free resource and is available for children 6 months-8 years of age. The books are wonderful and a great way for you and your children to grow in your celebration of Judaism in your home.
Anything you think about doing as a social action project can be done with children of all ages. In fact, most kids will come up with more creative ideas if they are encouraged to be part of the planning process. You might be amazed at what they suggest and are willing to do, especially if they think it’s their idea.
So, there you have it—a beginner’s guide to Shavuot. Study, worship, cheesecake, social action—everything you need for a meaningful experience. Let me know what you did and how it turned out. This just might turn out to be your favorite holiday!