Jewish Holiday: Shavuot

Laws & Customs
By: Amy J. Kramer

Eruv Tavshilin: You can cook food on a festival provided you leave your oven or burner(s) on. However, you cannot cook food for the next day. But, when a festival falls out on a Friday, you can cook for Saturday providing you fulfill the mitzvah of eruv tavshilin, (See Passover, Laws & Customs).

An Eruv Tavshilin should be performed on Thursday and consists of taking matzoh along with other cooked food, such as fish, meat, or an egg, and saying the following blessing:

Blessed are You G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning the mitzvah of eruv.

Through this eruv may we be permitted to bake, cook, insulate, kindle a flame, prepare and do anything necessary on the festival for the sake of Shabbat, for ourselves and for all Jews who live in your city.

Candle Lighting: Like all Jewish holidays, Shavuot begins the night before. However, unlike other holidays which begin at sundown, Shavuot must not begin until nightfall. This is because we are commanded to count forty-nine full days of the Omer (See Origins), and lighting candles can only be made after a full day is completed.

On Shavuot, we wait until three stars appear before lighting the holiday candles, unless the first night of Shavuot coincides with Shabbat. If this happens, Sabbath candles are lit before sundown, while the holiday candles are lit later using a pre-existing flame, like the flame from a memorial candle.

Blessings over candles: Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav lehadlik ner shel (Shabbat v’shel) yom tov.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the (Sabbath and) festival lights.

Blessing of the season: Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehekheyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higgiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Same is true regarding the second night of Shavuot, minus the shehekheyanu blessing.

Shavuot Greetings: The standard Hebrew greeting, Hag Sameach, happy holiday, or in Yiddish, gut yom tov, happy holiday, is exchanged.

Appropriate Dress: Clean Shabbat clothing is appropriate for the synagogue or home.

Kiddush: The festival meal begins with the traditional recitation of kiddush. Kiddush can be made over wine or grape juice. The full text can be found in any standard siddur, or prayer book.

Baruch ata Adonai eloeheinu melech ha’olam, borei pri hagafen.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.

The blessing over bread, usually two loaves, is made after the ritual washing of hands.

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding washing the hands.

Blessing over Bread: Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.

Suggested Meal Plan: Dairy dishes are generally served during the day. However, a meat-based dinner, especially if Shavuot begins on a Friday night, may be served. Here’s one idea.

Spicy Meat Borekas as appetizer. Chicken Marbella, Spanish rice, zuccini latkes and green salad for dinner. Fruit and cookies for desert. (See Recipes for details)

Tikkun Leil Shavuot: After the holiday dinner, many people proceed to the synagogue for an all-night, or into-the-night Torah study session. Some Torah study sessions last until 12:00 a.m., others last till dawn.

This practice, in Hebrew called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, has its roots in Kabbalah, the Jewish study of mysticism, began in Safed in the sixteenth century.

The tikkun, or set order of study, can be different depending on who and where it’s organized. Traditionally, the tikkun is taken from the Bible, rabbinic literature, and even mystical literature, called the Zohar. In this way, the first Kabbalists prepared themselves for the symbolic acceptance of the Torah.

Today, the tikkun might consist of a series of seminars on a variety of Jewish topics based on Torah texts, history, or current events. In Israel, the Western Wall is a popular site for the all-night tikkun. In the United States, study sessions are often held at the local synagogue or at someone’s home. Refreshments, such as cheese cake and coffee are usually served. Breakfast might follow a sunrise Shacharit service for those who stayed up all night.

Morning Services: Besides a few additions, like the recitation of Hallel, the morning service on Shavuot is the same as other festivals. Because Jewish tradition says that King David was born and died on Shavuot, some people have the custom to read from the Book of Psalms, which he authored.

Torah readings are from Exodus 19:1 to 20:23, which describe the revelation at Mt. Sinai, including the Ten Commandments. The Maftir portion is from Numbers 28:26 to 28:31, which describes the sacrifices for Shavuot. Then, the Haftorah from Ezekiel 1 is read, ending with an added verse from Ezekiel 3:13.

Before the Torah reading on the second day of Shavuot, the Book of Ruth is read. Then, two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. The Torah reading in the first scroll is from Deuteronomy 14:22 to 16:17. The Maftir is the same as the previous day, and the Haftorah is Habakkuk 2:20 to 3:19.

On Shavuot, it is customary to read the section containing the Ten Commandments in a special trop, manner of chanting the Torah. Called the ta’am elyon, this is a more dramatic way of reading the Torah than the usual Sabbath or festival trop.

In some synagogues, instead of only the service leader carrying the Torah scroll in procession around the synagogue, it is passed from one person to another until everyone has had a turn. This practice is a way of showing our willingness to accept the Torah and its covenant and pass it on.

In Ashkenazic synagogues it is customary to chant a medieval piyyut, or liturgical poem, called Akdamut to a special tune before the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot. The poem, written in Aramaic by Rabbi Meir, the eleventh century cantor of Worms, Germany, praises G-d’s glory and talks about a messianic future.

Rabbi Meir wrote Akdamut in Aramaic so only Jews would understand its meaning. His purpose was to strengthen Jewish faith during times of terrible oppression such as the Crusades, the first of which claimed the lives of his wife and son.

In Sephardic synagogues it is customary to recite a piyyut called azharut, which lists 613 mitzvot from the Torah. Another Sephardic and specifically Yemenite custom is to read one of several versions of a ketubah, a marriage contract, between Israel and G-d, based on the traditional format used for a bride and groom.

It includes prophetic verses alluding to the covenant between G-d and Israel (Jeremiah 31:31); Hosea 2:21-22). This version substitutes the gifts between G-d and Israel for what a bride and groom normally promise each other and lists G-d and Moses or heaven and earth as witnesses. It is usually dated 6 Sivan 2448, the year of revelation, if you count creation at year 0.

Yizkor: Yizkor, the memorial prayer for the dead, is recited on the first or second day, depending on observance.

Dairy or Milchig Meal: The holiday meal eaten during the day is generally dairy. Some derive the practice from Exodus 3:8, a “land flowing with milk and honey,” or from Song of Songs 4:11, “milk and honey are under your tongue.”

Some suggest that at Sinai, the Israelites were as innocent as newborns, whose only food is milk. Another suggestion for eating dairy stems from the initials of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, mei chalav, from milk, which describes the sacrificial meal offering on Shavuot.

Those who like Kabbalah, equate the numerical value of the word chalav, forty, with the number of days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai. Others look to the mountain itself, called in Psalms, mount of gavnunim (68:15) meaning many peaks. They connect that description with the Hebrew word g’vinah, meaning cheese.

Another reason, a little more practical, could be that following Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the Israelites felt that they should not eat previously prepared meat which had not been properly butchered and prepared according to the laws of Kashrut. So, instead, they took dairy food that was readily available.

Here is one suggested meal plan.

Start with Gezphacho soup and taco chips. Then serve a warm French onion soup, followed by a cold, poached salmon and dill sauce, lasagna rolls, and salad. Desert can include the traditional cheese cake and or ice cream. (See Recipes).

Conclusion: Like all festivals, the conclusion of Shavuot is marked by a brief ceremony called Havdalah, which literally means separation, (See Shabbat, Laws & Customs). This can be performed in the synagogue after the evening service of Maariv at home after nightfall.

If the end of the festival coincides with the end of Shabbat, the full Havdalah service is recited. This can be found in any basic siddur, or prayer book. On a weeknight, however, only blessings over wine and separation are said.

Isru Hag: The day after Shavuot is known as Isru Hag. It is a minor day of rejoicing and a way of holding onto the holiday a little longer.

Our sages said that whoever observes a continuation of the festival of eating and drinking, the Torah considers it as if that person had built the altar and offered the sacrifice on it. “Bind the festival (Isru Hag) with cords unto the horns of the altar,” (Psalm 18:27).

HEROES & VILLAINS: Of the five megillot, or scrolls, found in the bible, three have no obvious heroes. Only two are named after actual historical figures, both of whom are women: Ruth and Esther (See Purim Origins & Heroes & Villains). We read their stories on the holidays of Shavuot and Purim, respectively.

Both stories begin almost identically. The Book of Ruth begins with the words, “And it happened in the days of the Judges,” and the Scroll of Esther begins with “And it happened in the days of Achashverosh.”

Both Ruth and Esther confronted a new world as strangers.

Ruth, a Moabite princess, left her native land of Moab and pledged her allegiance to her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, after the death of her Jewish husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law. Ruth had married into the family of Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, when they moved to Moab during a famine in the land of Judea.

Esther, who married King Achashverosh, was a secret Jew inside a hostile Persian court. Both were out of their elements. Ruth had to learn the ways of Israel, and Esther had to learn her way through the often dangerous pagan court.

Both Ruth and Esther used their womanly charms to protect the ones they love.

Ruth came to Boaz, a noble and pious Judean judge and relative of Naomi, in the night and slept by his feet until morning. She then established a bond which culminated in marriage and protection for her family.

Esther, who also used her beauty and charms, managed to unmask Haman’s evil plot against the Jews of Persia, ultimately saving her people from certain destruction.

Even more significant, however, was the way in which both Ruth and Esther acted independently and with great wisdom.

Against the wishes of her mother-in-law, Naomi, Ruth did not allow her widowed and childless mother-in-law to return to Bethlehem in poverty and without honor.

In fact, Ruth is credited with one of the most famous passages in scripture: “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people and your G-d my G-d.” (1:16)

Esther too acted with courage. When she found out about Haman’s plot to murder the Jews of Persia, she decreed a national fast for her people. This gave her the strength to defy one of the court’s strictest orders: not to enter the King’s chamber without being called. Esther defied this decree, and her courage led to Haman’s downfall and the savior of her family and people.

These were exceptional women, unusual for their beauty, grace and courage. Little wonder their names are linked to the titles of their stories. Both were masters of their own destiny, and in their merits, transformed the futures of the Jewish people.