Shavuot (“weeks”) is one of the three harvest festivals, like Sukkot and Pesach, thus a major holiday. But it is often downplayed to the point of forgetfulness. It’s much shorter than its companion festivals, only 2 days long (1 for Reform and in Israel). Even its date is not clear in the Torah (see both Deut. 16:9-10 and Lev. 23:15-16). Furthermore, it doesn’t have strongly holiday specific customs, like the Seder and matzah eating of Pesach or the sukkah, lulav and etrog of Sukkot. That became important once the Temple was destroyed and the people exiled. What was there left to celebrate on Shavuot?
In response, the rabbis identified a connection between Shavuot and matan Torah (Revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai). They derived the date of Revelation as the 6th of Sivan, coincident with the day after the completion of the counting of the omer, and fixed this date as Shavuot, thus forming the link. [Yet the Israelites don’t reach the wilderness of Sinai until the 3rd new moon after they left Egypt, which would be 2 ½ months, and at least 3 more days until Revelation, probably more, since they’d need time to encamp (Exodus 19:1, 10-11), significantly longer than 50 days. I’ll look into this next year.]
Shavuot has several names, based on its dual identity. From the Torah, we get Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: חג השבועות, Chag HaShavuot, Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10); Festival of Reaping (חג הקציר, Chag HaKatzir, Exodus 23:16), and Day of the First Fruits (ום הבכורים, Yom HaBikkurim, Numbers 28:26). In the festival prayers, we refer to it as “the season of the giving of the Torah” (זמן מתן תורתינו, z’man matan torateinu).
Of course, there are Torah readings. First day: Exodus 19:1-20:23, the Ten Commandments. Numbers 28:26-31, sacrifices (surprise…). Haftarah: Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12, the one with the psychedelic chariot vision. Second day: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, holidays (one of the 4 times a year this section is read) and Numbers 28:26-31 again. Haftarah: Habakkuk 2:20-3:19, a prayer for mercy in exile. Yetziv Pitgam a mystical song of praise, may be inserted here. Additional texts: First day, Akdamut, a long 11th c. poem. Second day, the Book of Ruth.
Why Ruth (which I love chanting, by the way, especially Chapter 1)? It takes place at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth’s acceptance of Naomi’s God parallels the giving of the Law at Sinai. She is the ancestor of Kind David, reputed to have died around Shavuot. And it’s an old custom, going back to the Talmud.
Other customs include first-night all-night study sessions (tikkun leyl Shavuot) as a celebration of the Torah, decorating with flowers, Confirmation (mainly Reform), and eating only dairy, especially cheese. Blintzes are popular. And I just came across a recipe I may try sometime, for a pudding made with rice flour, milk, honey, and toppings. It’s called Sutlage (Turkey and the Balkans) or Muhallabeya (North Africa.) Why dairy? One suggestion is a symbolic reversion to newborn innocence in recognition of the acceptance of the Law. Kabbalistically, the Hebrew word for milk, חלב, has the numerical value of 2+30+8=40, the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai getting the Law. More mundanely, dairy is featured in spring harvest festivals because cheese is made then. In non-pandemic times, my synagogue usually serves cheesecake at a night-time study session and make-your-own ice cream sundaes after services the next day. My husband plans to make spinach lasagna, which I am definitely looking forward to. And I’ll cut lots of roses from our garden and maybe chant the Book of Ruth.
Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom,
- Breaking News: Cheesecake Explosion in France
Multiple reports coming in that there was nothing left but de brie.
- While driving to work today, I saw a huge cheesecake…
Around the next corner was a large trifle, followed by an apple turnover. There were no cars. It seemed to me the roads were strangely desserted.
- You know what they say about New York Cheesecake?
If you can bake it there, you can bake it anywhere.
- Tips for inner peace
Dr. Neil proclaimed the way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started.
So I looked around my house to see things I started and hadn’t finished; and, before leaving the house this morning, I finished off a bottle of Pinot Noir, a bottle of Chardonnay, a bottle of Baileys, a bottle of Kaluha, a packet of Penguins, the remainder of bottle of Xanax, Valium prescriptions, the rest of the Cheesecake, and a box of chocolates.
You have no idea how good I feel.
The return of gleaning in the modern world (excerpts) Dec 22nd, 2018
At the salon in Paris in 1857, Jean-François Millet exhibited a painting called “Des glaneuses” (“Gleaners”). It caused a scandal. …Into a decorous world of silks and parasols it introduced rough women, plump in their homespun skirts, rumps in the air, grubbing for ears of grain dropped after the harvest. … Millet had seen the women differently. He found them dignified, doing their work in a sanctifying late-summer light, companions to his peasant “Angelus”. In this, as well as their humble roughness, he caught the essence of gleaning.
… Millet’s gleaners were engaged in a task reserved for paupers by the local commune; in the background, the regular harvest is being stacked up in abundance.
The right of the poor to glean had biblical provenance…in Leviticus 19:9-10 (and in)… Deuteronomy…. The Book of Ruth … tells the story of literature’s most famous gleaner, a pauper and an alien in Judah who so enchanted the landowner, Boaz, that he instructed his reapers actively to help her: “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not: And let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them.” Ruth’s gentleness and humility did much to give gleaning, and the allowing of it, a colour of holiness.
Much of medieval Europe accepted a right to gleaning, but carefully. … A “guard sheaf” would be left in a field to protect it until the harvest was complete. When this was removed a bell signaled that gleaning could start. And when the bell rang in the evening, gleaning stopped. …These days there is no summoning bell. Instead, a perky alert comes by tweet or Facebook post: “Bracdrop [cabbage glean] at Wigden near Canterbury. Be there at 9…Over and sprout.” The Sussex Gleaning Network alone contains 900 names. …
Cutting waste is the gleaners’ first motivation, but poverty comes a close second: other people’s, rather than their own. … In America, the Society of St Andrew, the oldest and biggest gleaning operation, draws 40,000 gleaners mostly from churches, synagogues and other faiths (including Islam), making the biblical basis explicit. Both there and in Israel, most gleaning is run by faith groups….
The … philosophy—almost a theology—of gleaning remains the same. It completes and expands the harvest, so that the greatest possible number can share in it, especially the poor. … Each gleaner, as in a religious service, enters not only the experience of the group but also an individual world of gathering and quiet accumulating. Gleaning can become contemplative, almost mesmerising. In this attitude of humble seeking, the harvest can be of thoughts, images and understandings, as much as food…
This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline “To the last grain”
Quotes About the Ten Commandments
- When you hear people demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courtrooms and schoolrooms, always be sure to ask which set. It works every time. Christopher Hitchens
- Ten commandments yet seven deadly sins: conflict? Douglas Coupland
- If Moses had gone to Harvard Law School and spent three years working on the Hill, he would have written the Ten Commandments with three exceptions and a saving clause. Charles Morgan
- Accuse a person of breaking all Ten Commandments, and you’ve written the promo blurb for the dust cover of his tell-all memoir. J. O’Rourke