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What am I supposed to do on Shavuot?

Jessie Paikin / Jewish Living / May 20, 2007

May 20, 2007

Week 113

3 Sivan 5767
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What am I supposed to do on Shavuot?
By Jesse Paikin

At first glance, nothing. Shavuot is unique among Jewish holidays in that there are no prescribed mitzvot (commandments) or other descriptions in the Torah regarding its observance, aside from the traditional practices associated with festivals (abstention from work, special services and festive meals). So, like most other things Jewish, we need to take a closer look to discover all the intricacies of the holiday.

Like the two other pilgrimage festivals (Pesach and Sukkot), Shavuot is connected with the agricultural cycle that was so integral to our ancestors. It celebrates the conclusion of the grain harvest, and was marked during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem by the offering of two loaves of bread from harvested wheat. Also like the other two pilgrimage festivals, its significance primarily is religious: Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the transformation of our people into a nation committed to one God.

So what do we do on Shavuot to commemorate this event in the life of K’lal Yisrael ? There are five minhagim (customs) that are often observed on Shavuot (and are described and defined below): Akdamut , Chalav,Rut , Yarok and Torah . A mnemonic device for remembering these minhagim , taken from the first letters of each of these words, is the Hebrew word acharit – meaning “last.” Because the Torah is also called reishit – meaning “first,” this emphasizes the importance of lifelong Jewish learning and rituals to the preservation and continuity of our people.

Akdamut : We read t his piyut (liturgical poem) because it extols the greatness of God, the Torah and the people of Israel—the three central tenets of Judaism. The poem was composed by Rabbi Meir of Worms, who was forced to publicly defend Judaism in a debate with priests during the 1096 Crusades. Rabbi Meir, whose son was murdered during the crusades, wrote the poem to convey his devotion to God, his love for the Jewish people and the excellence of Torah. The traditional melody that accompanies this poem also conveys a sense of grandeur and triumph.

Chalav : Meaning meaning milk. Dairy foods such as cheesecake, cheese-filled blintzes and ice cream are traditionally eaten on Shavuot. The consumption of these foods is a gastronomical allusion to the Torah which was received on this day, referring to King Solomon’s description of the Torah as "honey and milk…under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11).

Rut : Meaning the Book of Ruth. Each of the five Megillot (scrolls) from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is publicly read in the synagogue on a different Jewish holiday. The Book of Ruth corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot both in its descriptions of the harvest seasons and in Ruth's desire to become a member of the Jewish people, who are defined by the Torah. Another interesting comparison is the lineage described at the end of the Book of Ruth, which lists King David as Ruth's great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot.

Yarok : Meaning green. According to a midrash, in anticipation of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with foliage. Greenery also plays a prominent role in the story of Moses being found among the reeds when he was a baby. Some synagogues decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah (marriage canopy). This is part of a mystical metaphor that sees Shavuot as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the Jewish people) to the chuppah ( Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (God). In this metaphor, the ketubah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubah between God and Israel as part of the service.

Torah: According to a midrash, the night before the Torah was given, the Jews went to sleep to be well-rested for the big day ahead. However, they failed to wake up early, and Moses had to come to wake them up to meet God, Who was already waiting atop the mountain. As a way to remedy this flaw in our national Jewish identity, we take the opportunity to stay awake all night (or past midnight) to study Torah. Any subject may be learned as part of this practice. In Jerusalem, many people finish off the study session by walking to the Kotel at sunrise for morning service. This is also reminiscent of Shavuot's status as one of the three pilgrimage festivals.

  • What if I’m not sure about the authorship of the Torah?
    Reform Judaism affirms the Torah as one of the central tenets of Judaism, even as we acknowledge the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices. We accept the Torah as the foundation of Jewish life containing God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God. In this light, Shavuot is a time to focus on how the Torah (and all Jewish learning) is a crucial part of our lives as Reform Jews. You might take time this Shavuot to discover new personal connections with the Torah.
  • Where can I learn more?
    That’s a big question! Learning is a huge part of Judaism; the very word Torah also means teaching. Lifelong Jewish learning is a central part of our identity as Jews, and as such we must strive to make it a continual part of our lives. It’s impossible to list off every place you can study, but here’s a good checklist to start with: do you learn Jewishly at home? At Hebrew school? At synagogue? In the park? On a boat? All of these are places where you can take a few minutes to do some Jewish learning. Pair up with someone and find a few minutes each day to sit down and look at something Jewish, like the Torah.

  • Hold an all-night (or late-night) study session
    There are many topics of Jewish study in which you can engage: Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, Israeli politics, modern Jewish thought… the list goes on! Links to online learning resources are provided below. Whatever the topic is, make sure you spend some time looking at the importance of Torah (both the physical Torah, and Jewish learning as a whole) to our identity as Reform Jews. Naturally, you’ll want to provide night-time refreshments. Cheesecake and blintzes are a good choice!
  • When you’re finished studying, have a Tikkun Leil Shavuot service
    The Tikkun Leil Shavuot ("Rectification for Shavuot Night") service is the custom of staying up with the entire community in order to reenact the experience of standing at Sinai. This service is conducted late at night (or early in the morning) after the studying is finished. If your synagogue doesn’t already have this service, you can find links to resources below.
I T O R A H L I S H M A H - A place to share YOUR thoughts on iTorah

Is the question, “Who wrote the Torah?” important to our identity as Reform Jews?

R E S O U R C E S My Jewish Learning is a pluralistic website of Jewish information and education geared to learners of all ages and educational backgrounds. It has historical, textual, encyclopedic, and pedagogic resources available. is the Union for Reform Judaism’s database of Tikkun Leil Shavuot programs. Check it out for ideas for your own use!
is a long web address. It is also the Jewish Agency’s site for Shavuot, and contains a plethora of activities, information, and discussions on Shavuot. has translations of the Book of Ruth, Akdamut, and more information about Shavuot.

Jesse Paikin just graduated from York University in Toronto, Ontario with a degree in Philosophy, Religious Studies and Theatre. He grew up in the North American Federation of Temple Youth - Northeast Lakes Region (NFTY-NEL), serving as R osh T zion (Israel Chair) and President. He spent five summers at the Union for Reform Judaism Kutz Camp, served as a song leader with NFTY-in-Israel and, last summer, as a head song leader at URJ Camp George. Jesse currently works at the Canadian Association of Reform Zionists (ARZA Canada), sits on the KESHER Leadership Council and is a KESHER-ARZA Fellow. He is thrilled to be returning to the URJ Kutz Campus this summer and looks forward to the day when all the world will be able to unravel the enigma that is the unexplainable popularity of silly putty.

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