12-18 Nisan, 5780   UPDATED: NEXT EDITION 06/08/20  April 6-12, 2020 -- THE JEWISH OBSERVER, LOS ANGELES--634th Web Ed.\




Shavuot, also spelled Shavuos (Hebrew: שבועות ) "(Feast of] Weeks"), is a Jewish holiday that occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (corresponding to late May or early June). This year it will begin on May 28 at sundown. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer and the day the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. It is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim) mandated by the Torah.

Unlike the other two pilgrimage festivals (Passover and Sukkot), the date on which Shavuot occurs is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Rather, its occurrence is directly linked to the occurrence of Passover. Beginning on the second day of Passover, the Torah mandates a 49-day (seven-week) counting period (the Counting of the Omer), which culminates in the 50th day, Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks expresses anticipation and desire for the Giving of the Torah. At Passover, the Jewish people were freed from being slaves to Pharaoh; at Shavuot they accepted the Torah and became a nation committed to serving G-d. Shavuot has many aspects and as a consequence is called by several names. In the Torah it is called Feast of Weeks

(Hebrew: חג השבועות, Hag ha-Shavuot, Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10); Festival of Reaping (Hebrew: חג הקציר, Hag ha-Katsir, Ex. 23:16), and Day of the First Fruits (Hebrew יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim, Numbers 28:26). The Mishnah and Talmud refer to Shavuot as Atzeret (Hebrew: עצרת, a solemn assembly), as it provides closure for the festival activities during and following the holiday of Passover. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Christians gave it the name Pentecost (πεντηκόστη, "fiftieth [day]"). However, the actual Christian commemoration of Pentecost occurs on the seventh Sunday after Easter. In modern Israel and among Reform and Karaite Jews, Shavuot is celebrated for one day. In the Jewish diaspora outside Israel, the holiday is celebrated for two days, on the sixth and seventh days of Sivan.

Connection with the Harvest

Besides its significance as the day on which the Torah was given by G-d to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24; Deut. 16:9-11; Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest, just as the eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles) was the concluding festival of the fruit harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-21).

Ceremony of Bikkurim

Shavuot was also the day on which the Bikkurim (first fruits from the seven species for which Israel is praised) were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by each individual. These species are: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8). In the largely agrarian society of ancient Israel, Jewish farmers would tie a ribbon around the first ripening fruits from each of these species in their fields. At the time of harvest, the fruits identified by the ribbon would be cut and placed into baskets woven of gold and silver. The baskets would then be placed on oxen whose horns were laced with garlands of flowers, and who were led in a grand procession to Jerusalem. As the farmer and his entourage passed through cities and towns, they would be accompanied by music and parades.

At the Temple, each farmer would present his Bikkurim to the Kohen Gadol in a ceremony that followed the text of Deut. 26:1-10. This text begins by stating, "An Aramean tried to destroy my father"—which either refers to Laban's efforts to weaken Jacob and rob him of his progeny (Rashi on Deut. 26:5) or to the fact that Jacob was a homeless or penniless wanderer in the land of Aram for 20 years (ibid., Abraham ibn Ezra). The text proceeds to retell the history of the Jewish people as they went into exile in Egypt and were enslaved and oppressed; following which G-d redeemed them and brought them to the land of Israel. The ceremony of Bikkurim conveys the Jew's gratitude to G-d both for the first fruits of the field and for His guidance throughout Jewish history (Scherman, p. 1068).

Modern Observances

Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than the traditional festival observances of abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals. However, it is characterized by many minhagim (customs) that have taken on the force of law in traditional Jewish circles. A mnemonic for these customs is the letters of the Hebrew word acharit (אחרית, "last"). Since the Torah is called reishit (ראשית, "first"), the customs of Shavuot highlight the importance of custom for the continuation and preservation of Jewish religious observance. These customs, largely observed in Ashkenazic communities, are: אקדמות – Akdamut, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services; חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese; רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services; ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery; תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.


This liturgical poem extolling the greatness of G-d, the Torah and Israel is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. It was composed by Rabbi Meir of Worms, whose son was murdered during the Crusade of 1096. Rabbi Meir was forced to defend the Torah and his Jewish faith in a debate with local priests, and successfully conveyed his certainty of G-d's power, His love for the Jewish people, and the excellence of Torah. Afterwards he wrote Akdamut, a 90-line poem in Aramaic which stresses these themes. The poem is written in a double acrostic pattern according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, each line ends with the syllable "ta" (תא), the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alluding to the endlessness of Torah. The traditional melody which accompanies this poem also conveys a sense of grandeur and triumph.

Sephardim do not read akdamut, but before the evening service they sing a poem called Azharot which sets out the 613 Biblical commandments. The positive commandments are recited on the first day and the negative commandments on the second day.

Dairy foods

Dairy foods such as cheesecake and blintzes with cheese and other fillings are traditionally served on Shavuot. One explanation for the consumption of dairy foods on this holiday is that the Israelites had not yet received the Torah, with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals). As the food they had prepared beforehand was not in accordance with these laws, they opted to eat simple dairy meals to honor the holiday. Some say it harks back to King Solomon's portrayal of the Torah as "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11).

Book of Ruth

Each of the five books of the Tanakh known as Megillot (Hebrew: מגילות, "scrolls") is publicly read in the synagogue on a different Jewish holiday. The Book of Lamentations, which details the destruction of the Holy Temple, is the reading for Tisha B'Av; the Book of Ecclesiastes, which touches on the ephemeralness of life, corresponds to Sukkot; the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) retells the events of Purim; and the Song of Songs, which echoes the themes of springtime and G-d's love for the Jewish people, is the reading for Passover. The Book of Ruth (מגילת רות, Megillat Ruth) corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot both in its descriptions of the barley and wheat harvest seasons and Ruth's desire to become a member of the Jewish people, who are defined by their acceptance of the Torah. Moreover, the lineage described at the end of the Book lists King David as Ruth's great-grandson. According to tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot (Sha'arei Teshuvah to Orach Hayyim, 494).


According to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit. Greenery also figures in the story of the baby Moses being found among the bulrushes in a watertight cradle (Ex. 2:3) when he was three months old. Moses was born on 7 Adar and placed in the Nile River on 6 Sivan, the same day he later brought the Jewish nation to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

For these reasons, Jewish families traditionally decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. Some synagogues decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah, as Shavuot is mystically referred to as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the Jewish people) to the chuppah (Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (G-d); the ketubbah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Eastern Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubbah between G-d and Israel as part of the service.

All-night Torah study

The custom of all-night Torah study is practiced by many Jews. Any subject may be studied, although Talmud, Mishna and Torah typically top the list. In many communities, men and women attend classes and lectures until the early hours of the morning. In Jerusalem, thousands of people finish off the nighttime study session by walking to the Kotel before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan there. The latter activity is reminiscent of Shavuot's status as one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, when the Jews living in the Land of Israel journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In keeping with Hasidic custom of engaging in all-night Torah study, a special service for the evening of Shavuot is arranged. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot ("Rectification for Shavuot Night") consists of excerpts from the beginning and end of each of the 24 books of Tanakh (including the reading in full of several key sections such as the account of the days of Creation, The Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Shema) and the 63 chapters of Mishnah.

This is followed by the reading of Sefer Yetzirah, the 613 commandments as enumerated by Maimonides, and excerpts from the Zohar, with opening and concluding prayers.  The whole reading is divided into thirteen parts, after each of which a Kaddish di-Rabbanan is recited when the Tikkun is studied in a group of at least ten Jews.

This service is printed in a special book, and is widely used in Eastern Sephardic, some German and Hasidic communities. There are similar books for the vigils before the seventh day of Pesach and Hosha'ana Rabbah. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews, [as well as a few others] do not observe this custom.


Still other Jewish groups will typically hold celebrations of Confirmation for tenth graders on the evening or morning of Shavuot. The holiday falls around the end of the school year and the giving of the Ten Commandments naturally fits into the theme of continued Jewish learning.

Dates in dispute

Since the Torah does not specify the actual day on which Shavuot falls, differing interpretations of this date have arisen both in traditional and non-traditional Jewish circles.  These discussions center around two ways of looking at Shavuot: the day it actually occurs (i.e., the day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai), and the day it occurs in relation to the Counting of the Omer (being the 50th day from the first day of the Counting).

Giving of the Torah

While most of the Talmudic Sages concur that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan; R. Jose holds that it was given on the seventh of that month. According to the classical timeline, the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sinai on the new moon (Ex. 19:1) and the Ten Commandments were given on the following Shabbat (i.e. Saturday). The question of whether the new moon fell on Sunday or Monday is undecided (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 86b).

Counting of the Omer

The Torah states that the Omer offering (i.e., the first day of counting the Omer) should begin "on the morrow after the Shabbat" (Lev. 23:11). The Talmudic Sages determined that "Shabbat" here means simply a day of rest and refers to the first day of Passover. Thus, the traditional counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover and continues for the next 49 days, or seven complete weeks, ending on the day before Shavuot. According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g. if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday). The Sadducees and Boethusians, however, disputed this interpretation. They contended that "Shabbat" really did mean "Shabbat," or Saturday. Accordingly, they reckoned the seven weeks from the day after the first Shabbat during Passover, so that Shavuot would always fall on a Sunday. This interpretation was shared by the second-century BC author of the Book of Jubilees, and was motivated by the priestly sabbatical solar calendar of the third and second centuries B.C., which was designed to have festivals and Sabbaths fall on the same day of the week every year. On this calendar (best known from the Book of Luminaries in 1 Enoch), Shavuot fell on the 15th of Sivan, a Sunday. The date was reckoned fifty days from the first Sabbath after Passover (i.e. from the 25th of Nisan). Thus, Jub. 1:1 claims that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah "on the sixteenth day of the third month in the first year of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt".  Karaite Judaism today continues to follow the interpretation that the Counting of the Omer begins on the Sunday after the first Shabbat during Passover, and thus celebrates Shavuot on a Sunday. Similarly the Christian feast of Pentecost, which falls on the fiftieth day counting from Easter, is always on a Sunday. --(Source: Wikipedia) 


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                                                THE PASSOVER TABLE

The Passover seder table is beautifully set with seasonal flowers and Passover finery, a lovely tablecloth; sparkling candlesticks; wine cups for everyone, with a large goblet in the center of Elijah; a wine decanter filled with kosher wine; bowls of salt water for dipping, symbolic of the tears shed by the Israelite slaves; and three matzoth, one atop the other in a special layered cover or on a tiered plate symbolizing three categories of Jews -- Kohen (Priest), Levite, and Israelite.  Just as the three matzoth are equally important, so are all Jews [who] make up the household of Israel.  The centerpiece of the table is the kearah, the Seder plate.  Symbolic foods are eaten or pointed to during the course of the Seder.

The symbolic foods are: 1) haroset, which symbolizes the mortar that the enslaved Hebrews used for building purposes.  A finely chopped mixture of apples, nuts and cinnamon, honey, and wine is popular among Ashkenazic Jews, while the use of dried fruit and spices is more common among Sephardic Jews; 2) karpas, which is a symbol of spring.  It can be any green vegetable -- such as parsley, celery, or even baby artichokes (or a cooked potato); 3) z’roa, the paschal sacrifice, symbolized by a roasted lamb shank bone, poultry neck, or a boiled or roasted beet for vegetarians; 4) beitzah, a roasted egg, the symbol of the hagigah or a regular festival sacrifice; 5) maror, or bitter herbs.  A horseradish root, slivered or grated, or a bitter lettuce such as romaine or escarole, symbolic of the bitterness of slavery, can be used.  On some Seder plates there is also hazeret -- additional maror for the korekh sandwich.

* * *


The Passover holiday perhaps best symbolizes what all Jewish festivals are about: home and children, family and friends, traditions and food, songs and laughter, values and teachings.

More than any other ritual, the Seder is a microcosm of the Jewish experience, for it evokes both the bitterness and sweetness of Jewish life through the ages. It is a timely reminder of the tortuous journey from slavery to freedom. Passover is a holiday when Jews reach out to one another and open their doors to strangers and the less fortunate.

It is also a time when Jews remind themselves that whenever anyone is enslaved anywhere in the world, no one is really free, and that each person has a responsibility to work that much harder for the redemption and freedom of every human being. For the Jew, the Exodus is both the memory and the promise of that freedom.

* * *


Funds for the poor called maot hittim are collected by the community before Passover to buy food for the indigent.

The Sabbath before Passover is known as Shabbat Hagadol, or the Great Sabbath. In Eastern Europe, this was one of the two times during the year that the rabbi would sermonize (the other occasions was Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). It is customary among some Jews to study the Haggadah in the after of Shabbat Hagadol until the end of the Song Dayenu.

The Fast of the Firstborn (Taanit Bekhorim) is a minor fast day beginning on the morning before Passover to commemorate firstborn Hebrew sons who were spared in Egypt during the tenth plague. The fast begins at sunrise, but can be abrogated by a siyyum, in which studying and completing the last passage of a Talmudic tractate is followed by a religious mean, seudah shel mitzvah, which ends the fast.

Mekhirat hametz -- the selling of hametz. One is not allowed to own hametz during Passover. The rabbis created a legal method by which one’s hametz is sold to a non-Jew for Passover and bought back after the end of the holiday. This is done through a bill of sale with the rabbi acting as an agent.
Bedikat hametz -- Inspecting for hametz is a charming family ceremony conducted the night before Passover to hunt for the last remains of hametz.

Pieces of bread are deliberately hidden in specific areas and then searched for with candle, feather, and spoon. The candle, often held by a child, issued to light one’s way around the house. The feature is used to brush the hametz into a spoon and from there into a paper napkin, bag, or plate. There is a special blessing recited before the search for hametz.

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh haolam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al biur hametz. (Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to remove all hametz.)

Bittul hametz -- a special formula is recited after the search to nullify ownership of hametz. "All leaven in my possession that I have not seen or removed of which I am unaware is hereby nullified and rendered ownerless as the dust of the earth."

Biur hametz -- The hametz that was collected the night before is taken outdoors and burned, and the nullification formula is repeated.

Ashkenazic Jews do not eat kitniyot on Passover (rice, millet, peas, beans, corn, and lentils) because these foods can be ground into flour and can appear like hametz. Mustard, sesame and sunflower seeds are also considered kitniyot. Sephardic Jews do not have this tradition.

Reclining on a pillow to the left at the Seder, particularly when eating matzah. In the ancient world reclining is a sign of being free. The leader or each participant can recline on pillows, depending on one’s custom. The Seder is full of another Greek and Roman customers that have been adapted and Judaized.

In some tradition homes, the leader of the Seder will wear a kittel, a white garment used on festive occasions. Some bridegrooms wear a kittel at their wedding, signifying a state of purity and joy.

There is a custom among some Jews not to eat matzah from Purim until the night of the first Seder, so that the taste of the matzah will be fresh. [However, according to Torah "These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate, each at its appointed time: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the month the Lord’s Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened bread for seven days.

On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Lord. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations." Leviticus 23:4-8]

Serving hard-boiled eggs just before the meal, as an appetizer, which neutralizes the taste of maror. Eggs are also a sign of fertility, birth, death, and renewal. There is a saying that the more Jews are oppressed, the strong they become -- like hard-boiled eggs, which become hard and long they are cooked. The egg was also served as an hors d’oeuvre in the ancient world.

On the second night of Passover, the counting of the omer begins, which continues for 49 days until Shavuot, which first day falls on 6 Sivan. The omer (a measure of grain) was a commemoration of the sheaves of barley brought to the Temple in gratitude for the harvest.

Reading from the Song of Songs, Shir Hashirim, on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach or the last day of Pesach if it falls on Shabbat. The Song of Songs was seen by the rabbis as a love song between G-d and Israel which was appropriate to the theme of Passover.

Adding a prayer for dew to the Amidah Musaf prayer on the first day of Passover to replace the prayer for rain, which was added on Shemini Atzeret. Tal, a prayer written by the Eleazar Kalir, is a reminder of the agricultural connections of the land of Israel, where the rainy season has ended but moisture is still needed.

* * *


As a sample of the letter written by a parent or grandparents to one's descendants I share a letter offered up by one of my mentors, HaRav Aharon Lopiansky.

My dear child, It is now a quiet moment late at night. After an exhausting day of Passover cleaning, you have sunk into the sweetest of sleeps, and I am sitting here with a pile of haggadas, preparing for Seder night. Somehow the words never come out the way I want them to, and the Seder evening is always unpredictable. But so many thoughts and feelings are welling up in my mind and I want to share them with you.

These are the words I mean to say at the Seder. When you will see me at the Seder dressed in Kittell, the same plain white garment worn on Yom Kippur, your first question will be, “Why are you dressed like this?” Because it is Yom Kippur, a day of reckoning.

You see, each one of us has a double role. First and foremost we are human beings, creatures in the image of G-d, and on Yom Kippur, we are examined if indeed we are worthy of that title. But we are also components of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish People, links in a chain that started over 3,000 years ago and will make it to the finish line of the end of times. It is a relay race where a torch is passed on through all the ages, and it is our charge, to take it from the one before and pass it on to the one after.

Tonight we are being judged as to how well we have received our tradition and how well we are passing it on. “It is now 3,300 years since we received that freedom in Egypt. If we imagine the average age of having a child to be about 25 years of age, there are four generations each century. That means there is a total of 132 people stretching from our forefathers in Egypt to us today. 132 people had to pass on this heritage flawlessly, with a devotion and single-mindedness that could not falter.

Who were these 133 fathers of mine? One had been in the Nazi death camps; one had been whipped unconscious by Cossacks. One had children stolen by the Czar, and one was the laughing stock of his “enlightened” brethren.  One lived in a basement in Warsaw with many days passing with no food to his mouth; the other ran a stupendous mansion in France. One had been burned at stake for refusing to believe in the divinity of a flesh and blood, and one had been frozen to death in Siberia for continuing to believe in the divinity of the Eternal G-d.

One had been hounded by a mob for living in Europe rather than Palestine, and one had been blown up by Palestinians for not living in Europe. One had been a genius who could not enter medical school because he was not Christian, and one was fed to the lions by the Romans…132 fathers, each with his own story. Each with his own test of faith. And each with one overriding and burning desire: that this legacy be passed unscathed to me. And one request of me: that I pass this on to you, my sweet child.

What is this treasure that they have given their lives for? What is in this precious packet that 132 generations have given up everything for? It is a great secret: That man is capable of being a lot more than an intelligent primate.

That the truth of an Almighty G-d does not depend on public approval, and no matter how many people jeer at you, truth never changes. That the quality of life is not measured by goods but by the good. That one can be powerfully hungry, and yet one can forgo eating if it is not kosher.

That a penny that is not mine is not mine, no matter the temptation or rationalization. That family bonding is a lot more than birthday parties; it is a commitment of loyalty that does not buckle in a moment of craving or lust. And so much more.

This is our precious secret, and it is our charge to live it and to become a shining display of “This is what it means to live with G-d.” 132 people have sat Seder night after Seder night, year after year, and with every fiber of their heart and soul have made sure that this treasure would become mine and yours.

Doubters have risen who are busy sifting the sands of the Sinai trying to find some dried out bones as residues of my great-great-grandfather. They are looking in the wrong place. The residue is in the soul of every one of these 132 grandfathers whose entirety of life was wrapped up in the preservation of this memory and treasure. It is unthinkable that a message borne with such fervor and intensity, against such challenges and odds, is the result of a vague legend or the fantasy of an idle mind. I am the 133rd person in this holy chain.

At times I doubt if I am passing it on well enough. I try hard, but it is hard not to quiver when you are on the vertical shoulders of 132 people, begging you not to disappoint them by toppling everyone with you swaying in the wind.

My dear child, may G-d grant us many long and happy years together. But one day, in the distant future, I’ll be dressed in a kittel again as they prepare me for my burial. Try to remember that this is the treasure that I have passed on to you. And then it will be your turn, you will be the 134th with the sacred duty to pass on our legacy to number 135.

Rabbi Avi Stewart