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Shavuot Customs

Author: Esther Ehrman, Iyar 5767/May 2007

א ח ר י ת

א=אקדמות ח=חלב ר=רות י=ירק ת=תורה

The above is a mnemonic for our Shavuot customs. A Cha R I T, acharit, referring to minhagim, customs, that come after, later than the Torah itself. A = Akdamut; Cha = Chalav; R = Ruth; I = Ierek; T = Torah.

Akdamut. A poem in Aramaic by R. Itzhak b. Meir, chazan in Worms, whose son was murdered in the 1096 Crusade. Each of the ninety lines of the poem ends in את , the last and first letter of the alphabet, indicative of the fact that the Torah begins anew when it seems to have reached the end. The poem extols the Almighty and His love for Israel and exhorts Israel to hold firm to faith in its redemption. The poem is read in Ashkenazi Synagogues at the beginning of the reading of the Torah. In Sephardi Synagogues, the custom is to read Azharot, a poem that speaks of the 613 commandments, as well as a special ketuba, a marriage contract between the Almighty and Israel.

Chalav, milk. It is the custom to eat dairy foods for at least one meal of the festival. Some of the reasons given are:

Just as there were two offerings on Pesach, the paschal lamb and the festival sacrifice, chagiga, we have two kinds of food, meat and milk (Eliahu Ki Tov, The Book of Our Heritage). There is a tradition that Moses refused to drink the milk of a non-Israelite and so was nursed by his mother Yocheved at the suggestion of his sister Miriam (Sefer Matamim). The numerical value of the letters חלב is forty, corresponding to the forty days Moses spent on Mt Sinai (R.Shimshon of Ostropol). The letters are also seen as an allusion to Psalm 92,3 להגיד בבוקר חסדך 'to speak of Your loving kindness each morning', to indicate the importance of loving kindness in the Torah. 'Honey and milk are under your tongue' (Song of Songs, 4,11). These words are seen as alluding to learning Torah.

Ruth. The Book of Ruth is read in Synagogue on Shavuot. Here, too, there are several reasons given for the tradition:

Ruth the Moabitess accepted the Torah, ('your G-d will be my G-d') just as the Children of Israel accepted the Torah ('we shall do and we shall hear', na'ase ve nishma). The story is set during the barley harvest that echoes the period from the bringing of the first barley offering, the Omer, until the bringing of the first wheat offering on Shavuot (shtei ha lechem, two wheat loaves). The Book of Ruth tells us that King David was her great grandson. Eliahu Ki Tov cites Bechor Shor to add that David was born and died on Shavuot. He stresses that the reading strengthens the importance of the Oral Torah, since the Rabbis based their decision that a Moabitess is accepted as a convert, even though a Moabite man is not, on the text of the Book of Ruth.

Ierek. Greenery. On Shavuot, it is customary to decorate the Synagogue and the home with plants. Indeed, the festival is referred to as mode gol, the festival of flowers, in a Persian tradition (D.Sperber, Minhagei Israel). This custom, too, has a number of explanations:

The Mishna (Rosh HaShana, 1:2) tells us that there are four annual occasions when the world is judged, one of which is 'On atzeret - one of the names for Shavuot - the fruits of the tree'. There was a practice to bring trees into the Synagogue. The Gaon of Vilna stopped this custom because it resembled the practices of other nations. The Midrash tells that, on Shavuot, the occasion of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai in the desert came out in blossoms. The verse 'let flocks nor herds feed before the mount' (Exodus 34,3)is cited as alluding to the fact that there were plants. The greenery is associated with the Shavuot offering of bikkurim, the first fruits of the seven species of the land of Israel (D.Sperber.loc.cit)
The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, R.Nachman, would run through the green fields near his home town, Uman, Ukraine, before the morning service on Shavuot

Torah. Tikkun leil Shavuot refers to the custom to stay up and learn Torah in the night of Shavuot. The reason most often given is based on a Midrash that the Israelites were sleeping and had to be roused to be ready to receive the Torah; the nights of learning on Shavuot are intended to make amends for this. However, there is a kabbalistic tradition maintaining that, on the contrary, the Israelites could not sleep on that night because they were so excited on this, the eve of their wedding. Israel was the bride, the Almighty was the bridegroom and the gift of the groom to the bride was the Torah (Eliahu Ki Tov, loc.cit)

The Jewish People cherish all these customs. The fact that each has a number of explanations is an indication that that the oral tradition that has handed these customs down to us is indeed very old. Our Sages were offering possible justifications for each custom, not giving us its historical origin. Any one of the explanations for a particular custom would be good enough for us to make sure that it is continued by future generations.