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Reflections on Shavuot

I told myself I would start my diet after the Shavuot holiday, but it’s taken a week to finish the last few leftover pieces of cheesy lasagna and rich noodle pudding. And just last night, I took a spoon and scraped out the last few creamy crumbs of our Shavuot cheesecake from the pan in the refrigerator. So I guess the diet starts today.It was a great holiday.

Shavuot in Hebrew means weeks, and it refers to the seven weeks that link Passover to Shavuot (Pentecost). Every day, starting from Passover, we count the days leading up to the festival that celebrates the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. “And you shall count for yourselves… seven complete sabbaths shall there be…” (Leviticus 23:15)

Elitzur came home from kindergarten with a chart of 49 squares and stickers to mark each day that passes. My big girls had reminders set on their cell phones to beep every night so they would remember to count. Our Karnei Shomron neighborhood e-mail had a program that automatically sent out reminders every night, telling the whole community what day we were up to in the counting, so we wouldn’t forget to count. Counting is a sign of love, of anticipation. Netanel and Avraham count their marbles, their Harry Potter cards… the number of school days left till summer vacation. The Jewish people count the days up to the giving of our Torah- the Code of Law. The daily counting lends a feeling of expectancy, eagerness, even desire, to the weeks leading up to the holiday.

In English the holiday is called Pentecost- meaning 50- the fiftieth day. When that fiftieth day comes, we can picture standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, feeling yet another layer of servitude from our enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt slipping away, as we commit ourselves instead, to serving G-d. Tradition states that the meals on Shavuot should be made up of dairy foods. One reason given is that until the Israelites received the Torah, they didn’t yet have the laws of ritual slaughtering and cooking of animals, so they opted for simple dairy meals. Others say that it is meant to remind us of the verse from Song of Songs (4:11): “Honey and Milk are under your tongue.” I like the version that says that King Solomon compared the Torah to milk—our first and most sustaining food, and on the anniversary of receiving the Torah, which is the ultimate sustenance, we should partake of dairy meals. Whatever the reason, our family loves the excuse to indulge in a rich menu of creamy, cheesy foods.

My husband Kuti pretends to complain that a meal without meat is not a meal, but he “suffers” graciously and can’t deny enjoying an ice coffee topped with ice cream for dessert! After the night meal there is a bit of a rush as everyone gets ready for their nighttime classes. One of the most beautiful traditions of the holiday is the Torah study that takes place all over Israel by Jews of all ages. The ultimate goal is to stay up ALL NIGHT involved in Torah study, but not everyone manages.

The religious council of the neighborhood has organized impressive lists of where all the Torah classes are being given and who will be teaching the classes. Every age group- every grade from first through high school- has Bible classes at different houses around the community, hosted by parents and young adults. Avraham and Netanel went off to their classes from 10:30 P.M. until 12:30 A.M. Elitzur felt a little insulted that nothing was planned for his 4 year old age group (!) so Kuti and I sat down with a Shavuot story book to “study Torah” with him. I convinced him to sit outside on our front porch swing, to learn by the dim light bulb. I didn’t want to miss the sight of people of all ages, hurrying to Bible classes through the dark streets, the feeling of joy and eagerness to learn, lending holiness to the bustling walking traffic.

When the little ones got tucked in, Kuti and I, and our older girls, go off to the synagogue for adult classes. The synagogue looks festive, leafy palm branches adorning the Holy Ark and flowers and plants filling the sanctuary, to remind us of the blossoming flowers that bloomed on Mount Sinai in anticipation of the Torah being given on its summit.

When my eyes start drooping I make my way home through the still noisy streets. Only seven o’clock the next morning, when I hear the front door opening, do I find out that my husband Kuti and my twelve year old son Avraham had stayed up learning throughout the night. Kuti attended all-night study sessions given by assorted rabbis and learned people of the neighborhood, and Avraham sat with a good friend, choosing different tractates of the Talmud and the Scriptures to pour over together, their partnership keeping each other alert and eager to continue. Only at 4:30 A.M. did they join an early Morning Prayer quorum as the sun slowly came up.

I went to synagogue for the regular-hour prayer service. Shavuot services include the reading aloud of the Ten Commandments. The congregation stands and I close my eyes, trying to picture myself there at Mount Sinai, hearing the claps of thunder and the trumpeting of the ram’s horn. I try to feel how the earth trembled as G-d’s voice spoke from the clouds covering the mountaintop. The Sages say that the souls of every Jew, ever to be born in the future, were there at the foot of the mountain to say to G-d “We will do your bidding and keep your commandments.” I am so proud… so struck with gratitude and awe, that on the anniversary of the giving of G-d’s word, I am living the life of the Bible, here in G-d’s land.

The service continues with the reading of one of the five scrolls of the Torah—the Book of Ruth. I find it heartwarming that the Book traces Ruth’s lineage to her great grandson, King David. How beautiful that the Messiah, who we believe will descend from King David, can trace himself to a convert, to a person searching for faith, thirsty for the truth. Somehow, reading about a young woman, so strong in her desire to become a member of the Jewish people, gives me pause to think how lucky I am to be born into such a heritage.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities