SHAVUOT – PENTECOST – CELEBRATION!

LEIL SHAVUOT – THE EVE OF SHAVUOT

~ Keren Hannah

The anticipated time has arrived and we can celebrate the Jubilee of Shavuot!
At nightfall, special festival candles are lit with the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam,
asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav ve’tzivanu lehadlik ner shel Yom Tov.

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to light the Festival lights.

The She’hechianu blessing is then recited:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam,
She’hechianu, ve’kiamanu, ve’higianu la’zman ha’zeh.

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe,
who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

STUDY OF TORAH

At Shavuot we celebrate God’s giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is customary, in some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, for children at three or four years of age to begin their study of the Torah at Shavuot. In order to symbolize the sweetness of Torah, as expressed in the verse: “The knowledge of Torah is like milk and honey under the tongue,” the teachers give each child a drop of honey, or candy, as they learn each new letter. Whenever, we study God’s Word with all our heart, the sweetness is tasted and it is a moment of revelation and a celebration of God’s gift at Sinai.

At Shavuot the ten utterances of Creation in Genesis are echoed in the Ten Words – the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai. Through the gift of His Torah, God informs us, as a Father to His children, that what we do matters. He gives us His guidance and instructions on how to live in order to grow in His likeness and to become the people He created us to be. There is no other way to fulfill our potential and live a life that is meaningful and vibrant – a life of true peace and joy eternal – apart from His way. All that is required from us is to do as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai – to recognize that He is God and to say, “We will do and we will hear!”

The book of Ruth and the Psalms are the main focus of study at this season. Shavuot is considered the day of the Psalmist King David’s birth and death, and the link in lineage between Ruth, David and Messiah is celebrated. Psalm 68 is considered a special psalm to be read at Shavuot.

During synagogue services, the Hallel Psalms are read (Psalms 113 – 118). In addition, there is a special reading of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-20), during which the congregation stands in order to re-enact the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Sephardic Jews read a beautiful ketubah (wedding contract) following the opening of the Ark on Shavuot morning to honor God as the Groom and Israel as His bride. 

After a light celebratory dinner, Leil Shavuot, the night of Shavuot, is devoted to the study of Torah – an all night event for the stalwart! In Jerusalem, for example, study events with excellent teachers are set up all across the city throughout the night. I have sweet memories of moving with a group of friends from one preselected and timed study to another. Just before dawn, everyone started walking to the Kotel, the Western Wall, at the heart of the Old City. As we walked, we could hear the steps and soft murmurings of more and more little streams of people joining with the growing ‘river’ that was flowing from all directions to the gathering place that represents the earthly, Holy House of God.

Suddenly time had no meaning; we became part of the innumerable processions that, through history, had made their way joyfully in response to His call to “come up” to His holy mountain to meet with Him at His appointed time. Our hearts were filled with the beauty of His Word, our mouths were singing psalms of praise, and we rejoiced that we could stand together in His Presence in the place that He had chosen as His Dwelling Place forever. As we prayed and sang and watched the new day dawn with its ever-brightening golden light, our hearts were filled with hope and faith in the Salvation and Redemption of our God, who has promised:

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. YHVH, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will renew you in his love; He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. He will remove disaster from you…” (Zephaniah 3:16-18).

DAY OF THE FIRSTFRUITS – YOM HA’BIKKURIM

The central theme of the ingathering of the wheat harvest fifty days after the planting at Passover, and the offering of the first fruits to the Creator and Giver of all, is beautifully celebrated on the kibbutzim [agricultural communities] in restored Israel today.  I enjoy delightful memories of my time on a kibbutz in the swamp-turned-fertile-farmland valley of Jezreel. Late morning, after catching up on some sleep after a night of study, everyone would meet in the wheat fields where, in a form of dance, a group of men would reap the grain with huge sickles. I was invited to join the group of women, dressed in white and red, who danced behind them gathering the stalks and placing them together in a growing pile. What a prophetic, joyful dance!

We then walked to a large open area, happily led by the children who were dressed in white like little brides and grooms, bedecked with flowers in their hair and flowing colorful ribbons. There we rejoiced in God’s plentiful provision as each department of the kibbutz would process with the fruits of their labors and display them. This was followed by further celebration in dance and communal song, until we all adjourned to the flower and greenery filled dining hall for a fresh and delicious dairy-based meal.

 

It is customary to eat dairy foods rather than meat at Shavuot, based on the verse,
The knowledge of Torah is like milk and honey under the tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11).
Baked goods also feature, being the ‘fruit’ of the grain crops.

Extra large and longer challah bread is baked or purchased in recollection of the offering of the two loaves of bread waved by the HIgh Priest at the Temple. They are a fitting symbol of the good and nourishing results of man’s participation with God as he works with what is given by God.

Cheesecake, of course, is the perennial favorite. [See recipes below]. Some Sephardic communities bake specially decorated seven-layer cakes to indicate the completion of the seven weeks of anticipation. There is also a mystical belief that there are seven spheres, or heavens, that separate man and God. Thus, “…the seven layers of the cake represent the mystical celestial spheres that God had to traverse to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people.” [1] And, thus, the seven spheres our spirits need to spiral upward through as we grow and draw closer in intimate relationship with Him.

Things to Do at Home

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To help children understand the importance of the day of receiving God’s Word, help them make a decoration that can be displayed as a reminder. This is a simple example.

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* Fold a piece of A4 paper in fourths and cut the top in a semi-circle so that it unfolds like the tablets of Torah.
* Fold left and right sides inwards. You can practice Hebrew by writing the first ten letters of the Aleph Bet, which represent numerals 1 through 10, or write the numerals.
* Paste a cutout red heart on the inside to show that the Word is written on our hearts. Enjoy selecting and writing relevant and meaningful Scripture verses, e.g. Psalm 119:89, 97, 130

Chag Shavuot Sameach! A Blessed and Joyous Pentecost!

 

RECIPES:

Shavuot Coconut Cheesecake

Mix together graham cracker crumbs and melted butter/margarine and press into bottom of 9-inch spring-form pan. Refrigerate. Preheat oven to 350 deg. F.

  1. Cream together cream cheese, cream of coconut, sugar and vanilla until smooth.
  2. Add eggs one at a time. Pour mixture over crust and bake for 40 minutes.
  3.  Refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight.
  4. Remove sides of pan and top with whipped topping and toasted coconut before serving.

Fruit Kebabs with Creamy Dips

Skewer a selection of fruit on each skewer – red strawberry and yellow pineapple brighten them up!

Mix yoghurt & honey. Pour into three or four bowls and add a different flavor to each if desired. For example, coconut, orange juice, chocolate.

DIp fruit into the various creamy dips and enjoy.

Yummy and healthy! Be’teiavon! Bon apetite!

 

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Footnotes:

1. Rabbi K.M. Olitzky & Rabbi Daniel Judson, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont, 2007, 94.

SHAVUOT – PENTECOST

SEASON OF REVELATION AND ROMANCE  

You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain [barley harvest – Passover]. Then you shall keep the Festival of Weeks [Shavuot] for YHVH your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from YHVH your God.
Deuteronomy 16:9-10

Shavuot also is known as Chag HaKatzir, the Harvest Festival. It is the second of the three major Pilgrimage Festivals appointed by God, when the people of Israel would go up to Jerusalem to meet with Him at the Temple. This applied to men in particular but women and children accompanied them whenever possible. Usually, great and joyful processions would wend their way from every corner of the Land, all going up to the beautiful City of God. None travelled empty handed for, apart from all they needed for the journey, they carried baskets filled with the first fruits of their crops, which they would bring to the Temple as an offering of gratitude to the generous Giver of all.

The seven weeks they had counted since Passover were almost at an end, they had harvested the wheat crop, and now, before the days of the fast-approaching summer became too warm, they were gathering together in eager anticipation as one big family at the House of their Father to celebrate His goodness with offerings, music, dance, and feasting.

 

Shavuot is only a one day holiday in Israel, whereas Passover and Sukkot  each are celebrated for a week. Counting the seven weeks of the Omer connects the springtime festivals of Passover, and the week ofUnleavened Bread with the climax of Shavuot, when, in a dramatic revelation of His Presence, God presented His Word to His people.
This ‘chain’ of 49 days in the Spring is reflected in the Fall Feasts, beginning with the month of Elul, which is followed by Rosh HaShana, the ten Days of Awe, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). The Fall sequence culminates with the special celebration of Simchat Torah – rejoicing over the precious gift of God’s Word, the firstfruits of which were given at the first Shavuot/Pentecost.

THE WORD

One of the central themes of the Bible is the revelation of who God is and, as a result, who we are as His children created in His image. As Shavuot primarily celebrates this revelation and the covenant relationship of God with His people, it is one of the key festivals in the cycle of God’s appointed times. At Passover we celebrated “so great a salvation.” God showed Himself, through signs and wonders, to be the mighty Redeemer of His enslaved people.  Then it was as if He said, “Count the days! Wait in anticipation – there is more!”

Seven weeks later, in a spectacular ‘sound-and-light’ show, God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai before His waiting people. At the Red Sea, Moses had declared the understanding that the God of Israel was King. “Adonai yimloch le’olam va’ed! The Lord, YHVH, will reign forever and ever!” (Exodus 15:18). Now, at Sinai, He would present the blueprint for life in His Kingdom; the Constitution, as it were, that would instruct His people on how to create a kingdom on earth in which God is King.

The gathered Israelites not only would receive their ‘identity cards’ as members of His Kingdom, but they also would receive a declaration of His love, a ketubah, a betrothal document from a groom to a bride. They were both overwhelmed and terrified! The King knew, however, that this was not a one-time event. It was the start of an extended process – the forging and developing of an eternal relationship that, like any covenant relationship, would require constant, ongoing dialogue and interaction.

 

An embroidered Torah Ark cover., which reads:

 Etz Chaim Hi L’Machzikim Ba –  A Tree of Life is she [the Torah] to those who strongly take hold of her.

By hearing, studying, and living this great gift of His Word we, His people, are enabled to grow in knowledge and love of our Bridegroom-King. At the same time, we are enabled to grow in all the Kingdom potential our Father has planted within us.

THE HARVEST – HaKatzir

The connection between Pesach and Shavuot is also marked with the beginning and end of the wheat harvest. The ingathering of the whole harvest was a vital, busy time as the crop would provide a staple food for the nation, the lack of which would mean famine.

The centrality of the harvest is a feature in the book of Ruth, which is read and studied at Shavuot. It was due to a famine in the land that Naomi and her husband, and their two sons, left their town of Bethlehem for the neighboring country of Moab. After the death of her husband and sons in Moab, Naomi and one Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, returned to Bethlehem. It was at the time of the wheat harvest and Ruth went to glean in the fields in order to support herself and her mother-in-law. Ruth was the “first fruits” of those from the nations who have and who will in the last days, as the prophet Zechariah describes, “…take hold of the tzitzit/ tassles of the prayer-shawl of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (8:23).

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Picture – Kenneth Berg

Just as Ruth said to Naomi: “Do not entreat me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried” (1:16-17).

Ruth’s faithfulness and demeanor earned her the admiration of the landowner Boaz and, to cut a long story short, a wedding ensued. To them a son was born, named Oved (servant of God), who in turn had a son, Yishai (Jesse), who was the father of David – the second king of Israel. From David’s line will come forth Mashiach ben David – the Messiah Son of David, the future King of all kings; one sent and anointed by God to establish His Kingdom on earth.

THE WEDDING

The Shabbat, 8th May this year, before Shavuot (11th May) is called Shabbat Kallah – the Sabbath of the Bride, which is comparable to the Sabbath celebrated by a Jewish bride prior to her wedding. On Erev Shavuot, the Eve of Shavuot, it is customary for an observant Jew to go to the mikveh (ritual bath) as a means of purification and preparation, as a bride and bridegroom do on the eve of their wedding and as the Israelites prepared themselves at Sinai.

It is with this same sense of eager anticipation, albeit that our joy can be touched with some trepidation, that we count the final days of the Omer and arrive at the threshold of Shavuot. Our preparation will determine whether we will be ready to approach the mount and enter the ‘fiery cloud’ of His Presence and hear the voice of God that has special words to speak to each of His children. We need not fear, however, for they are words of love as a bridegroom would whisper to his beloved bride. A very concrete example of this is enacted in Sephardic services on Shavuot. When the Ark is opened and before the Torah scroll is removed, a ketubah like document is read before the congregation. Some examples of which are as follows:

The Bridegroom [YHVH], Ruler of rulers, Prince of princes…Whose mouth is pleasing and all of Whom is delightful, said unto the pious, lovely and virtuous maiden [the people of Israel], who is beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun, awesome as bannered hosts… Be thou My mate according to the law of Moses and Israel, and I will honor, support and maintain thee and be thy shelter and refuge in everlasting mercy…

The bride consented and became His spouse. Thus an eternal covenant, binding them forever, was established between them…. The dowry that this bride brought consists of an understanding heart that understands, ears that hearken, and eyes that see….Thus, the sum total of the contract and dowry…amounts to the following: “Revere YHVH and observe His commandments; this applied to all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

I invoke heaven and earth as reliable witnesses. May the Bridegroom rejoice with the bride whom He has taken as His portion and may the bride rejoice with her Husband
…while uttering words of praise. [1]

A chuppah – wedding canopy

He brought me to the banqueting house, and His banner over me was love.”
(Song of Songs 2:4)

~ Keren Hannah

Footnotes:

* Picture: Shavuot,  Baruch Nachshon, Israel

1. Michael Strassfield, The Jewish Holidays, A Guide & Commentary, Harper & Row, NY, 1985, 75.