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.”  And, thus, the seven spheres our spirits need to spiral upward through as we grow and draw closer in intimate relationship with Him.
- Decorate your home with special flowers and greenery to celebrate God’s gift of the beauty of the season.
- Make garlands of “flower crowns” for children to wear.
- Make a Ten Commandments Card.
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.
* 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
- To add to the fun, have a sleepover party for the children, while the adults study the book of Ruth. As a “midnight feast,” a treat of a special cake can be enjoyed. Maybe a white cheesecake, ice-cream cake, or a cake with white icing, representing the sweetness, purity, and enjoyment of the Word. You could add twelve red cherries or strawberries. Add a few candles representing the flames of fire that descended at Mount Sinai and on the Temple Mount. At an opportune time, the children could blow out the candles, making the sound of a “mighty, rushing wind”!
Chag Shavuot Sameach! A Blessed and Joyous Pentecost!
Shavuot Coconut Cheesecake
- 1-1/2 cups graham cracker (or ginger biscuit) crumbs
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
- 2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
- ½ cup cream of coconut
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup whipped cream or topping of your choice
- ½ cup coconut, toasted
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.
- Cream together cream cheese, cream of coconut, sugar and vanilla until smooth.
- Add eggs one at a time. Pour mixture over crust and bake for 40 minutes.
- Refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight.
- Remove sides of pan and top with whipped topping and toasted coconut before serving.
Fruit Kebabs with Creamy Dips
- Assorted fruit, cut into roughly 1” shapes
- Wooden skewers
- 1 large container vanilla yoghurt
- 2 Tablespoons honey
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!
1. Rabbi K.M. Olitzky & Rabbi Daniel Judson, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont, 2007, 94.