Israel celebrated a much-loved holiday last week – the Festival of Weeks, also known as ‘Shavuot’ in Hebrew. The festival has different aspects -both agricultural festival (held at the time of the grain harvest) and religious (the moment that the Torah was given to Jews on Mount Sinai, seven weeks after they fled persecution in Egypt). tremendous religious importance,
Shavuot, in fact, was one of three pilgrimage festivals in ancient Israel. Back then, Jews were commanded to present offerings before God in Jerusalem – the first fruits of their harvest, known as ‘bikkurim.’ These were comprised from the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised in the Hebrew Bible – grapes, figs, wheat, barley, olives, dates and pomegranates.
In religious terms, Shavuot compels Jews to remember – after all, this was the time at which they received the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and the point at which they entered into a covenantal relationship with God. Today, Israel (as well as Jews across the world) celebrate the holiday in a number of ways…all of them happy! These include:
1. Eating dairy products – no-one is quite sure why, but it is traditional to eat milk and cheese products at this holiday. Some sages have argued that once the laws were give at Sinai. the Jews could not eat meat until they had begun preparing it according to these news laws – and so they turned to dairy
One thing is for sure – this is a holiday where you’re sure to find cheesecake on every table…as well as blintzes (cheese-filled crepes, which can be both sweet or savoury) and quiches.
2. Staying up all night to study the Torah – it is customary on Shavuot to stay up until dawn breaks, studying the Torah. But why all night? An old story suggests that the Israelites overslept, the morning they were supposed to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Attending what is known as a ‘tikkun leila’ is an attempt to correct the mistake – because in Hebrew, ‘tikkun’ means ‘repair’ and leila means ‘night.’
This year in Israel, tends of thousands of people turned up to study programs that went on until sunrise. Some were held in Hebrew and others in Israel – many put together by young people who had grown up in relatively secular homes but are curious about Jewish history and the texts of the Hebrew Bible.
3. Reading the Book of Ruth – in the synagogue, on the morning of Shavuot, it is traditional to read from the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a woman who left her people, converted to Judaism and eventually became great grandmother to King David and the story in this book takes place at the time of the barley harvest. Some communities also read medieval poems (‘piyyutim’)
4. Celebrating Israel’s agricultural offerings – as mentioned before, in ancient Israel this was the time of year when Jews would take offerings from the first wheat harvest to Jerusalem’s Temple. Today, in modern Israel, many of the countries kibbutzim and moshavim (centres of agriculture) throw festivals, which are open to the public and a great favorite with kids!
5. Praying at dawn at the Western Wall – As dawn breaks on the morning of Shavuot, if you are at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem you will see thousands of religious Jews descend upon the area. As the sun rises, they will recite an ancient Hebrew prayer – the Sh’ma. For Israelis who are less observant, a popular place to gather is at the beach, for a moment of quiet reflection and contemplation.
6. Dressing in white – No-one knows quite why it’s traditional to wear white on Shavuot, but many people still do. On kibbutzes, it’s common to see children in white dresses and shirts, with garlands of flowers in their hair, carrying baskets filled with produce. At the beginning of the 20th century, before the State of Israel had been created, many of the early pioneers held parades and processions on this day. They sang, danced, showed off art work, read poems and held performances – and all monies raised were donated to the Jewish National Fund.
This year, whether it was study, revelry or relaxation, Israelis turned to both traditional and modern ways to of celebrating this special festival. Kids camps were held (where kids – under supervision! – cooked a light dairy lunch), thousands turned out to hike national trails, kids got to ride in tractors on kibbutzes…and for the more sedentary, there was the option of sitting at home (or out at a picnic) and tucking into a big piece of cheesecake. Here’s a traditional melody or two to give you an idea…
What better way to spend a holiday?