Seven Ways to Celebrate Shavuot

On the Festival of Weeks, do as the ancient Israelites did: Receive the Torah and celebrate the first fruits.

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My own Washington, D.C., congregation has done this successfully for a few years running. Beginning right after the evening service, ma'ariv, and lasting until dawn, members share their knowledge, from a passage or two of Talmud, to the exploration of why we drink grape juice for kiddush (blessing of the Sabbath that is said over wine), to a talk on contemporary Yiddish women writers. Typically an all-volunteer affair, the presentations can be as short as 10 or 15 minutes. Food for fortification throughout the long night is definitely recommended.

Bring the outdoors in.

Legend has it that when the Israelites approached Mount Sinai they found it covered with greenery and lush flowers. Thus, today many Jewish homes are decorated with greenery and flowers during the holiday. Schoolchildren wear wreaths of flowers and greens on their heads, and plants and branches adorn the synagogue.

Got milk? The Torah has been likened in sweetness to milk and honey, like the land of Israel itself, so dairy meals are traditional for this holiday, and in many homes blintzes are de rigeur. Crepe-like blintzes filled with berries, fruit or sweet cheese in shape and bounty recall the look of a Torah scroll, so perhaps that's why these delicious treats have become synonymous with the holiday. Other teachings about dairy meals include the fact that before Shavuot the Israelites didn't have the Torah, so there were no laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). Upon receiving the Torah, kashrutz came into force, but the tribes had no kosher meat or kosher dishes available, so they ate dairy only until fresh meat could be prepared.

Take ten--commandments. The centerpiece of the receiving the Torah, of course, is the Decalogue. Review the Ten Commandments, and as a family come up with your own top-ten list, an ethical covenant for your family to follow alongside the original--and ultimate--ten.

Read the book. The Torah, that is. It's the central reason for the holiday in the first place, so take out a translation, sit down and read. Try the JPS's The Torah: The Five Books of Moses, JPS's Torah Commentary, Gunther Plaut's The Torah: A Modern Commentary (UAHC Press), Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah (Moznaim), or The Torah for Family Reading: The Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Writings by Joseph Gaer (Jason Aronson) and The Illustrated Torah by Michal Meron and Ellen Frankel (JPS). For youngsters, a number of simplified retellings are a good place to start. Pitspopany Press has a colorful illustrated series and a number of anthologies of Bible stories for children. Eric Kimmel's Be Not Far From Me (Simon & Schuster) is a lovely retelling of some of the Torah stories, as is Julius Lester's Genesis, When the Beginning Began (Harcourt Brace).


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