AKDAMUT MILLIN – an Aramaic poem in 90 lines chanted by Ashkenazim before the Torah reading. Composed by an 11th century German cantor, Me’ir ben Yitzchak Nehorai, it declares that even if all the sea were ink and every reed a pen we could never praise God and His Word enough. The poem says that the nations of the world want the Jews to abandon the Torah but we are ready for martyrdom to defend our faith. This loyalty will be rewarded at the messianic banquet of redemption when the whole world will join in the praise of God. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden called the poem “estimable… precious in my eyes”, but objected to inserting it after the Torah reading had begun.
AZ SHESH ME’OT (“613”) – a medieval poem about the 613 commandments, chanted on Shavu’ot in some Ashkenazi rites using a penitential melody.
AZHAROT (“ADMONITIONS”) – a series of poems about the commandments; reciting them was opposed by authorities who opposed interrupting the statutory service.
BARLEY – a major cereal crop, often used for bread by those who could not afford wheat. The barley harvest was the setting for the story of Ruth (see below).
BETHLEHEM – city just south of Jerusalem; important in the Book of Ruth (see below). Famine affected Bethlehem so severely that its name, “House of Bread”, was ironic. The Ruth story centres round the departure from and return to the city.
BIKKURIM (“First Fruits”) – in Num. 28:26, Shavu’ot is Yom HaBikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits, marking the harvest by a pilgrimage to the Temple and an offering of two loaves made from the year’s first wheat produce. A declaration accompanied the bringing of the first fruits (Deut. 26), which could take place up until Sukkot, sometimes extended to Chanukah. First Fruits celebrations are a feature of modern Israel.
BLINTZES – see DAIRY FOODS.
CHEESECAKE – see DAIRY FOODS.
DAIRY FOODS – customary on Shavu’ot, possibly because Shir HaShirim (4:11) says, “Milk and honey (symbols of Torah) are under your tongue”. Non-meat meals are easier to eat in hot weather; a further suggestion is that when the dietary laws came into operation at Mount Sinai, no kosher meat was yet available, so the people ate dairy foods. (See also here and here.)
DAVID – King David was born and died on Shavu’ot. In his memory some read his Psalms on the 2nd night. It has been said that the hero of the 1st day is Moses; the hero of the 2nd day is David. See also the note below on the Book of Ruth.
DECALOGUE (“10 WORDS”) – a better name than “10 Commandments”.
FIRST FRUITS – see BIKKURIM.
GREENERY – synagogues and homes are decorated with greenery and flowers on Shavu’ot as “a reminder of the joy of the giving of the Torah”, when the modest mountain of Sinai blossomed (Rema). Others connect the practice with the idea that fruits are judged by God on Shavu’ot (Talmud RH 16a), or the view that Moses’ cradle was placed in the reed-grass on Shavu’ot by his sister Miriam.
HAFTAROT – on the 1st day, Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine chariot, reminding us of the mystical side of Judaism; on the 2nd day, Habakkuk’s message that neither famine nor any obstacle should stand in the way of faith.
HALLEL – Psalms 113-118, recited on Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, as well as Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah. Echoing the Song of the Red Sea, Hallel says, “The Lord is my strength and song: He has become my salvation”.
IS’RU CHAG – “Bind the festival offering” (Psalm 118:27): a name for the day after a festival.
KETUBAH L’SHAVU’OT – marriage covenant for Shavu’ot. On the 1st day, before the open Ark, Sephardim read a poetical ketubah written by the Tz’fat mystic, Rabbi Yisra’el Najjara, celebrating the union of God and Israel, with the mitzvot as the dowry.
MATTAN TORAH – the Giving of the Torah. Why not call the festival “The Time of the Receiving of the Torah”? The Kotzker Rebbe has two explanations: 1. The Torah was given once: we must accept it every day; 2. The Torah belongs to all of us but we each receive it in accordance with our own capacity.
MEMORIAL PRAYERS – see YIZKOR.
OMER – a measure of barley harvested as from 2nd day Pesach. The 49 days until Shavu’ot are carefully counted. At this time of year the struggle against the Romans was affected when many of Rabbi Akiva’s students died from disease. The period of the Omer is a time of semi-mourning, relieved on the 33rd day (Lag Ba’Omer), when the disease abated. The counting of the days is likened to a host awaiting an honoured guest or a bride counting the days to her marriage.
PENTECOST (“50”) – see SHAVU’OT. Jews do not use the Greek name Pentecost, which the New Testament regards as the inception of the Christian Church.
PHARISEES/SADDUCEES – the Pharisees said that in the command to count from “the morrow of the day of rest” (Lev. 23:15), “day of rest” was the Pesach festival, so Shavu’ot is always 6 Sivan. The Sadducees, and later the Karaites, argued that “day of rest” meant Saturday and numbered the days from the first Sunday in Pesach, making Shavu’ot a movable feast.
REVELATION – when the agricultural significance of Shavu’ot declined in the post-Biblical period, the major theme became Z’man Mattan Toratenu (“Our time of the Giving of the Torah”). Pesach and Sukkot also assumed a more spiritual/ethical significance. Only the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard from the voice of God; the others were mediated through Moses. Maimonides says that since God is not physical, He conveyed the Torah “in a way which is metaphorically called ‘speaking'”. Jewish tradition insists that the Torah is from Above, not a mere human development. (See also here.)
RITUAL – Shavu’ot has no great ritual item such as matzah on Pesach or the shofar on Rosh HaShanah but its theme is Torah – not as an item but as the overarching principle of Judaism. As Torah has “70 faces”, it has several levels, e.g. the law against worshipping idols warns us against the worship of status, success, self or sensuality.
RUTH – read on Shavu’ot since the story took place “at the beginning of the barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22). Other reasons: 1. Ruth willingly embraced Judaism, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai; 2. she was the ancestress of King David: as a Moabite woman she would not have been permitted into the congregation of Israel if not for rabbinic interpretation of the word “Moabite” in Deut. 17:15, and thus David would not have been king, nor would the future Messiah descend from David, if not for rabbinic teaching; 3. Ruth’s kindly character is symbolic of the ethics given at Sinai. (See also here.)
SHAVU’OT (“WEEKS”) – the 7 weeks from Pesach are calculated differently by some separatist groups (see PHARISEES/SADDUCEES). To avoid such problems, the sages preferred the Biblical name Atzeret (“conclusion”). As the Exodus was only a first stage of redemption, with the main goal as the Revelation, Shavu’ot is the completion of Pesach.
SINAI – mountain on which the Torah was given. God choose a mountain in no-man’s land to show that the Divine Law is for all human beings. He did not give the Torah before the people reached Mount Sinai because only when they camped facing the mountain were they like “one person with one heart” (Ex. 19:2 and Rashi).
TEN COMMANDMENTS – given on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning. The Ten Commandments are read on Shavu’ot with a more dramatic tune (ta’amei elyon, lit. “higher notes“) than usual. Most congregations stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments, symbolising the people standing at Mount Sinai. The first 5 Commandments are duties to God; the second 5 are duties to human beings. The link is the commandment to honour parents, who are God’s agents in giving us life.
Articles on the Ten Commandments:
– The shape of the Ten Commandments
– Ten Commandments – Jewish & Christian views
– To know is to believe
– The most important of the Ten Commandments
– Other gods
– No other gods
– They trusted him
– Your parents’ sins
– Sins of the fathers
– Honouring parents
– Long days
– The higher Ten Commandments
– Thou Shalt Not – the negative Commandments
– What the Commandments tell us about man
– What the Commandments tells us about God
– Short, sharp, staccato – the 5 “Do Nots”
– God is the difference
– We’re too clever
– Thou Shall Not!
– Ups & downs of the Ten Commandments
– The 11th commandment
– Beginning with Alef
– It’s no fun to be famous
– Were the Ten Commandments forced on us?
TIKKUN LEIL SHAVU’OT – on Shavu’ot night many stay up to read Biblical, rabbinic and mystical passages. Tikkun means “arrangement” since the readings have a set order. It also means “restoration”: learning Torah makes the world whole. The Midrash says that the people overslept before the Torah was given and God had to wake them up. Later generations decided to stay awake so they would be ready when God wanted them.
YATZIV PITGAM – a poem chanted on the 2nd day, praising God and asking Him to answer our prayers and protect us.
YIZKOR – memorial prayers on the 2nd day (in Israel on the one day of the festival), echoing the Scriptural call to give charity, often associated with the memory of the dead.