Shavuot means all-night Torah study, cheesecake

Jewish holiday traditions include foliage decoration

May 10, 2002|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Shavuot might not get the attention of the better-known Jewish holidays. But next week's festive holiday, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, has a slew of cherished traditions -- from all-night Torah study sessions and confirmation services to decorating synagogues with foliage and feasting on cheesecake.

"It's a wonderful holiday," said Dr. Gary Gross, a Columbia veterinarian and member of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia. "Every year, I try to stay up and study."

This year, the two-day festival begins at sundown Thursday. Shavuot, which literally means weeks, marks the seven-week period of anticipation and preparation between the second night of Passover, after the Jews were delivered from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

"Shavuot is the culmination of a process that starts at Passover," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. "But what's freedom for? The purpose is the revelation of Torah, which gives us guidelines for living a just life."

The holiday also represents the integration of the physical and spiritual worlds, said Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center. "Shavuot demonstrates how the physical elements of this world should be uplifted and connected with God," he said. "This is the symbolism of God's descent onto the physical -- Mount Sinai. God said, `You can make the world spiritual by practicing the commandments and living in the ways of God.'"

Among Shavuot's traditions is Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which literally means "a repair of the first evening" and refers to a Torah study program. Because some Jews at Sinai overslept and had to be awakened to receive the Torah, "this study is a redemption, a repair," Grossman said. "The mystical concept is repairing the breach between God and Jewish people through study."

Other traditions of the holiday, which also celebrates Israel's wheat harvest, include the recitation of the Ten Commandments during morning services and reading from the Book of Ruth. Set at the same time as Shavuot, the story is about a Moabite who converts to Judaism. Her great-grandson was King David, who was born and died on Shavuot.

"Jews were considered like converts at Mount Sinai," Baron said. "Ruth showed the same devotion as a convert that Jews had when they accepted the Torah."

Eating dairy foods such as cheese blintzes and cheesecake is customary because Jews at Sinai ate dairy. "They were given the laws of kashrus [keeping kosher] and didn't have time to prepare kosher meat foods," said Baron. His synagogue will sponsor a children's ice cream party after the morning Torah reading May 17.

At Beth Shalom, several congregants will each teach a portion from Genesis to about 30 congregants as they sit around a table of cheesecake and fruit. Last year's program got so intense that they covered only creation and Noah's ark. "I didn't want to cut off the dialogue," Grossman said. "Rather than push forward, we decided to go in-depth. New meanings were uncovered."

Congregant Merle Haber will teach the portion on the death of Sarah. "The program is very stimulating," she said. "That's why we didn't get very far last year."

Beth Shalom congregants stop studying about midnight to attend prayer services because of another tradition -- the heavens open at midnight on Shavuot and prayers go directly to God.

Many Jews also decorate their homes and synagogues with greenery and flowers to recall Mount Sinai's foliage and because the Torah is referred to as a tree of life.

Beth Shalom, however, uses artificial trees. "I'm allergic to flowers," Grossman said.

During the first night, many Reform congregations such as Temple Isaiah in Columbia conduct a confirmation ceremony for 10th-graders completing their final year of post-bar mitzvah religious study. "Shavuot celebrates the affirmation of the Torah and its meaning to them personally," said Rabbi Mark Panoff.

On Thursday evening, 28 students of Temple Isaiah Religious School will be confirmed and will lead the prayer service. Many also will read excerpts from their statement paper, a summation of what confirmation means to them.

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