May 18, 2007Comments (0)
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Many different things come to mind when thinking about the holiday of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks”). Late night Jewish learning. Cheesecake. Confirmation ceremonies. Blintzes. But how many of us associate Shavuot with wheat harvests, agricultural celebrations, and gleaning of fields? Shavuot is most famously celebrated as the holiday honoring the anniversary of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. However, even before Shavuot took on religious and historical significance for its association with the story of Mount Sinai, the holiday was celebrated as an agricultural festival.
Many of our Shavuot traditions have an obvious connection to agriculture and the harvest, while other connections become clear only when scratching a bit beneath the surface.
Did you know?
- Shavuot is also referred to as “Chag HaKatzir” (Harvest Festival) and “Yom HaBikkurim” (The Day of the First Fruits).
- There is a tradition to decorate synagogue sanctuaries with flowers and plant life on Shavuot. In some congregations, the feeling of the outdoors is even brought indoors by spreading grass on the floor of sanctuary. A more recent custom has developed to plant shrubberies and flowers outside of the synagogue the day before the holiday.
- In some agricultural communities in Israel, people dress in white and ride around in carts loaded up with produce from the late spring harvest.
- The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot, in part because of the story’s connection to the Davidic dynasty and the relationship between Ruth’s personal acceptance of the Torah and the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah as a people. However, Ruth is also read as a story focused on the harvest season, bringing to light valuable lessons about the laws of allowing the poor to glean from the fields; one of Judaism’s earliest and forward-thinking mandated social welfare systems.
- Many explanations are offered for the custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuot. Some scholars bring to light that dairy food was prevalent in the ancient harvest festivals of various ethno-religious groups, possibly because the late spring was a season for cheese production. The connections between dairy food and the religious themes of Shavuot may have been developed later as a way of infusing meaningful Jewish purpose into an already existing custom.
- Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, and in ancient times people would come to the Temple in Jerusalem and bring two loaves of bread as an offering. A mystical explanation of this offering links the harvest to the receiving of the Torah, claiming that the two loaves of bread each person brought both represented thanks for the physical receiving of wheat from the ground, as well as symbolizing the two tablets and spiritual sustenance received at Mount Sinai.
Want to learn more about the holiday of Shavuot? Go to hillel.myjewishlearning.com to learn more in-depth about this topic and other fascinating elements of the upcoming festival.