Shavuot In the Community

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Although the biblical references to Shavuot and its early history revolved around an agricultural festival and making offerings in the Temple (particularly grain offerings), the festival is now more closely associated with commemorating the time the Israelites received the Torah while wandering in the wilderness.

flowers for shavuot

The agricultural roots of the holiday are evident in Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the omer, which refers to a measure of grain that was brought to the Temple on Shavuot. The counting of the omer–a literal enumeration of what day it is in the omer–begins on the second night of Passover and includes seven weeks of seven days, with the 50th day being Shavuot. The counting occurs during the Maariv (evening) service.

During the omer period, it is customary to study one chapter of the tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) every Shabbat afternoon, although some communities continue to study it throughout the summer.

Some of the customs associated with Shavuot display remnants of the agricultural tradition. Synagogues are often decorated with flowers and foliage. This is also connected with Mishnah Rosh Hashanah (a section of the Talmud), which states that Shavuot is the judgment day for fruit trees. Recent customs are to plant flowers around the synagogue on the day before Shavuot. Sometimes grass is spread on the floor of the synagogue, a custom related to the agricultural aspects of this festival or to remind the people of the grass upon which the Israelites stood while receiving the Torah. In Israeli agricultural communities, some people dress in white and ride on carts filled with the produce of the late spring harvest.

There is general feeling of sadness from Passover to Shavuot. There are a number of theories for why Jews view this period with sadness, one of which refers to a plague that killed many students of the famed talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva during this period. Whatever the reason, it is a time of semi-mourning when traditional Jews do not perform wedding ceremonies, cut their hair, or attend live musical performances. The period of sadness is interrupted on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, on Lag B’Omer (the Hebrew letters “lamed” and “gimmel” which spell “lag” add up to 33). Some traditional Jews end the semi-mourning period on this day, and some continue it after that day until three days before Shavuot. The main Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Orthodox custom is to mourn from Pesach until three days before Shavuot with the exceptions of Lag B’Omer, Rosh Hodesh (the new moon) for the month of Iyar, Rosh Hodesh for the month of Sivan, (and for many) the fifth of Iyar (Israeli Independence Day).

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