It is ironic that Shavuot is such a little-known holiday, given that it commemorates the single most important event in Jewish history – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Shavuot occurs on the 6th of Sivan, the culmination of a seven-week period, "counting of the Omer," that occurs following Passover. The very name "Shavuot" means "weeks," in recognition of the weeks of preparation and anticipation leading up to the Sinai experience. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after the first day of Passover, it is sometimes known as "Pentecost," a Greek word meaning "the holiday of 50 days." (Shavuot, however, has no connection to the Christian Pentecost holiday.)
Three millennia ago, after leaving Egypt on the day of Passover, the Jews traveled into the Sinai desert. There, the entire Jewish nation – 3 million men, women and children – directly experienced divine revelation:
God spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you were hearing the sound of words, but you were not seeing a form, only a sound. He told you of His covenant, instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets. (Deut. 4:12-13)
The giving of the Torah was an event of awesome proportions that indelibly stamped the Jewish nation with a unique character, faith and destiny. And in the 3,300 years since, the Torah’s ideals – monotheism, justice, responsibility – have become the moral basis for Western civilization. In the words of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, "The Hebraic mortars cemented the foundations of American democracy."
How to Celebrate
Shavuot is a full-fledged Yom Tov, and as such carries most of the same restrictions as on Shabbat – no driving, no writing, etc. The exception is that food preparation (e.g. cooking) is permitted. In Israel, Shavuot lasts one day; outside of Israel it is two days.
Perhaps the reason for the relative obscurity of Shavuot is because this holiday has no obvious "symbols" of the day – i.e. no Shofar, no Sukkah, no Chanukah Menorah.
On Shavuot, there are no symbols to distract us from the central focus of Jewish life: the Torah. So how do we commemorate Shavuot? It is a widespread custom to stay up the entire night learning Torah. And since Torah is the way to self-perfection, the Shavuot night learning is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot,which means "an act of self-perfection on the night of Shavuot."
Those who study all night then say the morning prayers at the earliest permitted time – thus expressing the enthusiasm of the Jewish people to receive the Torah. Most synagogues and yeshivot will organize special classes and lectures throughout the night of Shavuot.
At synagogue services on Shavuot morning, we read the biblical book of Ruth. Ruth was a non-Jewish woman whose love for God and Torah led her to convert to Judaism. The Torah intimates that the souls of eventual converts were also present at Sinai, as it says: "I am making [the covenant] both with those here today before the Lord our God, and also with those not here today." (Deut. 29:13)
Ruth has a further connection to Shavuot, in that she became the ancestor of King David, who was born on Shavuot, and died on Shavuot.
On Shavuot, it is customary to decorate the synagogue with branches and flowers. This is because Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers on the day the Torah was given. The Bible also associates Shavuot with the harvest of wheat and fruits, and marks the bringing of the first fruits to the Holy Temple as an expression of thanksgiving. (see Exodus 23:16, 34:22, Numbers 28:26)
On Shavuot morning, the Yizkor memorial prayer for the departed is also said.
There is a universal Jewish tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot. Various reasons have been suggested, among them:
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In 1967, the Six Day War ended just a few days before Shavuot. Israel had reclaimed the Western Wall, and for the first time in 19 years Jews had access to the area surrounding the Temple Mount, Judaism's holy site. On Shavuot itself, the Western Wall first became open to visitors, and on that memorable day over 200,000 Jews journeyed by foot to the Western Wall. (In Jerusalem, no cars or buses run on Jewish holidays.)
In subsequent years, this "pedestrian pilgrimage" has become a recurring tradition. Early on Shavuot morning – after a full night of Torah learning – the streets of Jerusalem are filled with tens of thousands of Jews walking to the Western Wall.
This tradition has biblical precedence. Shavuot is one of Judaism's three main pilgrimage festivals, where the entire nation would gather in Jerusalem for celebration and study.
Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is known as the "holiday of freedom," commemorating the Jewish Exodus from Egypt following 210 years of slavery. Passover is regarded as the "birth" of the Jewish nation, and its lessons of struggle and identity continue to form the basis of Jewish consciousness 3,300 years after the event.
Passover is an 8-day holiday (in Israel, seven days). The name derives from the fact that during the final plague -- the slaying of the first born -- God “passed over" the Jewish homes.
SEDER NIGHT - The holiday is marked by the celebration of an elaborate Seder on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night only). The Seder is designed to give each Jew the experience of "going from slavery unto freedom." As recorded in the Haggadah, we tell the Exodus storyand recount the Ten Plagues. We eat symbols of slavery and freedom, and the festive meal includes many delicious recipes for foods that people look forward to all year (think matzah balls!). We recite the Hallel prayer of praise, and end the Seder with the hope of “Next year in Jerusalem!”
The Seder is a special tie of family bonding and children are a particular focus of the night. They enjoy a variety of Passover songs like the Four Questions (Ma Nishatana), tell of the Four Sons, sing the “Dayenu” song, try to "steal" theAfikoman, and open the door for Elijah the Prophet.
MATZAH - At the Seder, it is a special mitzvah to eat matzah, the Seder’s mainsymbol. Everyone should try to eat 2/3 of a square matzah (or 1/2 of a round matzah) within 4 minutes, while leaning to the left. The most common reason for eating matzah is that on the morning of the Exodus, the Jews were so rushed in getting out of Egypt that the bread didn’t have time to rise. At the end of the festive meal, the special “dessert” is another piece of matzah, called theAfikoman.
FOUR CUPS - At the Seder, we drink four cups of wine -- corresponding to the four expressions of freedom mentioned in the Torah (Exodus 6:6-7). Everyone should have their own cup, which holds minimally 98cc (3.3 oz). Try to drink the entire cup for each of the Four Cups (or at least drink a majority) within 4 minutes. And as an expression of freedom, we lean to the left and back while drinking the Four Cups.
KARPAS - Toward the beginning of the Seder, we eat karpas -- a vegetable (e.g. celery, parsley, potato) dipped in saltwater, to commemorate the tears of hard labor.
BITTER HERBS - Later in the Seder, we eat Marror, the bitter herbs. Though many have the custom of using horseradish, Romaine lettuce is also used. (“Red horseradish” in jars bought from the stores should not be used, since it’s a mixture of mostly beets with some horseradish.) The Marror is dipped intoCharoset, a bricks-and-mortar mixture of dates, wine, nuts and apples.
SEDER CHECKLIST - Seder means "order" because there are so many details to remember. Your Seder table should include:
SEARCH-AND-BURN - On the evening before Passover, we conduct a carefulsearch of the home for chametz. It is done by candlelight and is a memorable experience for the whole family. Any remaining chametz is either burned the next morning (in a ceremony called Sray'fat Chametz), or is sold to a non-Jewfor the week of Passover. The sale must be serious and legally binding; it should be done only through the assistance of a qualified rabbi. Any food that is sold must be put in a cabinet and taped shut.
ABC's of Purim
by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Summing up the Purim holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.
Purim is Judaism’s most dramatic, fun-filled holiday. When else can you dress up like a bunny rabbit and eat doughy triangles filled with poppy seeds?
Purim occurs on the 14th of Adar. (In certain walled cities like Jerusalem, “Shushan Purim” is celebrated the following day, the 15th of Adar.)
Purim celebrates the dramatic turn-around events, where the wicked Haman tried to annihilate the Jewish people of ancient Persia. The Jews were saved through God’s miraculous arranging of events, as expressed by the heroics of Mordechai and Esther.
There are four mitzvot specific to the holiday of Purim (see below).
Set in Persia 2,300 years ago, the Book of Esther – or the “Megillah” as it is commonly called – recounts how a seemingly unrelated series of events spun together to save the Jewish people from annihilation.
King Achashverosh throws a huge six-month party and Queen Vashti refuses to follow orders. After a global search, Esther becomes the new queen – but does not reveal her Jewishness. Mordechai, the leader of the Jews, uncovers a plot to assassinate the king – putting him also in a favorable position with the king. All this comes in handy when Haman, the king’s top advisor, obtains a decree to have all the Jews destroyed. (Purim is the Persian word for "lottery," used by Haman to determine a date for his planned destruction of the Jews.)
In the end, through a complex twist of events, Esther gets the decree reversed, Haman is hanged on the gallows, and Mordechai becomes prime minister.
The name Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther) literally means "revealing the hidden." The Book of Esther is unique in the Bible, not mentioning God's name even once. The hidden hand of God is revealed through the maze of events.
Megillat Esther teaches us that life’s challenges are always for the best, because what appears as an obstacle is really an opportunity to develop ourselves for the better. And it all comes from God’s invisible hand that guides our fate, every step of the way.
Click for the full Megillah story.
Fast of Esther
Every year, the Fast of Esther is held on the day prior to Purim (Adar 13).
What is the source of this fast? In the Megillah (4:16), Esther agrees to see the king uninvited, and asks the Jewish people to fast for three days beforehand.
Also, the Jews fasted and prayed on the 13th of Adar in preparation for their defense against Haman's decree. As such, his is not a fast of sadness, but rather one of spiritual elevation and inspiration.
The fast begins at dawn and ends after nightfall. No eating or drinking is permitted. Since this is not a major fast, pregnant or moderately ill people are exempt from the fast. (Consult your rabbi.)
If the 13th falls on Shabbat, due to the honor of Shabbat, the fast is observed on Thursday, the 11th of Adar.
On the eve of Purim, there is a custom to give three coins to charity, to recall the half-shekel (Machatzit HaShekel) donated annually to the Temple treasury during Adar. Three coins are given because in the Torah portion dealing with the half-shekel (Exodus 30:11-16), the word terumah (“donation”) appears three times.
Each coin should be the denomination of half the standard currency in that country (e.g. half a shekel, half a dollar, half a pound). The money is then given to the poor.
Reading the Megillah (Scroll of Esther)
The Scroll of Esther (Megillah) is read on Purim night, and again the next day. We read it in the synagogue, because the larger the crowd, the greater publicity is given to the miracle of our being saved.
The entire Megillah must be read from a kosher scroll, written with proper ink, parchment, etc. Every word must be clearly heard.
The custom is to make noise at the mention of Haman's name, in keeping with the command to wipe out the remembrance of Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19). Similarly, the Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, because the Maftir portion features the command to remember (zecher) Amalek.
Mishloach Manot – Sending Food to Friends
On the day of Purim, we send two items of food to at least one person – Mishloach Manot. It is preferable to send ready-to-eat foods or drinks. The food should be of a respectable quantity according to the standards of the sender and recipient.
The reason for this mitzvah is to ensure that everyone has sufficient food for the Purim feast. More to the point, this increases love and friendship between Jews, providing an ideal opportunity to embrace our fellow Jews – irrespective of any religious or social differences. (After all, Haman did not discriminate amongst us.) For this reason, it is particularly good to give gifts to those who you may have had an argument with, or someone new in the community who needs a new friend.
According to some, it is preferable to send the gift via a third person, since the verse (Esther 9:22) describes the mitzvah as “sending” food packages to one another.
Matanot La’evyonim – Gifts to the Poor
On the day of Purim, it is also a special mitzvah to give money to at least two poor people – Matanot La’evyonim. Each poor person should be given at least the amount of food that is usually eaten at a regular meal, or the amount of money required to buy this.
It is preferable to do this after the Megillah reading, so that the blessing "She'hecheyanu" can apply to it.
If you do not know who is qualified to receive the gifts, then give the money to an authorized charity collector who will distribute the money on Purim for the purpose of fulfilling this mitzvah. The money may even be given to a charity collector before Purim, if he will distribute it on Purim day.
It is better to spend more on gifts to the poor (Matanot La'evyonim) than on Mishloach Manot. There is no greater joy than gladdening the hearts of orphans, widows and poor people. The Jewish people are one unit – we can’t possibly enjoy the holiday if poor people don’t have enough.
Rejoicing & the Purim Meal
The day's grand finale is the festive meal. The Purim seudah (feast) should begin during the daytime and extend until after dark.
We eat our fill and pamper our bodies – because it is the Jewish bodies that Haman sought to destroy. Also, we are obliged to imbibe alcohol (responsibly, of course) until one doesn't know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai."
We dress up in costumes, to let our defenses down and open up to the deeper reality of ourselves and our world. All our current problems and life's imperfections blend into good, until they become one unified expression of the Almighty’s infinite perfection.
On Purim we add "Al Ha'nisim" – an extra paragraph which describes the Purim miracle – to the Amidah prayer, and also to the Grace After Meals.
Residents of Jerusalem celebrate Purim one day later than other Jews, called “Shushan Purim.”
The Megillah (Esther 9:20-22) says that the Jews prevailed over their enemies on the 13th of Adar, and on the 14th they feasted to celebrate the victory. But in Shushan the capital, the battle lasted an extra day and the holiday was not celebrated until the 15th.
When the Sages instituted Purim, they took into account that Shushan was a walled city, and made the following stipulation: While most cities celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar, cities which were walled at the time of Joshua should celebrate “Shushan Purim” on the 15th.
The only city that was definitely walled at time of Joshua is Jerusalem. Some cities in Israel – Jaffa, Akko, Hebron – have an additional Megillah reading on the 15th as a stringency.
I didn't find ideas about hurricanes specifically yet, but in the meantime, here is an article on natural disaster that was written by Rabbi Berel Wein:
(The image to the left is called "Hurricane on Earth" by Photokanok, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
I was in the United States when the disaster of Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and its southeast Gulf Coast. It seems that natural disasters are regular events in the lives of millions of human beings. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes are all regular visitors, if not permanent residents on our planet. The overwhelming forces of nature make mockery of humankind’s efforts at taming them. There is much public and political opinion afoot in the United States not to rebuild the city of New Orleans in its present location because of its vulnerability to flooding. In effect, this opinion proposes a twenty-first century surrender to nature and its wrathful and destructive unpredictability. Its admission of defeat is a humbling reminder of how puny humans are in relation to natural disasters. All of our great technological achievements and creations, gifted and wondrous as they are, still cannot overcome the forces of nature implanted by our Creator in our world. There is little room for human pride and hubris in the face of the devastation brought upon us by such a natural disaster as Hurricane Katrina. We stand in mute shock at witnessing the forces of nature beyond our control or even our imagination.
When I was a rabbi in Miami Beach in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s my family and I experienced three direct hits from hurricanes. Those hurricanes invariably occurred during the month of Elul, the month of introspection and preparation for the High Holy Days and the Days of Judgment. It was and still is customary in the world of the yeshivot to, during that part of the year, deliver mussar schmuessen – lectures on morality, ethics, ritual observance and the importance of serving God in our lives. These talks are powerful in content and delivery and are a wonderful tool in helping one enter into the true solemnity of spirit that mark the High Holy Days. But after my congregation’s experiences with the hurricanes, I felt that any words that I might have said or lectures that I might have delivered would have been hollow and unnecessary. A hurricane is a pretty impressive and awesome mussar schmuess all by itself. No human being’s words of wisdom can improve upon it. If one is not sufficiently humbled by the power of a hurricane’s winds, rains and tides then the most inspiring of speeches will also avail nothing in conquering the unwarranted arrogance and haughtiness that infects many people.
The main message of Elul and of the High Holy Days is one of humility. The finite is limited and insignificant before the Infinite. The Psalmist states: “What is man that You should care to know him, human beings that You should deem them to be important?” Natural disasters remind us of this fact of mortality, of human failings and weaknesses. But it is only through humility that one can find true spirituality and a connection to God. God is not necessarily in the earthquake and the hurricane itself. God is found in the still small voice of humility and helplessness that comes after the awesome display of His nature’s might and fury. Only when hubris and haughtiness are conquered within a person’s soul, mind, behavior and outlook, is there then room for the Godly spirit to enter that person’s inner self. And in one of the strange but true paradoxes of human nature only the humble can achieve true and lasting spiritual greatness.
Why does God employ natural disasters to inform us of the importance of humility? Why does He allow for such great human suffering for so many seemingly blameless people? I certainly do not know how to answer or even deal with these troubling questions. Man cannot understand or fathom God’s methods for dealing with this world. However, because we cannot satisfactorily explain something does not allow us to ignore its obvious lessons. The still, small voice is preceded by hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes. If we leave immediately after the display of noise and power and do not stay around to hear the small voice that can emanate within us from witnessing and experiencing such disasters, then it is truly only a random disaster that strikes us. However, if it allows moments of introspection and leads us to an understanding of the necessity of humility and kindness in our lives, then the natural disaster, unwanted and inexplicable as it is, may have value for each of us, especially in this month of Elul.
I'm assuming that your question is: Why should we be so privileged? What's with the exclusivity? Well, first we've gotta establish: what are the implications of being part of the "Chosen People?" For this, we have to define the word: Israel. Israel is typically associated with the Nation of Israel, or the Land of Israel, but, actually, Israel is a concept, and those two examples (the nation and the land) are expressions of the concept. They are manifestations of Israel, they are not the essence of Israel.
OK. So what is the "Concept of Israel?" I'd say that a good starting definition is: 'Israel' is the vehicle, or the method through which the Almighty fulfills His purpose in this-here world that He created.
Working with this definition, the idea that 'Israel' should have expression in a particular group of people means that the said group of people is going to be central in the process of the Almighty's fulfilling His purpose in the world.
So far so good?
Next: Why should one group be chosen over another? It is really more a matter of choosing, rather than being chosen. By this I mean: The group that was willing to accept the responsibilities involved in being the Nation that plays this role in the Creator's master plan, gets chosen.
But, better yet: Why shouldn't it be that whoever wants to be a part of that process can decide to be? The answer to that second question is: Correct! It is that way. Anyone at all can decide to be a part of that process. How? By joining up with those who have already joined up. That entails signing up for membership. Membership obviously has it's privileges, but it also entails responsibilities. So joining up means that you are ready to live by the commandments that the Almighty gave to those who elected to fill this role. But anybody who is so inclined to rise up to the challenge and privilege of being a part of the process whereby the Almighty fulfills His purpose for having given existence to existence, may do so provided that they successfully demonstrate that they are serious about accepting the duties that the role entails.
The truth is: the question is the opposite. Let me explain. According to Judaism, if you're born Jewish, which is just another way of saying: part of the Nation of Israel, then you're stuck with it. You may try to walk away from it, but we'll always consider you to be Jewish. Even if you become an enemy of the Jewish People, if and when you decide to come around, then you do NOT need to go through any conversion process. You were Jewish all along, and you still are. Not only that, but even if you never return, if you are a woman then your children are Jewish, no matter how far you stray from Judaism. And if you are a man, as long as the mother of your children is Jewish, then your kids are Jewish, no matter how vehement an enemy of Israel you have become. You can't shake it. If you're Jewish then you're stuck with it. Now, wouldn't it be more fair if you had the choice as to whether or not you wanted to be a part of this process? If you're into it, then great. But if you're not, then: "adios pardner." Why is it fair that you should be stuck with this "privilege that comes with all these responsibilities?"
The state in which a person actually has such a choice is precisely the state of a person who is not born Jewish. If he (or she) is interested in stepping up to the plate, then he may do so. If he'd prefer to pass, then he may do so.
So we now have the ironic situation where it may actually be more politically correct to be born not Jewish rather than to be born Jewish!
This is actually a very important question, but it is not the question that was asked. If the intent of your question was: the problem of exclusivity, then I would suggest that the question is answered: There is no exclusivity. Anybody may join up. And many do, by the way. Some of the greatest members of the Nation of Israel of all time were converts or the descendants of converts.
I know full well that we touched upon many issues that we didn't resolve. But whadaya think? We can address all of the side-issues in one post?
All the best