Making Shavuot Meaningful

On Shavuot, Jews celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, or even if you did, you may not know much about Shavuot. Although Shavuot is one of the Shelosh Regalim (the three Pilgrimage Festivals), equal in importance to Passover and Sukkot, it’s less commonly celebrated than the other two holidays. Maybe this is because Shavuot doesn’t have a well-known home component, like the Passover Seder (celebrated by more Jews than almost any other Jewish ritual) or the sukkot (huts) some Jews build outside of their homes on Sukkot. Maybe it’s because Shavuot comes at the end of the school year, so even if you have kids in a Jewish preschool, religious school or day school, there’s not as much time available in the curriculum to focus on Shavuot. Whatever the reason, I for one would love to see a change, and for more people to learn about Shavuot, and celebrate the holiday in meaningful ways.

In that spirit, as Shavuot approaches, I have seven suggestions for how to make the holiday more meaningful. Why seven? Because Shavuot marks the fiftieth day after the start of the counting of the Omer. (We begin counting the Omer, which links Passover to Shavuot, on the second night of Passover.) Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew) marks the completion of counting seven weeks of seven days.

1. Read the Book of Ruth. Traditionally, the Biblical Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuot. Ruth’s story is read on this holiday for several reasons:

a. The Book of Ruth describes the harvest season and Shavuot is also known as Hag HaKatsir, the Harvest Festival.

b. On Shavuot, when Jews celebrate God’s giving—and the Jewish people’s accepting—the Torah, we read of Ruth’s willingly entering into the Jewish faith and thus, according to Jewish understanding, a life of Torah.

c. The end of the Book of Ruth describes the lineage of King David, who is Ruth’s great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot.

Even if you don’t go to services on Shavuot, you can read and discuss the story of Ruth with family members or friends. Ruth is often celebrated as the first Jew by Choice, but as I argue in my recent blog, I think she really should be celebrated as a woman in an interfaith marriage who helps to ensure the Jewish future.

2. Study the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are traditionally read from the Torah at Shavuot services. Take time to read the Ten Commandments and learn about them. If you have younger kids, your family can decide what Ten Commandments/Rules should be followed in your home. Older kids and adults can discuss how they feel about posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as court houses. Click here to read the position the Anti-Defamation League took on this issue in 2005.

For fun, check out Godcast’s Ten Commandments song or bake a Ten Commandments Challah.

3. Attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There’s a wonderful custom of staying up all (or part of) the first night of Shavuot to study Torah. One of my personal favorite Shavuot experiences was when I was living in Jerusalem and I spent all night learning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and then at sunrise walked with the rest of the people attending the Tikkun to the Kotel for the morning service.

Look online to see if a synagogue or other Jewish organization near you is having a Tikkun.  Or host your own Tikkun and invite friends over to study Torah.

Cheesecake4. Make (and eat!) Dairy Foods. It’s customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot. Some say that this is because the Bible compares Torah to “honey and milk…under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah and learned for the first time the laws for keeping kosher, they didn’t have time right away to prepare kosher meat. In order not to eat meat that wasn’t kosher, they ate dairy. And so, on Shavuot, when the Giving of the Torah is celebrated, many Jews eat dairy in commemoration of how the Israelites ate when they first received the Torah.

In keeping with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, after dinner on Shavuot I like to put out different flavors of ice cream and bowls with all kinds of toppings for everyone in my family to make their own ice cream sundae. My kids love doing this—and so do I!

5. Bake a Special Challah. Even those familiar with the braided challot for Shabbat and the round challot traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah may not be aware of the tradition of having specially shaped challot for Shavuot. This Shavuot, bake a challah in the shape of the Ten Commandments, as mentioned above, or in the shape of a Heavenly Ladder, a Torah or Mount Sinai (where God gave the Torah to Moses). To learn how to make these challot click here.

6. If You Have Young Children, Read Books Related to Shavuot: Check out PJ Library for a list of Shavuot books.

7. Attend a Shavuot Service. In Israel and most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for one day. In Orthodox and most Conservative congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for two days. In many congregations, Confirmation (a group ceremony, generally at the end of tenth grade, celebrating the completion of a religious curriculum) is celebrated on Shavuot. Not only is Shavuot near the end of the school year, but the association of Shavuot with the Giving of Torah is thematically connected to the study of Torah acknowledged at Confirmation as well as the idea of students committing themselves to a life of Torah. You can look at the websites of local synagogues to find out when their Shavuot services are being held.

Chag Sameach! Have a happy holiday!

RE-READING RUTH: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and her Interfaith Marriage”

A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.

The Book of Ruth“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.

Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”

Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”

By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.

So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.

Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)

Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.

At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.

Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.

Drew and Will’s Wedding

Mazal tov to Drew Barrymore and Will Kopelman! They’ve made their wedding date (June 2) public.

E! Online suggests the rushed wedding date is because she’s pregnant (they refer to the upcoming wedding as “bumptastic”), but I have  a different theory.

Traditionally, the time between Passover and Shavuot is a period of semi-mourning. The period is known as the Omer. But what’s an “Omer”? It was a unit of measurement used for counting barley sheaves brought as an offering to the Temple in ancient Israel. The 49 days from Passover to Shavuot were each marked with a sacrifice of barley; today we count the days (“counting the Omer”) instead.

The rabbis of the 2nd century saw the period of counting the Omer as a “semi-mourning” period. As a result, some Jews refrain from having weddings or parties, dancing, listening to music or getting haircuts — all of which are customarily avoided during shiva (first week of mourning) — during the Omer.

There’s one escape from these restrictions: a minor holiday called Lag BaOmer (or “Lag b’Omer”) that falls on May 10 this year, 33 days after the start of Passover. The name literally translates to “33rd (day) of the Omer.” On Lag BaOmer, the restrictions are lifted for the day. (Check out how one Californian handles the restrictions in this humorous video.)

But back to Drew and Will.

E! Online reports that the wedding will be small and intimate, taking place at Drew’s home (er, “estate”). And, “keeping in line with the traditional values of Kopelman’s close-knit family, his family rabbi is expected to conduct the service.”

Since we’re currently counting the Omer, and since Will’s family (and, presumably, rabbi) are “traditional,” maybe they’re not wanting to be married during the Omer. Which would mean the first chance to be wed would be May 10, a Thursday. Most Americans choose to marry on the weekend so that family and friends can travel to and from the event. Not so easy to do in the middle of the work week. So the next option would be waiting until a weekend after Shavuot. Shavuot starts the evening of May 26 and ends the night of May 27 (for some communities, including many Reform congregations) or the night of May 28 (for the rest of the Jewish communities). The next weekend after that? Yup, June 2.

You heard it here first: Drew Barrymore and her fiancé, Will Kopelman, are following the laws of the Omer.

The Shavuot Hodgepodge

Getting ready for Shavuot, which starts tomorrow night, I thought I’d share some of the interesting, amusing, and helpful tidbits I’ve found online in the last little while. That’s right, it’s time for the Shavuot Hodgepodge!

One of my favorite Storahtellers, Naomi Less, teamed up with G-dcast to bring us The Ten Commandments – A Song for Shavuot:

If a musical ten commandments isn’t your speed, you might prefer the Butter Ten Commandments, which combines the “eat dairy yumminess” of the holiday with the ten commandments, resulting in butter sculptures of each commandment. (Seriously, who comes up with this stuff??)

On DovBear (a blog I’ve been reading for, oh, 8 years now?), there are two interesting looks at the story of Ruth. The first examines how, in the Book of Ruth, the betrothal story does not follow the pattern of other biblical betrothals. The second follows up on this premise, wondering if the reversed betrothal is in response to the story of Judah and Tamar. Interesting. And something new to bring to your up-all-night learning sessions Tuesday night…

Over on Jewschool, a video “about revelation” called “Mountain Day” by the posted, but titled Shavuos on YouTube, was posted. It didn’t seem too popular with their readers (check out the comments) but the universal ties between the revelation of the Torah at Mt Sinai (one of the themes of Shavuot) and other revelations (like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) might speak to some of you:

Tablet has a bunch of great stuff for Shavuot. There’s the Field Study of why Shavuot is such an ignored holiday in America:

“They used to say that Jewish holidays needed mazel,” or luck, Sarna says. Hanukkah and Passover—located next to major Christian holidays that Jews want an alternative to—have mazel. Shavuot, marooned in the long stretch between Passover and the High Holidays, has the opposite. “Passover is the last Jewish gesture of the year before you disappear into summer camp, Memorial Day, et cetera,” Bachman says.

And At Sinai, an article about why a recent convert to Judaism loves Shavuot. It also includes this great line:

“Shavuot!” she said scornfully. “Of all the Jewish holidays! It’s like the ugly girl at the party that everyone feels obliged to dance with.”

Then there’s Mother’s Little Helper, on holidays and raising a Jewish child; Got Milk, looking at the complicated history of Jews and dairy; and All Night Long, an audio interview with novelist Nathan Englander, musician Alicia Jo Rabins, Rabbi Phil Lieberman, and theologian Avivah Zornberg about what they’ll be studying this Shavuot.

Now you’re armed with all sorts of fun to kick the holiday off tomorrow (Tuesday) evening. Chag sameach!

Summer Reading

My 3-year-old recently discovered television.  He can turn on the television and search the channels for Dora the Explorer!  Though there is a time and a place for a television, mainly when Mommy needs to get something done, I am hoping this addiction wanes.    Luckily, I have help from the PJ Library!

Every month a new book or CD arrives.  Each book is well illustrated and brings up a different Jewish value or holiday.  I am actually saved our April book, No Rules for Michael by Sylvia Rouss, for this week.  This age-appropriate book about the role rules have in our life is perfect for Shavuot, when we celebrate revelation and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

If your child is not already enrolled in the PJ Library, please consider enrolling them in this program.   The PJ Library is a national program which reaches many communities.  I was glad to hear that InterfaithFamily.com’s friends at the PJ Library Program of Greater Boston are now accepting new subscribers ages 0-5 years old. Children enrolled in the PJ Library receive a FREE high quality Jewish children’s book or CD each month for a year. There is no catch and no obligation.

Children of Hidden Jews

I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.

Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.

The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”

New Parenting Resource in Time for Shavuot

This Thursday evening is the beginning of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday when we celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is actually quite a fun holiday. One tradition for the holiday is to stay up all night studying Torah at a community event called the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There is also a custom to eat dairy food on this holiday. One reason I’ve heard for this custom is that prior to the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people did not know the kosher laws. Once they learned them, they realized that they weren’t eating meat properly, so they had to eat meatless meals. Perhaps that’s why we eat dairy meals today.

This year I am struggling with how to make this holiday meaningful for my family. I do not have the energy to stay up all night and I certainly don’t want to give my two year old son any such idea! So far, I am planning to retell him the story of Ruth and Naomi, which is chanted on Shavuot morning at the synagogue. We will make a lasagna and chocolate milk together. We are also going to our neighbors for a dairy dinner. Other great ideas for Shavuot with children are available on Jewish Everyday website.

I was recently introduced to Jewish Everyday and its creator, the Bible Belt Balabusta. I am much impressed with its multi-denominational approach and the way it offers ideas from different bloggers and Jewish organizations — including ours — on how to introduce Jewish living to your children not only on Shabbat and holidays, but every day. I have already book marked it.