“Shavuot? What’s that?” my friends asked.
“Why can’t you come to school?” my classmates inquired.
Shavuot, the completion of the counting of the Omer, is the celebration of our receiving the Ten Commandments. The Torah was given by G‑d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai on Shavuot. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we renew our acceptance of G‑d’s gift, and G‑d “re-gives” the Torah. Shavuot means “weeks,” signifying the seven weeks between Passover and this day. Additionally, it is a harvest holiday celebrating the first fruits which were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem joyfully expressing the completion of the harvest
My mother, Jennie Levin Kent, who was raised in an Orthodox family, insisted that I stay home from school on every Jewish holiday and accompany her to synagogue. Sometimes, I was offered a choice: “Which synagogue would you like to attend?” “Uncle Meyer’s,” was always my response.
Mother, who I called “The Eclectic Jew,” belonged to multiple synagogues. She admired Rabbi Sherwin Wine and often attended his lectures at the Birmingham Temple, an atheist Jewish place of worship in Birmingham, MI. She sang in Temple Israel’s choir, a large reform temple in Metro-Detroit, where we reside today. Our family was members of a conservative synagogue, Achas Achim in Detroit, where we went on the high holidays or whenever my father accompanied us, and where I attended religious school.
Mother also was a member of an Orthodox synagogue, Beth Yehuda in Detroit, which was her family’s synagogue growing up. Her brother-in-law, Uncle Meyer, was president of the congregation and her cousins were active members. That’s why we called it Uncle Meyer’s shul.
At Uncle Meyer’s synagogue, children were warmly welcomed. We ran around inside and out, went on the bimah whenever we wished, the girls were even able to go into the men’s section. The best part was running under the tallitot for Bircat HaKohanim (the priestly blessing). So, naturally, I chose Uncle Meyer’s shul over sitting quietly next to my mother during services.
Oddly, my father, George D. Kent went to work on this holiday, (as well as the other “minor” holidays). He didn’t have a religious upbringing and didn’t even have a bar mitzvah (that’s a whole other story). He didn’t have the same commitment to Jewish traditions, mostly he was just placating my mom keeping a kosher home and celebrating the major holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, and Chanukah. So, mother gave him a pass on the other holidays.
When our fifth-grade class trip to the zoo fell on Shavuot, I begged mom to let me go to school. “It isn’t school, Mom,” I pleaded. But she was relentless. No class trip for me. So, I sadly went to Uncle Meyer’s synagogue and to his home for the holiday lunch. The bitter taste of missing being with my favorite classmate was implanted into my consciousness.
But that feeling about Shavuot changed after spending time in Israel and marrying an Israeli man. I gained a new view, understanding, and appreciation of the Shavuot holiday. In Israel, Shavuot is a joyous holiday celebrated with baskets of fruits, white clothing, and floral wreaths on children’s heads. Like we did at home, dairy foods are also eaten. Israel is the land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).
Shavuot in Israel is a celebration of the land’s bounty. Shavuot’s celebration of the wheat harvest and the ripening of the first fruits, is the reason for the other two biblical names for this holiday: 1) “Yom Habikkurim” or the “Day of the First Fruits.” 2) “Chag HaKatzir,” the “Harvest Festival.” (Chabad.org).
The custom of wearing white on Shavuot is not really known but has several interpretations. The meaning behind wearing white clothing could be found in the beginning of Eretz Yisrael’s pioneering days. My friend’s mother told me that single women wore white on this day to meet available men. Another interpretation is that white is the color of wedding outfits for a bride and groom on their wedding day.
One of the images of Shavuot is also the marriage of G-d (the bridegroom) and Israel (the bride). It also could be just a clean slate of consciousness after 49 days of personal growth from the depths of impurity until the pinnacle of divine purity is reached. Whatever the case may be, white is the height of perfection, which is the meaning of Shavuot: perfection in Hashem’s timing to present us with the Torah as His perfectly chosen people, perhaps dressed in white. We’re all white, we’re all clean, we’re like angels, there’s nothing that can stop us. The sky is the limit and that’s what we want for this Shavuot.
My volunteer organization, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America has a mission to protect and preserve the land and people of Israel. Celebrating Shavuot is part of that grand and glorious tradition.
I do not understand why this holiday is a “minor” holiday. Receipt of the Ten Commandments is the basis of Judaism. Why, then is it not a major, well known, celebrated holiday? Everyone knows about getting the Ten Commandments, but not about Shavuot. My adult friends still ask, “What is Shavuot?” In my opinion, the day we received the Ten Commandments should be the most important holiday in Judaism. So, I decided to make Shavuot my major holiday and it became known in the family as “Beverly’s holiday.”
Every year, I invite family and friends to celebrate with me. I prepare a delicious dairy meal of salmon, spinach & cheese pies, blintzes, and salads. I often find new recipes in Hadassah Magazine. I ask my guests to contemplate a passage, a question, the Ten Commandments, or other relevant articles about Shavuot. We study My Tikun L’eil Shavuot together, embracing the tradition of study on the first night of Shavuot into the wee hours of the morning.
My own theme for this holiday is always, “The giving of the Torah was on Shavuot; the receiving must take place every day.” (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk). This saying decorates my home on the holiday – on the bathroom mirror, on the buffet table and in assorted places around my house. After studying, we enjoy cheesecake, cookies, fruit and ice cream, of course. After Yizkor (the remembrance prayer for our deceased loved ones) at synagogue on the second day of the holiday, it’s lunch with Uncle Meyer’s family, continuing our family’s tradition from childhood.
I hope you will also celebrate Shavuot, remembering the day we received the Ten Commandments. Maybe you will make it a major Jewish holiday for your family, as well. Happy Shavuot!