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Shavuot customs around the world

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Of the three “pilgrim festivals” – Pesach, Shavuot and Succot – Shavuot is the only one without any defined rituals attached. As a result, customs have developed and adapted over time, leading to a fascinating array of activities, foods and observances in marking this festival around the globe.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 17, 2018

Dairy is traditionally eaten on Shavuot because when the Israelites received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are also sweet.

Throughout the rest of the year, Jewish custom frowns on baking dairy breads because of the potential for these being accidentally used with a meat meal.

Some of the recipes for these traditional dairy foods have almost been lost to history. For 780 years, el pan de siete cielos (the bread of the seven heavens) was the signature dish of the Shavuot holiday in Salonika, Greece, known as one of the greatest Jewish cities that existed before the Holocaust.

It is made with butter, milk and eggs, and is often moulded into ornate shapes full of symbolism and topped with intricate adornments. The central element of the bread is a ball of dough depicting Mount Sinai. This is then ringed by seven ropes of dough, which denote the clouds surrounding the mountain.

The Jews of Salonika continued to bake this bread all the way up until World War II, when the community was almost entirely exterminated by the Nazis. Today, only a handful of survivors can recall eating the bread at their holiday tables and the tradition has all but perished.

However, recipes remain in books and on the internet, and baking the bread to eat during all-night Tikkun Leil study sessions is one way to enrich the celebration of Shavuot and honour this community.

In Sephardi families, Persian Jews make Polao mastin, a dish made of rice and milk, and koltcha shiri, a dairy cake. And in Greece, there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called sutlag.

In both Poland and South Africa, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with biscuits or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children, and Iraqi Jews make sambusak, a savoury pastry filled with cheese. German Jewish specialties included kauletsch, a cheese challa.

Some Jews even drink beer, because in the Midrash about the giving of the Torah, G-d lifted Mount Sinai over the heads of the assembled People of Israel “like a barrel” and then asked us if we wanted the Torah. If we said no, G-d would drop the mountain on top of us. And so, in the Middle Ages a tradition arose to have a barrel of beer in shul during Tikkun Leil.

This tradition of studying through the night was only initiated in the 16th or 17th century, following Kabbalistic trends. It was originally practised by secret societies of devout scholars, and later adopted by the broader community.

Jewish legend teaches that the night before G-d gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Israelites went to sleep early to be well rested. They overslept, nearly missing their historic moment. G-d had to awake them with thunder and lightning. To atone for their ancestors’ carelessness, many Jews today participate in these all-night study sessions.

Other rituals include water, which symbolises the Torah. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passers-by, and Israeli children take the opportunity to gather for impromptu water-gun and water-balloon fights in the streets, public squares and parks.

Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains to bless, after which the entire community eats together.

In many Jewish communities and kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season, and often choose to wear white.

Around the 12th century, a tradition began in Germany of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavout, since the Torah was given then.

In Israel, the Western Wall is definitely the place to be at dawn of Shavuot. Hundreds of people convene to pray. At the exact minute when the sun rises, a united voice arises as people recite the “Shma Yisrael”.

The second-best place to be at that time is the beach in Tel Aviv, where people assemble for a spiritual prayer experience on the beach.

In many Jewish communities, the Book of Ruth is read during the morning Shavuot services. Ruth was the first Jewish convert and the great, great grandmother of King David, who was born and died on Shavuot.

Symbolically, Ruth’s conversion – which she eagerly took on with a full and open heart – is considered as parable for the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah.

In many Sephardic congregations, the reading of Ruth is preceded by reading or singing the famous azharot, a poetical enumeration of the 613 mitzvot. Ladino-speaking Jews also included translations of this liturgy and added a unique Ladino song known as La Ketubah de la Ley, the marriage contract of the law, or Torah.

Also in Sephardi communities, the Shabbat before Shavuot is called “Shabbat Kallah”. The Torah is likened to a bride, and the Jewish people to a bridegroom coming to meet his bride. Thus, the poets composed wedding songs and instituted a special version of a ketubah (marriage certificate) that is read out in the synagogue, when the Sefer Torah is taken from the Ark.

The custom of Bikkurim has been interpreted a number of ways. For some, it is about literally picking a harvest. For others, it is adorning homes and shuls with greenery and flowers. Many communities also see it as an opportunity to give food to the needy, especially in the form of vegetables, fruits or soup.

In Israel, in accordance with the biblical command to go up to Jerusalem, the president is presented with an assortment of fruit that has been grown and harvested in Israel.

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