In my 2008 book, Feast, written to help Christians understand the holidays of the Bible and gain appreciation for Jewish traditions, I led into the Shavuot chapter with a little anecdote from the early days of our marriage. We lived at that time in a little 400 square foot apartment in Chicago (Rogers Park):
The oven in our little apartment just wasn’t big enough. Two tenths of an ephah is a lot of flour. That’s how big the loaf was supposed to be that the Israelites offered as a first-fruits offering to God in Leviticus 23:17. We wanted to bake one ourselves to experience as a family a little bit of the biblical past.
We found out there was a debate about whether Leviticus 23:17 means two loaves each being one tenth of an ephah, or if both were to be two tenths. Even one tenth of an ephah is a lot, about four liters or one gallon.
We decided to make a Shavuot loaf of whole wheat from only one tenth of an ephah. If you do the math, you find that this single loaf was supposed to have 16 cups of flour in it; our normal bread recipe called for four cups. It wasn’t pretty and our oven is still recovering, but we pushed forward and fashioned an irregular mass as large as a beach ball. We couldn’t get it to cook through without burning, but even our bread disaster was a blessing to us. We tore off pieces from the bread beach ball and dipped them in honey and imagined living in temple times.
I think there are at least two kinds of people who miss out on the joy of the holidays of God:
(1) Christians who are unaware of them or who think they are simply for Jews.
(2) Jews who think they are yesterday’s news and something to be tolerated more than embraced.
The potential for insightful moments, a sense of connection to the ancient text, and unforgettable moments for families and children is high. But to achieve that potential, you have to throw yourself into the holiday with verve.
I found a wonderful teaching from the Talmud about the obligation of rejoicing on a festival:
A man has nought else to do on a festival save to eat and drink or to sit and study. Divide it: devote half of it to eating and drinking and half to the beit midrash [house of study].” –R. Joshua, Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 68b
And don’t forget the Biblical injunction about how to spend your tithe money at the feast:
…spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. –Deuteronomy 14:26.
Not to rehearse the obvious, but did you notice the phrase “wine or strong drink”?
So, Shavuot is coming this year, beginning at sundown Thursday, May 28. Let’s prepare and celebrate with verve and gusto.
Maybe make your own Shavuot loaf (properly warned, of course, about the dangers to your oven). Definitely read the relevant texts and practice the customs. Here is a summary:
The Texts of Shavuot
The Giving of Torah: Exodus 19-20
The Commands of Shavuot: Leviticus 23:15-21; Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16-17.
The Megillah (Scroll) To Be Studied for Shavuot: Ruth
The Next Step for Shavuot: Acts 2:1-13
The Traditions of Shavuot
Prepare and enjoy dairy dishes, especially we like to have cheesecake and cheese blintzes with fruit. Why dairy? I like the explanation that says it is because the Torah is like milk to us, sustaining and growing us.
Decorate with cut flowers. Why flowers? I like the explanation that says we are welcoming the Torah (and Spirit) with seasonal joy.
Read and discuss the book of Ruth. Why Ruth? It is a book set during the grain harvest.
Stay up late (or all night if you want) reading Torah on the night of Shavuot. You can purchase a Tikkun Lel Shavuot or choose your own reading plan or read the first and last parts of each Torah portion.
Read some Shavuot liturgy, especially the Akdamut, which is exceptionally beautiful.
If you like (not a firm tradition), bake a Shavuot loaf or two, or at least bake some whole wheat bread (use honey if you like and even cinnamon to make it sweet).