Generally speaking, the two-day festival of Shavuot tends to be a bit light on customs when compared to other Jewish holidays.
Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot — which will be observed this year from sundown on Thursday, May 28, to Saturday night, May 30 — is one of the Torah’s Shalosh Regalim, or Three Pilgrimage Festivals, during which Jews gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings.
The three customs that stand out on Shavuot are all-night Torah learning, decorating the shul with greenery and eating dairy products. These customs point to three areas where we can still find meaning during this Shavuot as we uniquely celebrate it outside of shul due to the pandemic.
All-Night Torah Learning
On Shavuot, we commemorate the receiving of the Torah on Sinai. How lovely it would be to reenact our own personal reception of the Torah through learning throughout the night on Shavuot.
But let’s be honest: it is difficult to stay up learning on a regular Shavuot. This year, outside of shul, it will be even more difficult.
What is important to remember is that it is not an all-or-nothing game. Here is my suggestion: learn for at least a half-hour after dinner on Shavuot evening. If you can add on more time, great.
Plan beforehand what you will learn. Make sure it is something you enjoy reading, and place it on your table to ensure it will happen.
As for the rest of the holiday, print out something from the Internet to read over the holidays. Do a web search and find an article that you want to read and set it aside for your holiday enjoyment.
It is these small touches that can transform and elevate our holiday experiences.
Natural Shul Decorations
One reason we do this is to bring to mind the agricultural origins and elements of the day. On this day, a double bread offering was brought to the Temple and the first fruits were celebrated.
We can extend this nature theme to our lives outside of shul by going into the great outdoors or opening a window and observing nature. Breathe in the fresh air, feel the sun, take in the calm of nature.
Go into your backyard and sit for a bit, alone. We have time to do so this year while we are not attending shul.
Take advantage of this opportunity.
One explanation for this custom is that milk symbolizes life. Just like the cow sustains her calf with milk, we are sustained by the Torah and celebrate it through the consumption of dairy products on Shavuot.
We can continue this theme beyond our tables by doing things that bring life to us and our family. It is an even bigger mitzvah this year to be happy on Yom Tov while far away from our shul family.
What are a few things that enliven you and your family? A favorite board game, a creative group activity? Plan ahead to engage in at least one of these activities over the holiday and enjoy life!
Here are a few more suggestions for a meaningful and enriching Shavuot at home:
- Dress up in Yom Tov clothing for Yom Tov meals and for davening. Trust me, it really does make a difference, if only for your own sanity and attitude toward the day.
- Sing Hallel out loud at your home. This may drive your neighbors a little meshugah, but HaShem will love it! You will also come out feeling uplifted if this resonates with you.
- Set aside a period of time for reflection. Reflect on what has transpired over the past two months. How have you grown? How can the Torah help in improving your life moving forward? What are your plans for life after the pandemic is over? Maximize the extra time out of shul for growth and introspection.
These are only a few ideas. What is most important is to make your holiday count this year, even if we are counting this 50th day on our own, in our homes.
May this be a meaningful and enjoyable Shavuot for all of us! Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev serves Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation. On May 26, he participated in Beth Tfiloh’s virtual Shavuot program “Six Rabbis Reading Ruth and Eating Cheesecake” with Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Chai Posner, Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro and Rabbi Seth Herstic of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Congregation and Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz of Netivot Shalom.