Shavuot

The holiday of Shavuot commemorates God giving the Torah/Ten Commandments to the ancient Israelites at Mt. Sinai.  Shavuot means “weeks” (Shavuah = week), because we’ve counted the Omer, which is 7 weeks (49 days) from Passover.

On the first night of Shavuot, we stay up all night learning Torah.  It is tradition to eat dairy on Shavuot, and so it is common to find plates of cheesecake available at these all night study sessions.  On both days of the holiday, families and synagogues will serve special dairy dishes that are often family traditions, like blintzes, cheese bourekas, kugel, quiche, and casseroles.

Many have the custom to decorate their homes and synagogues with flowers, fruits, and fragrant plants to celebrate the holiday.  Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays, where Israelites would bring sacrifices to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  During Shavuot, families would bring their first harvest of choice fruits.

The Ten Commandments are read in synagogue during special services on the first day of Shavuot.  The Book of Ruth is read during services on the second day.

The story of Ruth is about a Moabite widow who follows her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel, after the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons in Moab.  Refusing to return to her own family after her husband’s death, Ruth essentially converts to Judaism, by pledging her loyalty to Naomi and her people:  “wherever you go, I will go, wherever you stay, I shall stay, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God”.  Once they have returned to Naomi’s hometown, Naomi instructs Ruth to glean from her kinsman Boaz’s fields.  Boaz marries Ruth, and King David is born from their family line. 

You can read the entire story of Ruth at: www.sefaria.org/Ruth

The Book of Ruth is associated with Shavuot for several reasons:

  • Ruth’s declaration of joining Naomi’s people is analogous to the ancient Israelites accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  
  • The story takes place around the time of the wheat harvest, which would mean the timeline must be nearby to Shavuot.
  • The Book of Ruth ends with a geneology leading to King David, and it is said that David died on Shavuot.

 

Lag B’Omer

 Lag B’Omer is celebrated on the 33rd day of the Omer.  (Remember that the Omer is the 49 days that we count between the second day of Passover and Shavuot)  From the beginning of the Omer until Lag B’Omer, we observe those days as a semi-mourning period (more on that in a moment).  Lag B’Omer is a break from that period of mourning, and is celebrated with customs like lighting bonfires, playing with bows & arrows, field day activities, picnics/BBQs, and even weddings.

According to the Talmud, during the counting of the Omer, a great number of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a plague.  The plague was said to occur because the students did not treat one another with respect.  We treat the beginning of the Omer season as a period of mourning in remembrance of Rabbi Akiva’s students and their behavior.  The story continues that on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted.  As a result, Lag B’Omer became a day of happiness, interrupting the solemnness of the Omer.

The Talmud talks of a plague, but historians believe that the plague might be a veiled reference to Rabbi Akiva’s students participating in the failed Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman rule of Judea.  This also is a likely source for the tradition of children playing with bows & arrows on Lag B’Omer.

Another reason for the significance of Lag B’Omer is that it is the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, who is credited with writing the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).  In Israel, people visit his burial site nearby the city of Tz’fat (known as the home of Jewish mysticism) on Lag B’Omer.

Yet another reason for celebration on Lag B’Omer is a belief that the manna given to the Israelites during the exodus first appeared on this day in Jewish history.

 

Challah

If we’re talking about Challah, I figured I should offer a recipe for those that may not have one that’s been passed down to them. The following recipe should make two loaves of Challah.

Ingredients:

Two envelopes, active dry yeast

1 3/4 cups warm water (not hot)

1/2 cup vegetable or safflower oil

5 large eggs

1/2 cup sugar, and an additional tablespoon

1 tablespoon salt

8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

If you’d like to use raisins, be sure to plump them in water before adding them to the dough. You can add pareve bittersweet chocolate chips. And, of course, poppy or sesame seeds to sprinkle on top of the loaves.

Instructions:

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Add in the tablespoon of sugar and stir. Watch for bubbles, as this indicates happy yeasties. Let the mix bubble for 5 minutes or so, until there’s lots of bubbles. No bubbles? Start over with new yeast.

Stir or whisk the oil into the yeast mixture, then add in 4 eggs, one at a time. (If you want really chewy eggy Challah, you can add additional eggs and egg yolks to the dough. You will need more flour if you do this.) Add the 1/2 cup of sugar and salt. Mix well. At this point you will likely want to switch from using a spoon or whisk to using your hands to mix the dough. Add the flour a bit at a time (~half cup at a time).

When the dough holds together, it is ready for kneading.

Pour the dough onto a floured surface and knead until it’s smooth. Add flour if the dough is too wet (and add water if it’s too dry).

Return the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a towel, or loosely covered plastic wrap (or place the bowl in a clean trash bag and tuck the ends under the bowl), and let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until it is doubled in size. (You can rise the dough in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off.)

Punch down the dough, re-cover and let it rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.

If you are adding raisins, chocolate chips, or any other filling to the dough, knead them in now, before braiding.

Braid the loaves. (I’ll have a future post on braiding Challah.)

Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.

Beat the remaining egg and brush an egg wash on the loaves. Let the loaves rise for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. After the loaves have risen, brush on another layer of egg wash. If you want seeded loaves, sprinkle them on now.

Bake in the center of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Remove and let cool.

Note: If you don’t have the dedicated time to complete the recipe as written, you can place the dough in the refrigerator to rise for a longer period of time. Just be sure to allow the dough to reach room temperature before continuing to work on it.

Covering the Challah

When we welcome Shabbat into our homes, we light and bless the Shabbat candles, say Kiddush and bless the wine/grape juice, and then bless the Challah. When setting up our table before we begin, we cover the two loaves of Challah. Often this cover is a beautiful art piece, like the photo above.

However, neither Jewish law nor custom requires the Challah cover to be anything specific. The Challot just need to be covered. You can use a napkin, paper towel, even a piece of paper.

A Jewish tradition called Hiddur Mitzvah (beautifying a Mitzvah) teaches us that if we are able to make a ritual more beautiful, and therefore more enjoyable, then we should make the effort to do so. Giving a Mitzvah, a commandment, enhanced beauty and enjoyment makes it more likely that we fickle humans will continue to perform that Mitzvah. This is why ritual objects are often quite artistic, and why we have traditions like placing flowers on the Shabbat dinner table.

Now that we know why the Challah cover is so beautiful, why do we even cover the Challah in the first place?

Our sages tell us that the order of the Shabbat blessings was simply logical. The candles come first, because they usher in the beginning of Shabbat. Blessing the Challah comes last, because it begins the meal. And so, the Kiddush, blessing the wine, is naturally nestled in between.

The Rabbis were concerned that, even though each of the symbols and rituals were equal in significance and meaning, that the Challah might feel sad, or even jealous, because it comes last. And so, we adopted the practice of covering the Challah, so that it doesn’t see the other two items being blessed first.

Of course, we know that the Challah can’t see, and doesn’t really have feelings. But this tradition teaches us that if Judaism has a practice to ensure that we don’t hurt the feelings of a Challah, how much more important is it that we ensure we don’t hurt the feelings of our family and friends!

The Story of Moses

The holiday of Passover is the celebration of our exodus from slavery in Egypt, as recorded in the Torah.  Here’s a brief summary of the story:

The Israelites are living in Egypt (having travelled there generations ago due to famine).  A new Pharaoh comes to power, and he fears that the numerous Israelite nation will rise up against him.  He enslaves the Israelites and then orders that all Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile.  Yocheved and Amram have a Daughter, Miriam, a son, Aaron, and a new baby boy.  They fear he will be found and killed, and so Yocheved weaves a basket, and uses it to float the baby down the Nile river.  He is discovered by Batya, Pharaoh’s Daughter, adopted, and raised in the palace.  Batya names him Moses (meaning “drawn from the water”).

As a young adult, Moses encounters an Egyptian taskmaster beating an elderly Israelite slave.  He steps in between the two to save the Israelite, and accidentally kills the taskmaster.  Moses tries to hide what he’s done, but discovers that others have learned of his actions.  He flees Egypt fearing Pharaoh will punish him.

Moses finds a new life as a shepherd, finds a wife, and has two sons.  One day as he is out with the flocks, a lamb wanders off.  Moses goes searching for the lamb and finds the burning bush.  God speaks to Moses, commanding him to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelites go free.  Moses is afraid to take on this responsibility, saying he is not suited to the task, as he is a poor speaker (Midrash tells us that Moses has a lisp).  God tells Moses that he will reunite him with his brother Aaron, who will serve as his spokesman.  Moses leaves his wife and sons at their home in safety, and returns to Egypt.

Aaron and Moses speak to Pharaoh, who refuses to let the Israelites go.  They repeatedly ask, and Pharaoh continues to deny them.  With each refusal, God sends a plague upon the Egyptians:  The Nile turns to blood; frogs come up from the Nile and are everywhere; lice infest the city;  then wild animals threaten everyone; a disease kills all the livestock; everyone gets boils; large damaging hail filled with fire falls upon the city; locusts invade and destroy the crops; 3 days of darkness fall where no one can see anything, not even candles/fires help…  By the 10th plague, when all the firstborn males die, Pharaoh is frightened enough to finally let the Israelites go.

The Pharaoh is so scared that he orders the Israelites to leave at once.  The Israelites are caught somewhat unprepared – they had begun packing, but had not finished making provisions for their travel.  They had to bring their raw bread dough with them, and allow it to bake in the sun.  As a result, the bread doesn’t rise (and that’s how we get Matzah).

The Israelites reach the sea of reeds and realize they are trapped.  Pharaoh has decided that letting his slaves go wasn’t a good decision, and has sent his army to go retrieve them.  With the Israelites caught between the approaching army and the sea, God creates a miracle and splits the sea so that the Israelites can cross on dry land.  The Egyptian army follows them, but once the last Israelite exits the path, God allows the water to return to normal, and the army is drowned.

The Israelites are finally free, and Moses and Miriam sing songs of praise to God and lead the people in celebration.