SHAVU`OT

          Shavuot, the ‘Festival of Weeks,’ marks the end of a seven-week period that connects the Exodus from Egypt (Pesaḥ) with the giving of the Torah. The holiday is observed fifty days after the first day of Passover and it has five different names, each connected to a different aspect of the holiday’s meaning:

1) Firstly, Ḥagh ha-Shabhu`oth  חַג הַשָּׁבוּעוֹת is the name for the holiday that is most commonly used. It means the (Pilgrim) Festival of Weeks. (In the Torah, the word Ḥagh/Chag (חג) is only used for the three pilgrim festivals.)

2) The name Ḥagh ha-Qaṣîr, חַג הַקָּצִיר (Pilgrim) Harvest Festival, refers to the celebration of the summer’s wheat harvest.

3) Yom ha-Bikkurîm  יוֹם הַבִּכּוּרִים(Day of the Firstlings) refers to the first fruits that were brought and offered in the Temple.

4) In the Talmud, Shavuot is called Aṣṣèreth עֲצֶּרֶת. The word Aṣṣèreth can mean a few things. In Biblical Hebrew it means Festive Assembly. It can also mean “Finalizing”. As Pesach and Shavuot are connected through the counting of the `Omer, in a way, Shavuot is the finalization of Pesach. It is also a Finalization because Pesach was the beginning of the grain harvest, while Shavu’oth marks the end of this season. Therefore Shavout was the time when farmers brought their tithings from these harvests.

5) In the liturgy, Shavuot is called Zemàn Mattàn Torathénu  זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ (The Time of the Giving of Our Torah), indicating that we are celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai which happened around this time as well.

During the times of the Temple, Shavuot was one of the three holidays for which Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with offerings of livestock and produce.

 

In the synagogue service, we commemorate the giving of the Torah by reading the Ten Commandments.

 

On Shavuot, there is a beautiful tradition to decorate our synagogues with flowers, in part as a celebration of the harvest season.

 

Also, special piyyutim (medieval poems) are read. Most remarkably as a long poem called Azharot, written by Shelomo ibn Gabirol. It has all the 613 commandments of the Torah in rhyme. The custom of the K.K. Sefardi congregations in New York, Amsterdam, London, Philadelphia, and others is for the men to read this in the afternoon before Minḥa, where everyone takes turns and read a few lines before the next person takes over. On the afternoon on the first day of Shavuot, the first half is read with the negative commandments (the prohibitions, “what we may not do”), and on the second day, the positive commandments are read (“what we must do”).
Click here to listen to the Azharot melody:
https://www.shearithisrael.org/content/azharot-introductory-section

 

Then, there is the reading of Meghillàth Rūth, the Book of Ruth. In many congregations, this is also read in the afternoon, after the Azharot. The custom in K.K. Shearith Israel in New York is that pre-Bat Mitzwa girls read the Book of Ruth after morning service.

One reason given for reading the Book of Ruth is that Ruth declared: “Where you go, I will go, where you sleep, I will sleep, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Ruth chose to follow her mother-in-law Naomi and to remain with the Jewish people. As such, she can be compared to the Israelites who accepted the Torah. Also, Ruth’s story takes place during the wheat harvest, and her story is therefore appropriate for the Harvest Festival (Ḥagh ha-Qaṣîr).

The Book of Ruth is read with a very special tune.
Here is a recording of the first chapter of Ruth: https://www.shearithisrael.org/content/ruth-chapter-1
For the other chapters, see here: https://www.shearithisrael.org/content/book-ruth

Most people have also heard of the Ashkenazi custom to eat dairy foods. This custom started in the late Middle Ages with the eating of dairy pancakes (‘pladen’) and it was most likely taken over from an Eastern Christian holiday called Meslenitsa. Later, different explanations were found to give Jewish meaning to the custom. One interpretation for this tradition became that it symbolizes the ‘rebirth’ that the Israelites underwent by receiving the Torah and that the Torah is like nourishing milk.

 

Then there is the Qabbalistic practice of Tikkun Lél Shavuot, a night-long study of Torah that ends with prayer at sunrise. This practice began in the 1500s in the city of Safed.

Shavuot is a short holiday but full of traditions. Ultimately, the holiday is a celebration of the Torah as the source of light for the Jewish people and the guidebook that guides us throughout the years. The Jews of today echo their spiritual ancestors when they said to God “Na`asèh we-Nishma`,”: “We will do, and we will listen!”

 

Finally, how is the name of the festival correctly pronounced?
In Modern Hebrew the pronunciation is: Sha-vu-ot.
However, most old Sephardi communities have the tradition to pronounce the v as b, so then it becomes: Shabu’ot (if this is historically correct is a matter of discussion, and we will talk about this another time). I often spell it as bh to avoid discussions: as Shabhu’ot. Those who want to say b, see b, and they can say b, and others can pronounce bh as v (like ph is often pronounced as f).
Sephardim who are very precise pronounce the letter ת without a dot as th… That makes it Shabu`oth (like the th in Ruth, and Shabbāth).

Most importantly, according to the rules of Biblical grammar and the laws of the Talmud, the letter between the u and the o (the letter `ayin) must be clearly pronounced. The Talmud even teaches that someone who cannot pronounce the letter alef (א) different from the `ayin (ע) may not read the Torah for the congregation or lead the prayers. That is because confusing the letters can give a whole different meaning! Most certainly, the original pronunciation of the `ayin (ע) is the same as the Arabic letter `ayn (ع), a sound that is made deep down in the throat. On the internet, that sound is often written as a 3 (so then the name of the holiday can be written as: Shabhu3oth or Shabu3ot). But that throat-sound is very hard to make for many people who do not have it in their language. What to do?
In Europe, there was a wide-spread custom to pronounce the `ayin (ע) as ng (like in the word ‘singing’). Unfortunately, it has mostly disappeared, but it is still practiced by some Sephardi communities in Europe and North America. For instance, you can hear it in the link of the Ruth recording in this article. When I visited KKSY for the first time in 2004, people told me that the Arabic sound was too hard to make, so the community decided to adopt the custom of pronouncing the `ayin (ע) as ng. Under Ashkenazi influence, because people studying in Israel in Ashkenazi yeshibhoth, it was sadly abandoned , but even years later, I have seen footage and heard recordings from KKSY people singing and praying, using this pronunciation (le-Ngolam waNged, Shir haMangalot, counting the Ngomer, etc.), and it made me very happy. So, based on this KKSY tradition, the name of the holiday is to be pronounced as: Shabungot.

 

Have a wonderful holiday,
חג שבועות שמח!

 

Rabbi Sjimon den Hollander,
With the help of my friend H.D.