The Laws of Sefirah and Shavuot
The period between Pesach and Shavu’ot is called Sefirah (“counting”). The name is derived from the practice of counting the ‘Omer, which is observed from the night of the second Seder of Pesach until the eve of Shavu’ot.
The Sefirah period is a time of sadness. According to the Talmud, this is because twelve thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died one year between Pesach and Shavu’ot (B. Yeb. 62b; Otsar Hage’onim Yebamot, p. 141). The rabbis explain that this massacre took place because the disciples did not respect each other. Historians connect the event with the Hadrianic persecution, which followed the Bar Kokhba revolt in which Rabbi Akiva was involved (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 166).
Some associate the somberness of these days with an even earlier period of Jewish history. The fruits of the field ripen during the time encompassed by Sefirah, and it is, therefore, a period of uncertainty — of hope and prayer that our physical sustenance will be continued in abundance (Abudraham Hashalem, p. 241; B. R. H. 16a). A contemporary scholar has suggested that this uncertainty was due, in particular, to the fact that in Israel, the hot winds that are so harmful to the crops blow between Pesach and Shavu’ot (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 171).
The ‘Omer could no longer be brought to the Temple of Jerusalem after the destruction. The counting was continued, however, as a zekher lemikdash (remembrance of the Temple) — hence another reason for sadness (B. Men. 66a; Kol Bo, chap. 55; Maimonides, Hil. Sefirat Ha’omer). It was easy to superimpose other sorrowful memories on such a period, and the Hadrianic persecution was the most prominent of these.
The Crusades added another reason for sorrow, especially for the Jews of Germany, since the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders also took place at this time of the year (O.H. 493:2 in M.D. 2).
Another reason for sadness was added in modern times. While the crematoria and gas chambers of the Nazis operated all year round, some notable tragic events took place in the Sefirah period. The Parliament of Israel fixed the twenty-seventh of Nisan as Memorial Day for those slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II. In addition, the day before Israel Independence Day is called Yom Hazikaron for those who died in the War of Liberation. The last great deportation to the gas chambers, that of the Jews of Hungary, took place during the Sefirah period
These sad events are memorialized by our refraining from participation in joyous events during this period. No weddings should take place, and it is customary not to have the hair cut (O.H. 493:2). No event involving music and dancing should be scheduled during Sefirah (O.H. 493:1 in M.A. 1).
The one interruption in this doleful period is Lag Ba’Omer the thirty-third day of the counting of the ‘Omer, which falls on the eighteenth of Iyar. Evidently on this day there was an interruption in the oppression and hence the requirements of Sefirah were waived.
There are numerous variations in the customs prevailing during this period (O.H. 493:3). Some observe mourning up to Shavu’ot, excluding Lag Ba’Omer only (O.H. 493 in M.D. 2; ibid. in Sha’arei Teshuvah 8); some observe mourning only until Lag Ba’Omer (O.H. 493:1 in Rama); others start the period of sadness on the first day of Iyar (O.H. 493:3) and count until Shavu’ot, with the exception of Lag Ba’Omer; and still others begin on the first day of Iyar and continue until three days before Shavu’ot (Hayyei Adam 130:11).
In Ashkenazic communities, the most widespread custom has been to observe mourning from Pesach until the three days before Shavu’ot. Exceptions are made on Rosh Hodesh lyar, Rosh Hodesh Sivan, and Lag Ba’Omer (see in Mishnah Berurah, O.H. 493:15). Some add the fifth of lyar, which is Israel Independence Day.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, in 1949, adopted the Geonic tradition with the following statement:
“According to Geonic tradition, marriages in the Sefrah days were forbidden only from the second day of Passover until Lag B’Omer, and not from Lag B’Omer on (Otsar Hageonim, Yebamot 140).
“This tradition was also practiced in the Medieval period in the Jewish communities of France.
“The prohibition against marriages during these thirty-three days applied only to wedding ceremonies accompanied by dancing, singing and music.
“We therefore recommend that the Geonic tradition concerning marriages during Sefirah be followed, and that the prohibition be observed from the second day of Pesach until Lag B’Omer. During this period, marriages not accompanied by dancing, singing and music may be performed.
“On those days, during the thirty-three day period, when Tahanun is not recited in the synagogue, as well as on the fifth day of lyar (Israel Independence Day), marriages of a public and festive nature may be solemnized.”
A later decision of the Law Committee shortened the period even more and introduced a new element. On the one hand, the whole basis for the restrictions during the Sefirah period rests on shaky grounds. On the other hand, two other events which happened within our own memory must be memorialized and given significance. These are the martyrdom of the six million victims of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. For the one we have declared the twenty-seventh of Nisan as Yom Hasho’ah, and for the other we have declared the fifth of Iyar as Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Both are gaining more and more recognition by Klal Yisrael. Hence it was proposed and passed that no joyous functions be allowed on the weekend before the twenty-eighth of Nisan, and that it be declared a period of mourning for the six million martyrs. Beyond that there should be no prohibition whatsoever (see Law Committee archives).
We should add the caveat expressed by the Rama, who says that in order to avoid separation, we should strive to avoid a situation where some Jews in a city adopt one custom and others, another custom (O.H. 493:3). In large communities this may not be applicable, but in small ones it is good advice.
The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. It has become the custom in many communities to memorialize the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There is, as yet, no uniform pattern of observance. However, the day has tended to become a memorial not only for the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto but also for the six million martyrs. When a pattern finally crystallizes, this day will rival the ninth of Av in solemnity and in the memories it will evoke. As of this writing, the twenty-seventh of Nisan has been accepted as Yom Hasho’ah.
Yom Ha’atsma’ut. The fifth of Iyar has been designated the official day for celebrating Israel’s independence, for it was on the fifth of Iyar, 5708, that Israel’s independence was declared. In Israel it has become both a national and religious holiday. As the years pass, a tradition of observance is beginning to crystallize. A special service and a guide for observance have been drawn up by the Chief Rabbinate. In time Yom Ha’atsma’ut will certainly take its place alongside Hanukkah and Purim.
In the diaspora Yom Ha’atsma’ut has also been recognized as a day of rejoicing. The Rabbinical Assembly has prepared a special service that expresses thanks for the great deliverance and recognition of the interdependence of the Jewries of Israel and the diaspora.
In Israel the day preceding Independence Day is called Yom Hazikaron, a day of remembrance for all those who made the supreme sacrifice during the War of Liberation.
In the time of the Temple, those who could not bring the Paschal lamb at the required time, either for reasons of ritual impurity or because they were traveling and were too far from Jerusalem to arrive in time for Pesach, could bring the Paschal lamb a month later, on the fourteenth of lyar (Num. 9:612). Today the day on which they did this (called Pesach Sheini) is remembered with a slight variation in the service, i.e., Tahanun is not recited. In some places a piece of matsah is eaten during the day (Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, p. 104).
The thirty-third day of the ‘Omer, which falls on the eighteenth of lyar, is a semiholiday (O.H. 493:2 in Rama). According to tradition, the calamities of the Hadrianic persecution were interrupted on the eighteenth of Iyar, and as a result it was declared a semiholiday (Maharil [Warsaw, 5634], p. 21; [Bnai Brak, 5719], pp. 41-42). Tahanun is not recited, weddings and joyous occasions are permitted, and one may cut his hair (O.H. 493:2 in Rama).
In Israel the day is also observed as hilula’ Derabi Shim’on bar Yohai the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the alleged author of the Zohar. Large numbers of people visit Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s grave in Meron and celebrate the day as a full festival.
The origin of this celebration is attributed to the great kabbalist Isaac Luria. In Lag Ba’Omer he saw not only the cessation of the plague that afflicted Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, but also the fact that Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students saved the Torah. The student who was most famous in the eyes of the kabbalists was Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai to whom they ascribed the authorship of the Zohar. According to tradition, he died on the eighteenth of lyar. It was an ancient custom to celebrate the Yahrzeit of great people as a holiday (Otsar Hageonim, Yebamot 241), and Rabbi Isaac Luria applied this to the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, thus making Lag Ba’Omer even more significant (see Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 167). Lag Ba’Omer is also called the scholars’ festival because of its association with the students of Rabbi Akiva. It is perhaps for this reason that the celebration has been observed mostly by schoolchildren. It used to be customary for children to make bows and arrows and engage in archery on Lag Ba’Omer. This is an obvious reference to the warlike activities of Rabbi Akiva’s followers. Later kabbalists saw an association with the rainbow, which is a symbol of redemption, since there is a tradition that the rainbow will appear in the sky as the harbinger of the final redemption (Benei Yisakhar, month of Iyar, 1).
Shavu’ot, occurring on the sixth and seventh of Sivan, is the second of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. Like the other Pilgrimage Festivals, it commemorates an important event in the history of the Jewish people, it has an agricultural reference, marking a stage in the harvest, and it imparts an essential religious truth.
The agricultural reference is the most apparent since Shavu’ot marks the end of the counting of the ‘Omer. The agricultural significance of Shavu’ot is also indicated by the first two references to the festival in the Torah: “And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, even the first fruits of the wheat harvest” (Exod. 34:22); also, “And the feast of harvest, the first fruits of thy labors, which thou sowest in the field” (Exod. 23:16).
Thus two names are given to this festival: Hag Haqatsir (harvest festival), because of its agricultural aspect, and Hag Hashavu’ot, which does not indicate any characteristic of the festival except the date, i.e., that it comes after the counting of seven weeks (Deut. 16:10-12).
In the Talmud the name ‘Atseret is also given to the festival (M. R.H. 1:2; B. Pes. 68b). Our sages regarded Shavu’ot as the conclusion of the festival of Pesach, and therefore called it ‘Atseret, just as the conclusion of the Sukkot festival is called Shemini ‘Atseret (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 7:2).
According to rabbinic interpretation of the Bible (B. Shab. 86b-88a), the Ten Commandments were given on the sixth day of Sivan. Shavu’ot thus is zman matan toratenu, commemorating this event and emphasizing the Torah’s sanctity.
Torah, in its all-inclusive sense as the heritage of the children of Israel, is literally khayeynu veorekh yameynu (“our life and the length of our days”). Sa’adia Gaon said that Israel is a people by virtue of the Torah. It is one element in the Jewish “trinity”: kudsha brikh hu, orayta v’yisrael–“the Holy One Blessed Be He, the Torah, and Israel”(Zohar, Aharei Mot 73a).
As the Hebrew phrase torah min hashamayim indicates, the Torah is divinely ordained. Its moral laws are both normative and of divine origin, possessing unique validity that we must affirm and emphasize every day.
Professor Kaplan has written: “…the moral law must be regarded not as some prudential arrangement or social convention, but as inherent in the very nature of reality. The human mind loses all sense of security, and suffers from failure of nerve the moment it begins to suspect that the moral law is man-made” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 302).
The rabbis in the Midrash express the same thought poetically. Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “When God gave the Torah, no bird sang or flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the Serafim ceased from saying, ‘Holy, holy,’ the sea was calm, no creature spoke; the world was silent and still, and the divine voice said: ‘I am the Lord thy God… ‘” (Exodus Rabbah 29:9). When God spoke the world was hushed. This gives us the common denominator in the various interpretations of torah min hashamayim. The validity of the moral law is not conventional or prudential, but divine.
“We should therefore recognize in the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim? the original prophetic discovery of the moral law as the principal self-revelation of God” (Kaplan, ibid., p. 303).
Whether we consider torah min hashamayim to be a historical fact or a theological concept, the import is that the moral law has divine sanction.
“The unique element in the Jewish religion consisted in the conscious recognition that the chief function of the belief in God was to affirm and fortify the moral law …. The outstanding characteristic of the Jewish religion is its conscious emphasis upon the teaching that the moral law is the principal manifestation of God in the world” (Kaplan, ibid., p. 302).
Shavu’ot is thus the festival that bids us emphasize the primacy of the moral law and the normative character of Judaism.
The laws concerning work on Shavu’ot are the same as on Pesach. The statutory services are also the same, with variations where Shavu’ot is mentioned. Thus in the ‘Amidah we say hag hashavuot hazeh zman matan toratenu , and the reading of the Torah is, of course, especially selected for Shavu’ot. On both days of Shavu’ot two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. On the first day, in the first scroll, we read Exodus 19 and 20, which tell of the giving of the Ten Commandments. In the second scroll we read Numbers 28:26-31, which tells of the festival of Shavu’ot. The Haftarah is Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3: 12, which contains the prophet’s vision of God.
On the second day we read Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17, which speaks of the festivals. On a Sabbath we read Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17. The Haftarah is Habakkuk 2:20-3:19, where the revelation at Sinai is mentioned (O.H. 494:1-2; Levush, O.H. 494:1).
On the second day yizkor is recited after the Torah reading, as it is on the last day of Pesach, on Shemini ‘Atseret, and on Yom Kippur (Levush, O.H. 490:9 and 494:2).
Special Observances for Shavu’ot
It is customary to start the evening services of the first night later than usual. This is to satisfy the implication of the verse sheva shabatot tmiymot (Lev. 23:15, i.e., we count seven complete weeks; therefore we wait to make sure that the forty-ninth day has been completed O.H. 494 in M.A. and M.D. ).
It was an ancient custom for Jews to remain awake for the entire first night of Shavu’ot to study Torah. The Zohar ascribes this custom to particularly pious Jews (Emor 98a). In Eastern Europe it was widely observed, and a special text for the occasion, known as tikun leil shavuot, developed which contained the first and last verses of each Sidrah, the first and last passages of each tractate of the Mishnah, and excerpts from the Zohar.
A quaint reason is given for the practice of staying awake on the first night of Shavu’ot. Legend tells that the children of Israel slept so soundly the night before the Torah was given that they had to be awakened with thunder and lightening. We, on the contrary, are up all night and need not be awakened (O.H. 494 in M.A. and Shir Hashirim Rabbah).
The more obvious reason is that we review the Torah to celebrate the anniversary of its giving.
The hymn known as ‘Aqdamut (because it begins with that word) is a song of praise to God for having chosen Israel and for granting us the Torah, hence its inclusion in the Shavu’ot liturgy (Levush, O.H. 494:1).
It was once customary to chant ‘Aqdamut responsively at the Torah reading after the first man was called and had said the benediction and the reader had read the first verse of the reading. Now we say it before the first benediction (Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, p. 112; M.D. on O.H. 494). ‘Aqdamut was written by Rabbi Meir of Orleans, a cantor in Worms, Germany, who lived in the eleventh century. Evidently its purpose was to strengthen the people’s faith during the Crusades.
The Book of Ruth
The Book of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavu’ot. The custom is mentioned in Masekhet Soferim (14:16), and the fact that the first chapter of Midrash Ruth deals with the giving of the Torah is evidence that this custom was already well established in the period when this Midrash was compiled (Dunsky, Midrash Ruth, p. 3).
Many explanations are given for the reading of Ruth. The most quoted reason is that Ruth’s coming to Israel took place around the time of Shavu’ot, and her acceptance of the Jewish faith was like Matan Torah for the people of Israel (Abudraham Hashalem, p. 240; Levush O.H. 494:2). The acceptance of the Torah entails suffering and sacrifice for us just as it did for Ruth (Yalkut Ruth 586).
A more logical reason is the desire to have sections from all three divisions of the Bible–i.e., Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim–in the liturgy of Shavu’ot and to show that they are all divine. And why the Book of Ruth? Because in the Talmud (B. B.B. 14b) Ruth is counted as the first book in the Ketuvim (Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, p. 112).
Since the Book of Ruth ends with the genealogy of David, whose forebear Ruth was, it has been suggested that it is read on Shavu’ot because there is a legend that David died on Shavu’ot (P. Hag. 2:3, P. Bet. 2:4, Ruth Rabbah 3:2).
A recent scholar has suggested that the custom had its origin in the polemics against the Karaites. The Karaites denied the validity of the Oral Law. According to biblical law, neither an Ammonite nor a Moabite can enter the fold of Israel. How, then, was Ruth accepted? The rabbis interpreted the law as referring to males only; hence Ruth could become part of the people of Israel (B. Yeb. 76b). But this interpretation is based on the Oral Law, not the Written, and thus it is proof of the validity of the Oral Law. Shavu’ot was an appropriate time to show the equal validity of both the Oral and the Written Law (Maimon, Hagim Umo’adim, p. 271).
There is a difference of opinion as to whether a benediction should be recited before the Book of Ruth is read (see Levush O.H. 494:2; Rama on O.H. 490:9; Mishnah Berurah ad loc.; Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Shulhan ‘Arukh 494:13, 17). The present practice is not to recite a benediction.
The Eating of Dairy Dishes
It is customary to eat dairy dishes on the first day of Shavu’ot. Many reasons have been given for the custom. One derives it from the verse “honey and milk shall be under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), which is made to refer to the Torah, implying that the words of the Torah are as pleasant and acceptable to our ears and hearts as milk and honey are to our tongues (Kol Bo 58).
It has also been suggested that just as we have two food items (the shankbone and the egg) at the Seder to represent the two sacrificial offerings brought to the Temple on Pesach, so on Shavu’ot we have two types of food, first milk and later meat, in commemoration of the two special sacrificial offerings that were brought on Shavu’ot (O.H. 494:3).
We must mention one more reason which is still taken seriously by many though it seems almost facetious. With the giving of the Torah the dietary laws were established. Hence, when the people came home from Sinai they could not eat meat because they had none that was prepared properly. To prepare new meat properly would take too long. They had no choice, therefore, but to eat milk dishes (O.H. 494:2 in Mishnah Berurah 12).
A more logical reason, which may be an afterthought, however, connects the custom of eating dairy with restraint and self-control. The Torah is gained by eschewing pleasures and excesses. Meat is the food of those who know no restraint. Ascetics and people who seek self-control usually limit themselves to dairy dishes. Eating dairy dishes on Shavu’ot is a reminder that the Torah is given to him who lives the sober life rather than that of pleasure (Hirshovitz, Otsar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, p. 201).
It is also customary on Shavu’ot to decorate the synagogue with flowers and foliage, and in some places the floors of the synagogue were strewn with fresh grass as a reminder of the agricultural character of the festival (O.H. 494:3 in Rama).
In some places the synagogues were adorned with branches and large plants as a reminder that according to the Mishnah (R.H. 1:2), the world is judged regarding the fruits of the trees on Shavu’ot. On Shavu’ot we thus pray for God to bless the fruit of the trees (B. R.H. 16a). Today, when flowers decorate the pulpit at all times, we simply add to the decorations and vary them.
In Israel many of the old customs are being revived, especially those having to do with the agricultural aspects of Shavu’ot. The bringing of bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem, as described in the Mishnah, was a gala affair (M. Bik. 3:1-8). It was discontinued after the destruction of the Temple, but has been revived in the villages and towns of Israel, where the children bring the first fruits of their fields with special festivities (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 1186).
In many synagogues, confirmation services are held either on the first night or the first morning of Shavu’ot. The confirmation service has no roots in Jewish tradition but was instituted in the early nineteenth century in Germany by the Reform movement. It was frankly an importation from the Lutheran Church, but it struck roots in the Jewish community and was accepted by the Conservative synagogues and even by some Orthodox synagogues. There is no uniform service, no uniform age, and no uniform curriculum for preparation. The purpose, however, is to solemnly initiate Jewish boys and girls into their ancestral faith.
There were various motives behind the introduction of this rite. It was supposed to be a substitute for Bar Mitswah, and would thus apply to boys only. Then it was supposed to give equality to women as an equivalent to the Bar Mitswah. Later, when the Bar Mitswah rite was eliminated in the Reform movement, confirmation became the practice for both boys and girls (see Jewish Encyclopedia, 4:219).
In America the practice became so widespread that a Reform rabbi has written: “The confirmation ceremony, which generally attracts congregations that overflow the synagogues, is one of the chief contributions that Reform Judaism has made to the evolution of Jewish education and Jewish religious ceremonies in the American synagogues” (Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 3:330).
Recent developments, however, have shaken this confidence. The Bar Mitswah has been reestablished with full force in all synagogues. And now–a contribution of the Conservative movement–the Bat Mitswah rite has been spreading to all segments of Judaism. Thus, all the original reasons for confirmation have disappeared. The protagonists of confirmation are hard put to find new meaning for it so as not to make it a duplication of the Bar and Bat Mitswah ceremonies. Where Bar Mitswah has a basis in tradition, and Bat Mitswah has a basis in the equalization of the sexes, confirmation is a hora’at sha’ah (temporary measure) which has lost its momentum (see CCAR Journal, June 1966, esp. the articles by Klein, Wolf, and Silverman).
In a number of synagogues confirmation has been eliminated, and instead there is a reconsecration rite with an entirely different purpose in mind.
A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein (Supplement by Rabbi Joel Roth)
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York and Jerusalem, Copyright 1979, 1992