On Sivan 7 (May 30th) we will be celebrating Shavuot, the anniversary of the day the Ten Commandments were given to Moses and the Children of Israel. We will celebrate Shavuot with special joy this year as we welcome Louisa to our adult congregation as a Bat Mitzvah, and also as we remember our loved ones in a Yizkor service. Although we will not be staying up all night on Shavuot to study, many Jews do this. Why? One teaching says that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead, but they overslept. With God already waiting on the mountaintop. Moses had to wake the people. Since we all should act as if we were present at Mt. Sinai, some stay up all night learning Torah. As for food, Shavuot has long been associated with dairy dishes, especially blintzes and cheesecake. What’s the connection? After some research, I discovered four possible reasons for this tradition:
- Since the Jews were not bound by the laws of kashrut before receiving the Torah, they did not have separate dishes for meat and milk. The moment they received the Law, they realized that their cooking utensils were no longer acceptable so they ate only uncooked dairy products until they could kosher their utensils.
- Another tradition links this custom to Song of Songs 4:11 that can be read as likening the knowledge of Torah to milk and honey: “Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue.”
- A third reason comes from Psalms 68:16, which refers to the Giving of Torah in the following way: “O majestic mountain, Mount Bashan; O jagged mountain, Mount Bashan.” The Hebrew word for jagged or craggy is gavnunim, which sounds like g’vinah, the Hebrew word for cheese. Therefore, we eat cheese in remembrance and honor of the mountain that is sometimes called Sinai and sometimes called Bashan, always revered as the dwelling place from which God spoke to Israel.
- My favorite reason for eating dairy foods on Shavuot is that according to a legend, when Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses in the Nile River, he would only nurse from a Hebrew woman. To honor Moses’s loyalty, we eat only dairy products on Shavuot. There you go—four possible explanations for a tradition.
As BAJC president, I have found that I often have to research a tradition. Often when I ask why BAJC does a certain prayer or practice, the answer is “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but one of the beautiful values that BAJC holds is being open to new approaches. As I review notes from the member coffee klatches, I am struck by the ways we respect tradition while still considering new approaches. For example, when we were in West Village Meeting House, parents of our religious school students were able to get to know one another in the lobby while waiting for their children. Now, in our own smaller space, that traditional interaction is missing, so we are thinking about new ways to get parents to feel more connected to each other and to BAJC. Another tradition that may need tweaking is our potlucks. Some young parents have said that having Shabbat services at 6:00 followed by a potluck at 7:00 doesn’t fit their children’s eating schedule. Other members didn’t like feeling rushed through the service to get to the potluck, yet when we used to have the potluck at 6:00 and the service at 7:00, some felt rushed through the suppertime socializing. Oy! One new approach might be to have a designated “young families service” with the meal first. Another idea is to coordinate a “share Shabbat at your home” rather than having the Shabbat meal at shul. Some people also felt that preparing food for the potluck was just one task too many for them at the end of a busy week, so we might consider having a “pizza potluck” now and then. And, of course, there is always the “fourth Friday” Kabbalat Shabbat service with no food at all!
Another “new tradition” to consider is Confirmation, a ceremony that traditionally takes place two or three years after b’nai mitzvah. Students "confirm" their commitment to Judaism and to Jewish life at an age when, after two or three years of advanced Jewish studies (and socializing), they are prepared to make their emotional and intellectual commitment to Judaism. Perhaps this is a tradition we should create for BAJC teens. What do you think?