This week we are celebrating Shavuot, one of theShalosh Regalim, the three pilgrim festivals. What is notable is that it is the only festival which does not have defined rituals. It is the only Jewish holiday mentioned in the Torah, without a specific date.
If you ask most Jews, the things that come to mind will include reading the Book of Ruth, Yizkor, decorating the Shul and, almost above all, cheesecake, and cheese blintzes. The last of these things are based on our Ashkenazi custom.
Syrian and Iraqi Jews would eat Kahee, a sweet, buttered dough cake. Greek Jews would eat a seven-layer cake called siete cielos (seven heavens). Yemeni Jews do not eat dairy at all.
The word Shavuot translates as “weeks” as we complete the counting of the Omer. It is also referred to as "Yom Habikurim" or the "Day of the First Fruits." And “Chag HaKatzir," the "Harvest Festival." In Temple times offerings would be made to celebrate the new growth.
As well as being celebrated as a harvest festival, a tradition has grown up to observe the Yahrzeit of King David and the Baal Shem Tov. Although not explicitly recorded in the Torah, we recall “Matan Torah”, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. But there are other customs; the all-night study of the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot.
The famous liturgical poem or hymn of the Shavuot festival, “Akdamut Milin” is inserted into the reading of the first Aliyah. Written in the 13th century in Worms, during the Rhine massacres, it opens with the words:
An introduction of words and a beginning of speech: From the first, I request authority and permission
What do all these customs recall and to what do they point?
Like Ruth we move, with faith, from sad times to new beginnings. If you look around there are green shoots everywhere. It is our way, to remember and to embrace hope.