Halacha for Monday 4 Sivan 5784 June 10 2024

Customs of the Shavuot Holiday

Adorning the Synagogue and One’s Home with Plants
The Rama writes (in his gloss on Chapter 494, Section 3) that it is customary to scatter plants throughout the synagogue and one’s home on the holiday of Shavuot in commemoration of the joy of the giving of the Torah. Many Acharonim bring another source for this custom based on the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (88b) which states that after every commandment uttered by Hashem, the entire world was filled with a fragrant smell, as the verse states, “His lips are like roses dripping with passing myrrh.” It is likewise customary to lay tree branches in the synagogue and in one’s home in order to hint to the Gemara in Masechet Rosh Hashanah (16a) that on Shavuot we are judged regarding the fruits of the tree.

Nevertheless, the Sefer Chayei Adam writes that Rabbeinu Eliyahu of Vilna discontinued this custom, for nowadays, non-Jews place tree branches in their homes during their holiday season. This therefore constitutes the prohibition of following the practices of non-Jews. On the other hand, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that the Gaon of Vilna writes that this constitutes the prohibition to follow the practices of non-Jews in accordance with his own opinion that this prohibition applies to all non-Jewish practices. However, according to Rabbeinu Yosef Cologne and many other Poskim who rule likewise, this prohibition applies only to those observed practices which have no reason behind them (for only then are we concerned about “Emorite ways” and the possibility of idolatrous rituals) or to those customs which are observed for immoral purposes and the like. However, if it is a custom which is observed for a specific reason, such as if a garment is worn by non-Jewish doctors in order for them to be recognizable as doctors, a Jewish doctor may follow this custom and wear the garment as well. Therefore, this custom may indeed be observed, for the custom of the Jewish people is law, especially when the custom in question is very ancient and quoted by our Sages.

Eating Dairy Foods
The Rama (ibid.) continues and writes that several communities have the custom to eat dairy foods on the day of Shavuot. Some Acharonim add that it is customary to eat milk and honey together as well, hinting to the acceptance of our holy Torah which is compared to milk and honey. Some explain that the reason for eating dairy foods on Shavuot is because when our forefathers were given the Ten Commandments, the rest of the Torah and its commandments were revealed to them as well (as Rav Sa’adia Gaon writes that all of the Mitzvot are included in the Ten Commandments). When the Jewish people returned to their homes after receiving the Torah, they did not find anything ready to eat besides for dairy items, for eating meat now involved much preparation including slaughtering the animal with a knife free of imperfections, removing the forbidden fats and sinews, salting the meat and washing it off as well as many other laws pertaining to the kosher dietary laws. They therefore made due with dairy foods; we eat dairy items in commemoration of this. Many other reasons are given for this custom.

Since Halacha prohibits eating dairy foods for six hours after eating meat, we therefore customarily eat the dairy foods first and only after washing one’s mouth out in accordance with Halacha, i.e., by eating some bread and drinking some beverages, do we eat meat. One should eat meat on Yom Tov in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of joy of Yom Tov, as the Gemara in Masechet Chagiga (8b) states that one experiences true joy only by eating meat. One should likewise drink wine in honor of the joy of Yom Tov. One should nevertheless abstain from frivolity and unruliness, for we have only been commanded to experience a joy through which one will come to serve Hashem. One should rejoice by performing permissible actions, such as singing the praises of Hashem and his holy Torah. One must likewise try his utmost to learn Torah during the day of Shavuot as well. Maran zt”l writes that one should also learn from the Rambam’s Sefer Ha’Mitzvot. It is also proper to recite Tehillim on this day, for the holiday of Shavuot marks the anniversary of the passing of King David.

Maran zt”l would say that it is not so beneficial to remain awake the entire Shavuot night studying Torah and then to sleep the entire day thereafter. Rather, one should only sleep for an hour or two in order to regain one’s strength and then awaken and study Torah once again. Although this is indeed a tall order for most people, nevertheless, we can understand from the words of Maran zt”l that one should not spend too many hours sleeping on this most awesome day and should dedicate as much time as possible to Torah study.

The Words of Maran zt”l
Let us quote the words of Maran zt”l in a sermon he delivered prior to the holiday of Shavuot:

The night of Shavuot is an especially unique night and is more exalted than any other holiday eve. So many Jews sit and delve in Torah all of the world! What is the basis for this custom?

When Hashem asked Moshe Rabbeinu to redeem the Jewish nation from Egypt, He told him, “When you take the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve Hashem on this mountain.” The word “serve” in Hebrew (“תעבדון”) is spelled with an extra “Nun” to hint that only after fifty days after having left Egypt would the Jewish nation merit receiving the Torah.

The Jewish nation yearned to receive the Torah in spite of not knowing the essence of the Torah or what was written inside. All they knew was that their forefathers (Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and even before them, Shem, Ever, Noach, and Adam) enjoyed the Torah and were exalted by learning it. Only they did not have the Torah, and this is why they yearned so much for it.

Thus, when the Jewish nation left Egypt, they counted every passing day since they left Egypt. The Omer counting we perform commemorates how our forefathers counted when they left Egypt. The Torah was the Jewish nation’s treasure, and they counted every day they came close to receiving it.

At the end, on the night before the coveted day when the Jewish nation was to receive the Torah, the Satan caused them to become extremely tired and fatigued and the Jewish nation slept soundly into the next morning until Hashem woke them with great noise, as the verse states, “And it was on the third day and there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very powerful Shofar blast; the entire nation in the camp trembled.” Everyone awoke startled and Moshe instructed them all to quickly get dressed and stand at the foot of Har Sinai.

To commemorate the lethargy the Jewish nation exhibited that night and in order to repair what was done incorrectly, the entire Jewish nation stays awake all Shavuot night toiling in Torah.

There is a special “Tikkun” (order of learning) which the Ari z”l drafted for this night; fortunate is one who reads this Tikkun. However, it is not compulsory and one can only study where and what one’s heart desires. Therefore, if one wishes to study Talmud  or Poskim, one may do so. The most important thing is not to sleep  and to delve in Torah until daybreak, at which point we shall read the Ten Commandments and receive the Torah anew.

It is customary to read Tehillim on Shavuot, for this day marks the passing of King David. King David passed away on Shavuot which coincided with Shabbat. When he passed, the Jewish nation was so distraught that they did not joyfully celebrate the Shavuot holiday; instead, they pushed it off until the next day. Thus, the day after Shavuot, Isru Chag is a special day, more special than any other Isru Chag of any other holiday (outside of Israel, it is the second day of Yom Tov).

Gladdening the Needy
The Torah (Devarim 16) states: “And you shall be glad during your holiday; you, your son, your daughter, the Levi, the convert, the orphan, and the widow in your midst.” One must therefore gladden the hearts of the poor, widows, and orphans during the holiday as well and this is a profoundly important obligation. One may fulfill one’s obligation to do so by donating Tzedakah before the holiday so that the needy will have the necessary funds so that they can enjoy the holiday as well.

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