Seven Ways to Make Shavuot Personal

Try these creative strategies for adding spirituality, meaning and beauty to your holiday experience.

by Aviva Norman

I still recall how intrigued I was as a child during Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the all-night Torah study and celebration at the congregation where my family belonged, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. Members of all ages were attracted by a variety of study groups and an impressive spread of snacks including pizza and, of course, cheesecake. While many participate in all-night study marathons for Shavuot, here are seven other ways to enjoy Shavuot that will engage all the senses and help you explore your own spirituality and creativity.

1. Mitzvah Time

Unlike Passover or Sukkot, Shavuot is not a holiday that has us re-enact its central event—the Matan Torah—the Jews’ received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Rather, we are encouraged to experience Shavuot by embracing mitzvot—good deeds—in our own lives. In the spirit of the holiday, visit a sick friend or relative; welcome guests to your home; collect and donate toiletries to a shelter for abused women; work as a literacy tutor; volunteer at an animal shelter. You’ll be surprised at how connected to the holiday you will feel!

2. Your Very Own Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are the foundation of our relationship with God and the fundamental rules of any ethical society. Shavuot is a time in which we celebrate the Torah and receiving these fundamental guidelines for our everyday lives. What better time to evaluate the essential rules we live by? Ask yourself, what are the commandments that you need to guide your home, social, or work life? In The Tapestry of Jewish Time, A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life Cycle Events, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin encourages us to look inside of ourselves on Shavuot and take stock of our own ethical compass and rules that we set of ourselves. Create a list of your own: Control your temper; call your Mom; keep a daily planner to organize your schedule. Rabbi Cardin recommends placing the list in a convenient place for easy reference—in your desk drawer, on a night table, or on your refrigerator—so you can check up on your progress regularly.

3. Eat Your Cheesecake

It’s no accident that at Shavuot we put aside our recipes for brisket and roast chicken and turn instead to blintzes and cheesecake. The Mishnah offers this explanation of why dairy is a culinary symbol of Shavuot: Before the Torah was given at Sinai, the concept of kashrut did not exist; when the Jews received the Torah they didn’t have the tools to prepare kosher meat. Hence, their first meal after receiving the Torah was a dairy meal. Another explanation links the eating of dairy on the holiday to the Exodus. The Hebrews journeyed “from the misery of Egypt to a country flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 3:8-17). Thus eating dairy on Shavuot commemorates the sweetness of freedom and the new life that lay ahead for the Jewish people.

In preparing for Shavuot, why not highlight the dairy theme, by making a special dessert? One possibility: the halvah cheesecake created by Ya’acov Lishansky, a veteran cookbook author and first man to win first prize in Israel’s “Queen of the Kitchen” cooking contest. The recipe is featured in Phyllis and Miriyam Glazer’s The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking.

4. Look to Ruth for Inspiration

On Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, why do we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite princess who converted to Judaism and married Boaz, a judge of Israel? Torah commentators suggest that Ruth’s famous declaration—“Wherever you will go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people and your God is my God”—is a paradigm for Jewish commitment. "In the thousands of years since Ruth spoke these words," writes Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in Jewish Literacy, "no one has better defined the combination of peoplehood and religion that characterizes Judaism.” Her active embrace of Judaism is a model for us all—whether we are born Jewish or are Jewish by choice. Ruth also shows us how to act kindly to others. In fact, the book of Ruth is also called the Book of Lovingkindness. She demonstrates an extraordinary sensitivity and kindness to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in choosing to stay by her side after the older woman has lost both her husband and two sons. “God in this story does not reveal Himself from a bush or a mountain or a dream or direct speech,” writes Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, “rather the presence of God is manifest through the love and caring of one woman for another.”

5. Rejoice in the Harvest

Names for Shavuot include Z’man Matan Torateinu, Time of the Giving of the Torah, Hag Hekatzir, Holiday of the Grain Harvest, and Yom Habikkurim, Day of the First Fruits. As one of the three pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot has both agricultural and biblical significance. It marks the culmination of the spring harvest season when people of the Bible would bring an offering of the best of their crops to the Temple. The laws relating to the harvest—of leaving the corners of the field unharvested and leaving behind individual stalks of wheat for the needy to reap—as illustrated in the book of Ruth, point to the important mitzvah. We can observe this custom by donating to the hungry. This Shavuot, consider setting aside a few items to donate to those in need at a local homeless shelter or food pantry. And don’t forget to include harvest crops in your Shavuot cooking. Prepare a fresh fruit soup and celebrate the fruits of the season in a holiday feast.

6. Fruit and Flowers Galore!

It is a Shavuot tradition in some synagogues to drape the sanctuary with flowers and greenery during Shavuot as a reminder of the celebration of fruit and grain harvests that the Israelites brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Some congregations decorate their sanctuaries or social halls with flower or dried fruit arrangements. Why not bring this beautiful tradition into your home by filling vases with branches of seasonal blossoms and creating arrangements of fresh herbs, fruits and even vegetables? For an edible fruit display, gather a variety of fruits and serve with a dark or white chocolate dipping sauce!

7. Renew your Spirituality

For the Israelites, Shavuot symbolized the culmination of a period of spiritual transformation beginning with the Exodus. In seven weeks they go from a ragtag group of just-freed slaves to a people and a nation that stood at Sinai and declared their acceptance of the Torah with the words: “Na’aseh V’nishmah—We will do and we will hear.” Each of us must find our own path to Judaism, our own personal connection to our tradition and to God. Are there people you can connect with or look to for guidance? Are their inspiring books to delve into or classes to take? Are there places that help you feel more spiritual and attached to God? Shavuot is the perfect time to explore your own Jewish grounding and what it means to be close with God. So, seek the places that give you energy, or peacefulness, and you might be surprised with a sense of renewal this Shavuot.

Aviva Norman, a graduate of Michigan State University, was a summer intern with JW magazine.