Shavuot Among Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews

Shavuot Among Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews

Ashkenazi Jews* Sephardic/Mizrahi* Jews (often varies country to country). For convenience, both are referred to here as Sephardic.
Pronunciation of the holiday Shavuos (to rhyme with “ya knew us”) Shavuot (to rhyme with “ah, blue boat!”)
Food Both groups typically eat dairy food during this holiday. Among the Sephardim, however, Yemenite Jews do not observe this custom.
Cheese blintzes, cheesecake, cheese kreplach, cheese knishes; in Germany, cheese challah Some make Siete Cielos (Seven Heavens) cake, symbolizing the seven spheres Moses is believed to have travelled through en route to heaven to receive the Law. In North Africa, Sephardic Jews eat leftover matzah from Passover, shredded in bowls of milk and honey, because Shavuot is the climax of the Exodus—commemorated at Passover— while milk and honey symbolize the land of Israel. Milk pudding with rice is also popular.
Liturgy and worship Reading the Akdamot (eleventh century liturgical poem praising God and the Torah) during the synagogue service Reading the book of Ruth in the synagogue, because it relates to the harvest theme; and Ruth’s aligning herself with the Jewish people parallels the establishment of Israel with the Torah at Sinai. Reading the Azharot, a liturgical poem enumerating the 613 commandments of the Torah with the positive ones (“thou shalt”) on the first day of the holiday, and negatives (“thou shalt not”) commandments on day two.
Both have a tradition of staying up all night to study the Torah, a custom which began in the 16th century. In many Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities (but not Spanish/Portuguese), there is a service called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, “Repair of the Night of Shavuot.” Legend has it that Israel fell asleep the night the Torah was given; to make up for that, we stay up all night long reading excerpts from the Bible, the Mishnah (compilation of laws and discussions set in writing about 200 a.d.), and the Zohar (medieval book of Jewish mysticism).
Other customs Both decorate homes or the synagogue with greenery because of the springtime theme.
Originating in Eastern Europe, papercuts called raizelech(little roses) or shavuoslekh (little Shavuos) are made. Their floral motifs recall a legend that when the Torah was given, Mount Sinai flowered. Interestingly, the 18th-century Lithuanian rabbi The Vilna Gaon forbade the use of greenery as too close to Christian practices; some say his prohibition led to the innovation of using papercuts in the form of plants and flowers. Very popular among Ashkenazic Reform and some Conservative Jews is the confirmation which takes place on Shavuot. This is a ceremony for high-school age students and is different from the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah (for boys aged thirteen and girls aged twelve, respectively). The tie-in to Shavuot is that the Torah was given on Sinai, and we encourage Jewish youth to continue learning beyond their bar mitzvah years. And Shavuot approximately coincides with the end of the school year. Some Sephardim read a ketubah (marriage contract) between God and Israel, and set up a chuppah (wedding canopy) over where the Torah is read. This custom is based on Hosea 2:19;20and Jeremiah 31:31. Among Moroccan Jews, the men throw water on one another. One explanation: when the Torah was given, it was so traumatic that everyone passed out, and God had to revive them with dew (water). In Arab countries, Jews throw apples from the roof of the synagogue. Explanation: the apple’s fruit develops before its leaf does, in the “wrong” order. When Israel received the Torah, they said “we will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7), which is also the “wrong” order. (While this verse could be translated this way, it can also be rendered as, “we will do and we will obey,” thus both phrases are saying the same thing.)

*Ashkenazi Jews are descended from medieval Jewish communities that settled near the Rhine in Germany from Alsace in the south to the Rhineland in the north. Many migrated to numerous countries including Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Generations later, the word Ashkenazi no longer has a particularly German connotation. The majority of the Jewish population in the United States is Ashkenazi.

In the same way, Sephardic Jews were those who had settled in the Iberian Peninsula. When all Jewish people were expelled from Spain in 1492, they scattered to various places throughout the Ottoman Empire, Morocco and elsewhere.

Mizrahi Jews either live in or come from various other communities such as Southern Arabia (Yemen), North Africa, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria, Persia (Iran) and India. There is some overlap between Mizrahim and Sephardim (“im” indicates plural).

Ten traditions explaining why Shavuot is a time to eat dairy foods:

  1. When Israel received the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19), they did not have utensils for preparing kosher meat, so they ate dairy products, which are much easier to prepare.
  2. The Torah is likened to milk and honey (compare Song of Solomon 4:11; Psalm 19:9-11, and in the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:2).
  3. Exodus 23:19 places these two laws next to one another: “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Rabbis often found significance in juxtaposed items, so they connected Shavuot, which involves firstfruits, with eating dairy, which involves milk.
  4. Numbers 28:26 says, “…when you present to the Lord an offering of new grain during the Feast of Weeks”… “The Hebrew phrase is literally, “a new offering to the Lord in your weeks,” which forms an acrostic me-chalav, “from milk.”
  5. In Jewish mysticism, the numeric equivalent of chalav (milk) is 40, the same number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai.
  6. In Psalm 68, Mount Sinai is called Har Gavnunim, (mountain of peaks or rugged mountain), which sounds like gevinah, the Hebrew word for cheese.
  7. Receiving the Torah was like a rebirth, so we eat milk, which is “baby food.”
  8. Shavuot occurred during the season when lambs and calves are suckling, so lots of dairy was available.
  9. The Jewish people spent so long at Mt. Sinai that their milk turned into cheese!
  10. The land of Israel is described as a land flowing with “milk and honey.”

Culinary Corner

Okay, everyone knows what cheese is, but what are blintzes, kreplach, knishes and challah? They are arguably some of the most delectable Ashkenazi foods, great for Shavuot but favorites at any time of year.

Blintzes: rectangular crepes.  These can be filled with cheese or with mashed potato and/or meat mixtures.

Kreplach: small dumplings.  They can be made with sweet cheese filling for Shavuot, but the editor thinks blintzes are far better for that sort of thing.  Traditional kreplach would have a savory filling of meat and potato. Unlike blintzes, they are traditionally boiled, usually in chicken soup.

Knishes: often round—but sometimes rectangular or square—treat with dough on the outside and any variety of fillings within.  Larger than kreplach, these can be fried, grilled or baked.  They can be savory or sweet.  In New York, you can buy them from street vendors.

Challah: This festive bread is yellow, owing to the large number of eggs used in the dough. It is a traditional treat for Sabbath meals, and is often braided.


Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich has been on staff since 1978. He has served at several Jews for Jesus branches and was a pianist and songwriter with their music team, the Liberated Wailing Wall. He is now at the San Francisco headquarters, where he conducts research, writes and edits as the senior researcher. He is author of the books Christ in the Sabbath and The Day Jesus Did Tikkun Olam: Jewish Values and the New Testament, and co-author of Christ in the Feast of Pentecost. Rich received his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1978 and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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