Cultural, religious communities in Israel find different meanings in Shavuot

The last holiday of the Jewish calendar is celebrated as the day the Jewish people received the Torah, as marking the wheat harvest, and as the birth of the Christian church

The Media Line|
Shavuot, which will be celebrated on Saturday night and Sunday throughout Israel, is a multifaceted holiday that holds different significance for Israelis across the cultural and religious spectrum.
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  • While for some Israelis, Shavuot primarily celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, for others it is a celebration of the wheat harvest, and some commemorate it as the time that the Christian church was born – and there are those who use the holiday as an opportunity to create awareness about the waste of food.
    6 View gallery
    Wheat harvest
    Wheat harvest
    Wheat harvest
    (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)
    The holiday is called Shavuot (“weeks” in Hebrew) because it is celebrated after counting seven weeks – a week of weeks – from Passover. Christians call their own related holiday Pentecost (from the Greek word for “fiftieth”) because it is celebrated on the 50th day from Easter Sunday.
    Yosef Ote, the community rabbi of the Orthodox Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that, in his community, the main element that is celebrated on Shavuot is the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.
    In a more religious environment, he said, Shavuot is about studying Torah.
    Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, he added, “in our community, we did everything we could to uplift and continue learning Torah and teaching Torah.”
    6 View gallery
    (Photo: Shutterstock)
    Ote recalled that, during the pandemic, “what we tried to do is somehow convey the important messages of the Torah through emails and visiting people.”
    One of Shavuot’s traditions in various Jewish communities is to gather and learn Torah all night long.
    This year, since there are absolutely no restrictions on gathering, things are back normal and all the regular classes that are usually taught throughout the night are coming back, Ote says.
    He says he believes his community still has a strong desire to learn – to stay up all night and try to struggle with the Torah, learn the Torah and enjoy the Torah.
    Jordana Baharav, the cultural events planner for Kibbutz Ginosar, an agricultural community located in the Jordan Valley in northern Israel, told The Media Line that this holiday is all about celebrating the harvest and the earth that feeds the community.
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    Yemenite Jewish elders study Torah at a synagogue
    Yemenite Jewish elders study Torah at a synagogue
    emenite Jewish elders study Torah at a synagogue in Ottoman Palestine, photographed by Ephraim Moses Lilien, circa 1906-1918
    (Photo: Creative Commons)
    “We celebrate the fruits that the land gives us,” she said. Baharav explained how this celebration has been such a central issue throughout history.
    Over the years, she said, “the Jewish people learned to work the lands better and better, and today Israel is a pioneer in agriculture. It has startups, innovations.”
    “It has always been an agricultural holiday for kibbutzim,” she added.
    The Kibbutz Ginosar community celebrates Shavuot with a big outdoor dinner, to which everybody wears white and eats dairy foods. The women of the kibbutz dance in their white dresses, and the community celebrates the newborns of the past year, “which we also consider our harvest,” she said.
    A party and many speeches to and blessings for the kibbutz are part of the traditional celebration of the holiday at Ginosar.
    David Parsons, vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, explained that the holiday holds a special significance for Christians.
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    חג שבועות בקיבוץ ניר עוז
    חג שבועות בקיבוץ ניר עוז
    Haystacks shaped as the words 'happy holiday' in Hebrew
    (Photo: Kibbutz Movement)
    Pentecost, the Christian name for the holiday, celebrates the birth of the Christian church “when the followers of Jesus, who were all Jewish, were in Jerusalem marking the feast of Shavuot, and the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the church was born,” Parsons told The Media Line.
    He added that the gentile church began separating itself from the Jewish people in the third century to fourth century. Today, he added, “many Christians are going back to their Jewish roots and becoming more interested in not only the Christian celebration of Pentecost but in the Jewish observance of Shavuot.”
    The Christian community in Israel will be celebrating the holiday through special music concerts for local believers.
    He added that there are usually large events in different parts of the country, gathering some expatriate churches, and some local Jewish believers in Jesus.
    Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel, an Israeli nonprofit organization that describes itself as the leading food rescue organization.
    “Shavuot is the holiday of Ruth and Boaz meeting in the fields for the holiday of gleaning, so it’s so close to our hearts and we’re so fortunate to bring back an ancient commandment, a mitzvah for our modern times,” Gitler told The Media Line.
    Leket deals with harvesting surplus agricultural produce and collecting leftover cooked meals, which are then sorted and distributed to the needy throughout the country.
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    “Ruth in Boaz’s Field” (1828) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
    “Ruth in Boaz’s Field” (1828) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
    'Ruth in Boaz’s Field' (1828) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
    (Photo: Creative Commons)
    The organization has tremendous concerns about food waste on holidays, he said
    “While we believe in the food being plentiful, and bountiful, and we’re so thankful that the State of Israel has enough food to feed all its citizens, that doesn’t give us a right to waste,” he said.
    His organization will do anything in its power to try to convince people to buy only what they will eat, serve only what they need to serve, and not to overdo it – and if they do overdo it, to make sure that the leftover food gets eaten either by their families or by others they can give it to, Gitler said.
    For Shavuot this year, said Gitler, “Leket Israel continues to remind people that food waste is not an option. It doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you have, and how much you have, you have no right.”
    “We are all one large community of people, one world, one planet, and we have to take care of each other,” he continued.
    Kibbutz Ginosar does not have a problem with leftover food, according to Baharav.
    She explains that this is because there actually is no leftover food. “We have around 800 people who eat together, so every family brings their food and then takes the leftovers home.”
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    The Pentecost depicted in a parchment Missal, circa 1310-1320, originating from East Anglia
    The Pentecost depicted in a parchment Missal, circa 1310-1320, originating from East Anglia
    The Pentecost depicted in a parchment Missal, circa 1310-1320, originating from East Anglia
    (Photo: Creative Commons)
    Parsons said that, for Christians, the essence of the holiday is to feel the presence of God.
    “As Christians, we hope to get back to that original church that was born in fire on the day of Pentecost, where the unmistakable presence of God was felt by the early believers of Jesus even with tons of fire manifesting,” he said.
    Whether you’re Jewish or Christian, he continued, “you want to feel the presence of God at this holiday, that’s the most important.”
    Ote said that, for him, the message that Shavuot delivers is about the importance of unity.
    To really accept what the Torah has to offer, he said, “we need to be united as one. It’s true that there’s so much diversity, so many different opinions within our Israeli society; but I think that, at the end of the day, even though there are many disputes that you can see by just watching the news and the Knesset, at the end, we have a common goal.”
    Shavuot for the people who live in the kibbutz, said Baharav, “is really a celebration of the earth. We are joyful for everything that we are given, and we understand that it’s important to respect our environment and the earth who feeds us, so we have to continue to respect it in order for it to give us food back.”

    Written by Debbie Mohnblatt and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.
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