flowers, leaves, boughs and trees

A beautiful Shavuot tradition is the adornment of the synagogue and the home with fragrant flowers, leaves, boughs, trees, and other floral decorations. Sundry reasons have been advanced for this practice. The Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) states, "It is a custom on Shavuot to spread grass in the synagogue and houses in remembrance of the joy of the giving of the Torah."[1] Also, the grass is a reminder that Mount Sinai was surrounded by green fields, for the Bible states that "neither the flocks and herds graze at the foot of this mountain" (Exodus 34:3); from this verse we learn that Sinai was a green pasture.[2]

The use of trees and branches serves to recall that, according to the Talmud, Shavuot is the day of judgment of fruit trees,[3] and that we have an obligation to pray for them.[4]

Mishna text

Elijah, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), opposed the use of trees on Shavuot since it became a practice among non-Jews to decorate their homes with trees on their festivals[5] (other authoirites disapproved of the custom because of its similarity to certain church rites). The Vilna Gaon's interdiction was not generally accepted, for the use of floral decorations had become prevalent by the 18th century, and an established custom is considered as binding as a law.

This tradition was also related to Shavuot in the days of the Temple. The horns of the ox that was brought as a peace offering were wreathed with luxuriant olive leaves, and the baskets of firstfruits borne by the pilgrims to Jerusalem were also ornDecorated entrywayamented.[6]

Shavuot, bring a harvest festival, is appropriate for the beautification of synagogues and homes with greenery and floral adornment. The practice also recalls that Moses was saved from drowning when his mother hid him for three months to escape Pharaoh's decree concerning newborn male children of the Hebrews; she put him in a wicker basket and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile (Exodus 2:1-3). This occurred on the second of Shavuot, for, according to tradition, Moses was born on the seventh day of Adar and three months later was the seventh of Sivan.

Roses were the most favorite among the flowers used on Shavuot. The verse "And the decree (dat) was proclaimed in Shushan (Esther 8:14) was interpreted to mean that the Law was given with a rose (shoshan).[7] A medieval book of customs asserts, "It is customary to scatter spices and roses on the synagogue floor for the enjoyment of the festival."[8]

The above-mentioned prohibition by Elijah, the Vilna Gaon, may account for the beautiful paper cutouts of flowers, variously called shevuoslekh (after the festival's name), reizelekh or shoshanta (small roses), which were pasted on the wind on the windowpanes facing the streets. Among the intricate designs of these folk art creations were patterns related to the Feast of Weeks and especially to roses and other blooms.


[1] Shulkhan Arukh, Orh Hayyim, Rema 494 [back]
[2] Levush 494:5 [back]
[3] Rosh Hashanah 16a [back]
[4] Magen Avraham 494:5 [back]
[5] Hayye Adam 131.13 [back]
[6] Bikkurim 3:3 [back]
[7] Shoshan may also mean lily [back]

excerpted Barnes & Noble linkFrom: The Shavuot Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974, 1992).

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