The holiday of Shavuot — which features special events for Jews to study the Torah, hear the Ten Commandments read, and enjoy cheesecake, blintzes and ice cream — draws to a close today.
My family and I attended Shavuot events in Clearwater, Palm Harbor and Trinity. As we grow in our religious observance, we like to take in as much of the holidays as possible. I often sit with the children's groups and learn right along with them, hearing the songs, listening to the stories.
The Hebrew word "Shavuot" means "weeks"; it marks the completion of the seven-week period after Passover. It also commemorates the anniversary of the Jews receiving the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai.
Hearing the Ten Commandments read in the original Hebrew is a holy experience, a chance to connect with God. Last year, it brought me to tears, just from hearing the words, even though I don't fully understand Hebrew.
This year, as I watched the men wrapped in their prayer shawls, swaying and praying, I was again moved to tears. At that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
The Shavuot holiday usually includes candle lighting and prayers, and traditionally dairy foods are eaten (having to do with kosher laws of not mixing meat and dairy).
I attended a Shavuot party Thursday night at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater. We learned about the fascinating mysticism behind the Hebrew alphabet. According to Rabbi Danielle Upbin with Beth Shalom, and other rabbis, the Hebrew letters are the spiritual DNA of the world. Every Hebrew letter has a meaning, and the words they make up have many spiritual dimensions.
Surrounded by my young children and close friends that night, plus about a hundred other people from the community, we learned, chatted, and enjoyed dinner and several kinds of cheesecake.
It's traditional for men to stay up all night studying Torah. Rabbi David Weizman at Beth Shalom led a learning session on the Zohar, a mystical book that is said to reveal the soul of the Hebrew Bible. My husband stayed for the class while I walked home and put our two young children to bed. I felt like the holiness of the evening followed us home, despite my daughter's protests to taking a bath and brushing her teeth.
Shavuot is considered one of the three pillars of Judaism, the other two being Passover and Sukkot. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Purim are also important. Some are joyous festivals, others are filled with deep introspection. This one seems to be both.
On Friday night, there was another Shavuot event with Rabbi Yossi Eber from Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco. His wife, Dina, spent the week before making and freezing cheesecakes and getting everything ready. Today at 9 a.m., he'll host a Shabbat and Yizkor service, which gives people the chance to honor relatives who have passed away.
It seems that Shavuot, for me, has connected heaven and earth: Enjoying the pleasures of decadent desserts, the company of friends and family and the holiness of genuine prayer. I guess that's what life is all about, as Rabbi Eber says — combining the secular and spiritual and finding the right balance.