In honor of my new grandson,
born on 27 Iyar 5775
"May he blossom like a lily"
Question: There is a widespread custom to decorate synagogues and homes with trees and flowers in honor of Shavout. What are the sources and reasons for this custom?
I) Some Basic Sources and Illustrations
1. The first to mention this custom was the Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov Mollin (d. 1427), who is the source for many Ashkenazic customs:
It is customary to spread on the floor of the synagogue spices of grasses [i.e., sweet-smelling grasses] and shoshanim [i.e., lilies] to rejoice in the Pilgrim Festival. And when Shavuot falls on Sunday, Mahari Segal [the Maharil] instituted to spread the grasses on Friday (Minhagei Maharil, ed. Spitzer, p. 160).
2. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, d. 1572) mentions this custom briefly in his Ashkenazic glosses to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 493:3):
And it is customary to spread grasses on Shavuot in the synagogue and the houses in memory of the joy of the giving of the Torah.
This brief passage adds two important points: (a) that the grasses were also spread in the homes and (b) that this was done in memory of the joy of giving the Torah. He does not explain, however, what grasses have to do with giving the Torah.
3. Rabbi Joseph Yuspa Hahn Nordlingen (Frankfurt am Main, d. 1637) relates to our custom in his classic work Yosef Ometz (Frankfurt am Main, 1928, p. 187, paragraph 851):
In the Maharil it says: "It is customary to spread on the floor of the synagogue spices of grasses [i.e., sweet-smelling grasses] and shoshanim [i.e., lilies] to rejoice in the Pilgrim Festival." But our custom is to cover in this fashion the floor of all the houses. "And when Shavuot falls on Sunday, Mahari Segal [=the Maharil] instituted to spread the grasses on Friday" and so was my custom, and not by using a Shabbes Goy.
As in the case of the Rema, Rabbi Yosef says that the custom was to decorate the houses as well.
4. The next source was written by Rabbi Yuspe Shamesh (Worms, d. 1678), the longtime sextant of the Jews of Worms:
They cover the floor of the synagogues and the houses with grasses before Minhah, and they put on top of and on the sides of the Holy Ark and on the tower [the Torah reading tower] lilies and flowers and grasses which smell good. And for every Haver and for every Parnass one lily on his seat in the synagogue, and to a Moreinu two lilies, and to the Av Bet Din many, as many as the shamesh wants. And if Shavuot falls on Sunday, they cover the floors and they put the lilies on the Friday before.
This passage adds the decoration of the Holy Ark and the number of lilies according to a hierarchy of social and religious importance.
5. Rabbi Avraham Gombiner adds (Poland, d. 1683; Orah Hayyim 494, subparagraph 5): "It is customary to set up trees in the synagogue and in the homes." He then gives an explanation for the custom which we shall quote below.
6. The Shelah, Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz (Germany and Israel, d. 1630; Massekhet Shavuot, ed. Yosefof, 1878, Vol. 2, fol. 43c; ed. Jerusalem, 1969, Vol. 2, fol. 89a; also partially quoted by Ba'er Heiteiv to Orah Hayyim 494, subparagraph 7; Lewinski, p. 247; Ben-Ezra, p. 287; and Gaguine, p. 13) relates that the shamash used to give out sweet-smelling grasses which can be blessed with the blessing for a good fragrance (birkat hareah) while the hazzan is singing Ha'el B'ta'atzumot at the beginning of Shaharit on Shavuot.
7. Rabbi Ya'akov Emden (Altona, d. 1776) in his Siddur (Bet Ya'akov, Lemberg, 1904, p. 274; also quoted by Lewinski p. 247) quotes from the Levush (see below) and from the Magen Avraham (see above) and then adds: "And they use many aromatic flowers for the joy of this Yom Tov."
8. Akiva Ben-Ezra quotes from Zikhron Yehudah that they used to decorate the Torah scrolls with crowns of sweet-smelling grasses and beautiful flowers (Ben-Ezra, p. 287).
9. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (d. 1812), the founder of Chabad Hassidism, quotes the Rema and discusses whether the grasses can be spread on Shavuot itself. He then quotes the Magen Avraham cited above (Shulhan Arukh Harav 494: 14-15). The customs under discussion here are still practiced by many Hassidim (see Rabbi Mondshein, pp. 293-294).
The customs discussed here are also mentioned by quite a few other Ashkenazic sources (see the notes to R. Yuzpe Shamesh, p. 110).
Interestingly enough, these customs seem to have migrated to Islamic lands as well:
10. Rabbi Hayyim Falache (Izmir, d. 1869) reports that one person would walk around the synagogue on Shavuot with a vial of rose water in his hand and let the worshippers smell it. And the scrupulous would put sweet-smelling lilies in their prayer books and tallit bags (Mo'ed Lekhol Hai, Izmir, 1861, fol. 46, quoted by Ben Ezra p. 288). However, Rabbi Gaguine points out that this may be based on the kabbalistic custom of the Bet El synagogue in Jerusalem to give out flowers every Friday night.
11. Rabbi Eliyahu Hazzan reports that in Alexandria, Egypt in 1894 they used to spread grasses on Shavuot and Simhat Torah in memory of the Giving of the Torah (Neve Shalom, second edition, Alexandria, 1930, to Orah Hayyim 494:3, fol. 22a; also quoted by Gaguine, p. 13).
12. The Jews of Persia call Shavuot Modeh Gol, which is a corruption of Mo'ed Gol, "the holiday of flowers" because they decorate the tables with sweet-smelling flowers (Hanina Mizrahi in Wassertil, p. 464).
13. Rabbi Shem Tov Gaguine reports in his classic work of Sefardic customs (p. 12):
The custom in Eretz Yisrael, Syria, Turkey and Egypt to hang from the Rimonim [Torah decorations] some flowers and shoshanim [lilies]. And it is the custom in these lands (i.e. England) and the lands of Ashkenaz to set up trees and types of flowers next to the Ark and also around the walls and the synagogue entrance…
The sources we have quoted thus far are also backed up by a number of illustrations:
- Paul Christian Kirchner was a Jewish convert to Christianity who published Judisches Ceremonial in 1717. The revised 1724 edition of that book added 28 copper-plate engravings. One of them depicts a synagogue on Shavuot decorated with tree branches (Lewinski, p. 247).
- Johann Bodenschatz (1717-1797) was a Christian theologian who specialized in Jewish customs. In his classic Kirchliche Verfassung der Heutigen Juden published in Erlangen in 1748 (see Goodman, p. 207, plate 18), there is a detailed copper engraving of a synagogue on Shavuot. The picture is framed in the foreground by two large trees topped by cornucopia and there are also four tall trees at the four corners of the Bimah, which is located in the middle of the synagogue.
- Similarly, Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) painted an impressive painting of a German synagogue on Shavuot containing four large trees and a very long wreath of leaves or flowers hanging in front of the Ark (Goodman, p. 224, plate 19).
- Finally, there is another Shavuot custom of hanging paper cuts which are called Shvuesslech or Reizelech [little roses] or Shoshanta or Tzitzim Uferahim [blossoms and flowers] on the window panes facing the streets. Many of these paper cuts contain flowers and branches. (See pictures in Lewinski, pp. 253-254 and Ben-Ezra, pp. 288-289.) Goodman suggests (p. 87) that they starting make them out of paper because the Gaon of Vilna (see below) objected to real flowers and trees!
II) Explanations for these customs
Many different explanations have been given for these customs throughout the generations. I shall present eight of them:
"For there were grasses around Mount Sinai, as it is written 'neither shall the flocks and the cattle graze opposite that mountain' (Exodus 34:3), from this we learn that there was grazing." (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, Poland, d. 1612, Levush to Orah Hayyim 494:1)
Interestingly enough, as Prof Sperber points out (p. 118), there is a 14th century illustration of the giving of the Torah which fits this description (Therese and Mendel Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, New York, 1982, p. 267).
- "It is customary to set up trees in the synagogue and in the homes. And it seems to me that the reason is that they should remind us that on Shavuot we are judged for the fruit on the trees (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2) and that they [i.e., the congregation] should pray for them [i.e., for the fruit]. (Rabbi Avraham Gumbiner, Poland, d. 1683, Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 494, subparagraph 5).
- According to some, this custom is in memory of a custom described in the Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:3). When the first fruits were brought up to Jerusalem, the horns of the oxen were adorned with olive wreaths and the baskets of first fruits were also decorated (see Bloch, p. 248; Goodman, p. 86; Zinger, p. 107; Sperber, p. 119).
- Others say that these customs are in memory of the sweet-smelling air at the encampment at Mount Sinai described in the midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah to 1:12; cf. Rabbi Gaguine who quotes "an old book" regarding Song of Songs 5:13).
- The Hida, Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (Israel and Italy, d. 1806) says in his Birkei Yosef (to Orah Hayyim 494:6): It says in an aggadah "that Haman told Ahashveirosh that it is the custom of the Jews to spread grasses on Shavuot". Unfortunately, Rabbi Gaguine (p. 13) did not find that midrash. He found, rather, a midrash in Targum Sheni to Esther 3:8 in which Haman told Ahashveirosh that "on Shavuot the Jews go up to the roof of the house of their God and they throw apples and they gather them and they say: just as they gather these apples, so may there be gathered their children from among us…". The latter midrash is quite interesting, but it is not connected to our custom.
- Moses was born on the 7th of Adar and was placed in the wicker basket among the reeds of the Nile three months later (Exodus 2:1-3) on the 7th of Sivan, which is the second day of Shavuot. Therefore, we decorate with reeds and grasses on Shavuot in order to remember the miracle that was wrought for Moses on Shavuot! (Rabbi Hirshowitz, p. 196; and cf. Goodman, p. 87 and Zinger p. 107)
- In his Benei Yissachar, Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapiro (d. 1841) quotes Leviticus Rabbah 23:3. The people Israel is like the lily of a rose and the world is like an orchard. The king wanted to destroy the orchard, but he saw the lily and for its sake he saved the orchard. So too, the Jewish people which received the Torah is compared to a lily and saves the orchard, i.e., the world. That is why we decorate with lilies on Shavuot (quoted by Sperber and by Zinger).
- Prof. Sperber himself refers to Midrash Hadash al Hatorah to Exodus 19:11 (ed. Mann, p. 251; and see now ed. Gila Vachman, Jerusalem, 2013, p. 82). That midrash makes a connection between Exodus 19:11 -- to be prepared to receive the torah on the third day -- and the third day of creation (Genesis 1:11) on which God created grasses and trees. He suggests that this midrash may have given Jews the idea to decorate their synagogues and homes with grass, flowers and trees on Shavuot, the holiday of Giving the Torah.
III) The original reason
Rabbi Avraham Danzig (Vilna, d. 1820) makes a brief but very important statement about our topic in his classic code of Jewish law:
The G"ra [the Gaon of Vilna] abolished the custom of setting up trees on Shavuot, because it is hok ha'amim [the law of the nations, i.e., Christians] to set up trees on their holiday (Hayyei Adam, Hilkhot Pesah 131:13 and cf. his Hokhmat Adam 89:1).
As it turns out, it appears that the Gaon of Vilna was correct. As Prof. Theodor Gaster writes in his classic book The Festivals of the Jewish Year:
In many parts of Europe… it is customary to deck the churches at Whitsun [=Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter] with wreaths and bunches of flowers; in Catholic districts of Germany, even private dwellings are adorned with green twigs on this occasion. In Italy, rose leaves are scattered from the ceilings of churches during the progress of the services… similarly, in Russia it is (or was) customary to carry flowers and green twigs on Whitsun… All of this appears to be but a Christian transformation of the ancient Roman festival of Rosalia, celebrated in the preceding month. At this festival, it was the practice to adore Venus by decorating her images with roses… (and cf. more recently, Wikipedia, s.v. Pentecost, near note 21)
Of course, one could then object that if we borrowed these Shavuot customs from our Christian neighbors, doesn’t this invalidate them? I would reply that, first of all, many poskim [halakhic authorities], have justified this specific custom despite the objections of the Gaon of Vilna. (See Ben-Ezra, p. 287, note 23; Rabbi Gaguine; Rabbi Zevin; Rabbi Mondshein, p. 293; and Rabbi Sperber p. 119 and note 5.)
But, more generally, I have shown elsewhere that many Jewish laws and customs began as pagan or Christian or Muslim customs and they were Judaized by rabbis and/or the Jewish people. The most famous example is the Pesah Seder, where the rabbis took the Hellenistic symposium and transformed it into the central ritual of Pesah. (See my book Insight Israel, Second Series, Jerusalem, 2006, Chapter 9 and especially pp. 75-76.)
Floral and arboreal decorations on Shavuot may have begun as Christian customs, but over the past 600 years they became Jewish customs, with all of the beautiful explanations given above.
3 Sivan 5775
Akiva Ben-Ezra, Minhagei Hagim, Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 287-288
Abraham Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies, New York, 1980, pp. 247-248
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Cooper, "Tzimhiyah B'shavuot", Sinai 120 (5757), pp. 230-250 (this is the most thorough study of our topic with 149 footnotes; I wrote this responsum before seeing that article)
Rabbi Shem Tob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Vols. 4-5, London, 1954, pp. 12-13
Theodor Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year, New York, 1952, pp. 75-76
Rabbi Philip Goodman, The Shavuot Anthology, Philadelphia, 1974, pp. 86-87, 341-342
Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz, Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, second edition, Lvov, 1930, p. 196
Yom Tov Lewinski, Sefer Hamoadim, Vol. 3, Shavuot, Tel Aviv, 1952, pp. 246-247
Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshein, Otzar Minhagei Habad: Nissan-Sivan, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 293-294
Rabbi Chaim Pearl, A Guide to Shavuoth, London, 1959, pp. 56-57
Rabbi Ya'akov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 494, paragraphs 54-59
Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 118-120; Vol. 2, 1991, pp. 270-271; Vol. 4, 1995, pp. 314-315
Ya'acov Vainstein, The Cycle of the Jewish Year, third printing, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 163
Asher Wassertil, ed., Yalkut Minhagim, third edition, Jerusalem, 1996
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Hamo'adim Bahalakhah, seventh edition, Tel Aviv, 1960
Rabbi Yehudah Dov Zinger, Ziv Haminhagim, third edition, Tel Aviv, 1971 (?), pp. 107-108