The great classical Land of Israel liturgist, R. Eleazar Birbi Killir (7th c.), composed a number of piyyutim (hymns) in honor of the Giving of the Torah. The liturgical poems introducing the Kedushah (Doxology) on Shavuot, known as kedushtaot, are among his greatest poetic works.
Within ancient Hebrew manuscripts, scattered among libraries throughout the world, one can find some surprising treasures, like previously unknown and unpublished pieces of writing. The unusual midrash we will examine here is one of these. It appears in a manuscript that is part of the Firkovich collection, which resides in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.
The following are the early sources that I have found regarding eating dairy on the holiday of Shavuot, based on the Bibliography below. The earliest source I have found is Rabbi Avigdor Tzarfati’s commentary on the Torah (Jerusalem, 1996, p. 478) written ca.1270 in France.
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).
According to the Rabbis, Shavuot, like the other festivals of the Jewish year, has a specific date on the calendar; it is celebrated each year on the sixth day of Sivan. However, a cursory glance at the table of festivals in Leviticus chapter 23 reveals that Shavuot stands out from the other festivals ordained in that chapter – Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot:
The fall holidays are primarily interested in relations between man and God, between the Jewish people and the Creator. Not so the spring holidays. There is a common denominator that unites these holidays – the unity of the Jewish people.
The article The Giving of the Law at Sinai provides you with a most special visual depiction of the upcoming Shavuot holiday, through the eyes of the artist spanning more than 10 centuries. The article is one of 27 found on the TALI website Visual Midrash. The site, the first on-line fine and folk-art index of the Bible and its commentaries, was created by Dr. Jo Milgrom, Israel’s primary lecturer in “art as midrash” at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and biblical scholar, Dr. Joel Duman. The website is based on Dr. Milgrom’s archive of art images collected over a lifetime of teaching and pioneering the field of art as Biblical commentary. Over 950 catalogued images are now accessible on the Visual Midrash Web site, with essays in English and Hebrew on 28 biblical themes. Altogether, Milgrom has donated 3,000 slides from her personal collection to this project. To read more about the project, click here.
It is customary to study Torah all night at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. What are the sources and the customs related to this practice?
How we wish we could go back in time and stand at Sinai – to experience those three days of excited preparation, the sounds and the lightening, the heavy cloud, the loud blow of the shofar, the smoking mountain, God in the descending fire, Moses and God speaking to one another. If we could only, even for a brief moment, hear the voice of God, Master of the Universe, our Father, speaking to us to say: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt from the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”[note]Exodus 22.[/note] We yearn to merit the experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai directly from God: “Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!”[note]Pesach Haggadah.[/note]
“And all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw they fell back and stood at a distance. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us lest we die.” (Exodus 20:15-16).[note]I am indebted to three important discussions of revelation which have informed my understanding of the topic: Benjamin D. Sommer, “Revelation at Sinai in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Theology”, Journal of Religion 79 (1999):422-451; Yohanan Silman, Qol Gadol Velo Yasaf, Jerusalem, 1999; Moshe Halbertal,People of the Book, Cambridge, 1997.[/note]