This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Honey from the Tablets*

An invaluable source of information about Jewish life in earlier generations is the illuminated Hebrew manuscript. Even when illustrating Bibles or other ancient works, the artists used as their models the contemporary norms of dress, customs and architecture, and therefore provided modern readers with unique visual glimpses into the daily life of the Middle Ages. This applies all the more when the text of the manuscript is a prayer book, describing the order of worship through the Jewish calendar, so that the illustrator is likely to base his pictures on the practices that he sees in his own community.

These observations hold true for an elaborately illuminated prayer-book from the fourteenth-century that is presently housed in Leipzig. When we turn to the pages devoted to the Shavu'ot services, we will not be surprised to see a depiction of Moses clutching the tablets of the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, we might be taken aback by several representations, right next to the familiar Biblical scene, of children with some strange props.

Each of the tots is proudly clutching a round cake and an egg. One of them is being carried by a beardless adult, evidently his young father, who has him wrapped in a cloak. Another child is sitting on the lap of a stern-faced rabbi who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Moses in the adjacent picture. The rabbi is clutching a writing-tablet painted in the same gold-leaf as in the artist's depiction of Moses' tablets. Two other children are being conducted to an outing by a river.

What do these images have to do with Shavu'ot?

As the anniversary of Israel's receiving of the Torah, Shavu'ot was considered an appropriate time to introduce school-children to their first formal religious studies. The ceremonies that evolved around that occasion take remarkably similar forms whether we are speaking of Jewish communities in France, Germany, Poland or North Africa.

The earliest descriptions that we possess of such a celebration are from Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. One of these accounts appears in the important compendium of customs by Rabbi Eleazar Rokeah. Several other documents from the time present similar pictures.

The ceremony commences with the father, or a distinguished scholar, bringing the child to the synagogue or schoolhouse, bathed and garbed in clean attire. Upon his arrival, the rabbi carries him to his seat. The letters of the alphabet, or portions of it, are written frontward and backward on a writing-tablet, as are some appropriate verses, such as "Moses commanded us the Torah, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob."

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Free Press

After his first lesson in reading, the child is invited to lick some honey from the tablet. He is given a piece of honey-cake on which is inscribed an appropriate Biblical verse; then a boiled egg (most authors insist on three eggs) with a different text written on it. The child recites each text after the rabbi, after which he gets to eat the cake and the egg, which are considered effective for "opening the heart."

The concern for "opening" or "broadening" the heart is emphasized in many of the texts. The allusion is to improving the memory, which played a central role in the traditional elementary curriculum. One of the texts contains an incantation to be recited against "Potah the Prince of Forgetfulness," the supernatural agent who--unless duly controlled--has the power to impair our powers of memorization. This is one of the reasons why, according to some of the accounts, the child is led afterwards to a river bank. In addition to the well-known identification of the Torah with life-giving water, a visit to the river was believed to assist in "broadening the heart" of the fresh young student.

In keeping with the ancient tradition, the child commences his Biblical studies with the Book of Leviticus, which is filled with the spirit of purity. One writer even insists that now is the perfect time to teach the child the art of swaying during his studies.

The sources emphasize that in this, his first encounter with the regimen of Torah study, the child is reliving the experience of our ancestors on that very first Shavu'ot at Mount Sinai.

This Shavu'ot celebration is outlined in very similar terms by other Jewish writers from medieval Germany. The main differences between the accounts relate to the choice of verses to be written, recited and eaten. Some of the texts contain detailed recipes for the cakes, and attach symbolic meanings to the ingredients.

Not all the foods have symbolic meanings. The sources encourage giving the children a wide assortment of treats, including nuts, apples and other fruits, in order to implant pleasant associations with the experience of going to school. As the Mahzor Vitry, an important French liturgical compendium from the early twelfth century, puts it so piquantly, "first entice him, and afterwards let him feel the strap on his back."

Individual features of this celebration have been maintained informally as part of the standard way of introducing a child to his first day of school. However, in spite of the precise instructions that appear in so many compendia of Ashkenazic religious practice, there is no Jewish community has retained the full ritual as part of the Shavu'ot observance.

This puzzling development was noted by several rabbis in later generations, and they tried to suggest explanations for the abandonment of the ceremony.

At any rate, I believe that we have good reason to sympathize with the lament of Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona who was mystified and dismayed at how such an admirable custom could have been uprooted from Jewish tradition for no apparent reason. He regarded this development as symptomatic of our insufficient esteem for Jewish learning.

Perhaps the time has come to take up Rabbi Emden's challenge, and to reclaim Shavu'ot's standing as a time of rededication to meaningful Jewish education.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 25 2000

  • Bibliography:
    • Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1969.
    • Asaf, S. (1954). Meqorot Letoledot Hahinnukh be-Yisra'el. Tel-Aviv, Dvir.
    • Cohen, E. M. "The Teacher, the Father and the Virgin Mary in the Leipzig Mahzor." Paper presented at the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 1990.
    • Marcus, Ivan G. Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.