This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Greening of Shavu'ot*

The tradition of decorating synagogues and homes with greenery on Shavu'ot has a long history. As a characteristic observance of Ashkenazic Jews, it is described by Rabbi Jacob Mollin (the "Maharil"), the foremost medieval authority on German-Jewish traditional practice. With some variations, it was also observed among Jews in Italy, Egypt, Persia and other localities.

The origins of the custom are shrouded in obscurity, and the commentators were at a loss to find a definitive explanation.

There is no obvious link between the greenery and Shavu'ot's most prominent theme of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Nevertheless Rabbi Moses Isserles, citing the practice in his glosses to the Shulhan `Arukh, asserted cryptically that the purpose of the decorations is indeed to recall the joy of the giving of the Torah.

The ingenuity of later commentators was harnessed to the task of uncovering the symbolic link between that event and the floral ornamentation.

In their quest for an explanation, several writers draw our attention to Exodus 34:3, in which God forbade the Israelites to graze their flocks on the mountainside. This prohibition, argued our commentators, would have been superfluous unless Mount Sinai was adorned with green pasturage--as it is indeed depicted in some Hebrew manuscript illuminations. Ergo, our custom of adorning the synagogues with grass must be a recollection of the theophany at Mount Sinai!

Other authorities suggested more symbolic associations. Some recalled that the fragrant blossoms and herbs of the Song of Songs are traditionally viewed as allegories for the sweet words of Torah; and the people of Israel who accepted it on this day, were likened to God's private and protected orchard.

A more tangible connection between the revelation at Sinai and the floral realm is suggested in a midrashic manuscript first published some fifty years ago. The author's point of departure is the Bible's singling out of the third day of the people's encampment as the time when the Almighty descended upon the Mount Sinai. This calls to mind the third day of the Creation, when the earth put forth grass and fruit trees. The similarity is seen to be a significant one: Just as fruit is essential for physical life, so the Torah is no less vital for our spiritual sustenance--"It is a tree of life for all who take hold of it."

If we look at some of Shavu'ot's other themes, then it is possible to find some more straightforward associations with the plant world. The Torah emphasizes the festival's botanic and agricultural dimensions in connection with the wheat and barley harvests, and most notably as the beginning of the season for bringing the bikkurim, the first offerings of the summer fruit. With respect to the latter motif, the Mishnah declared that Shavu'ot is the "Rosh Hashanah," the annual day of judgment, for the fruit-trees.

Ultimately, this overabundance of explanations for the Shavu'ot greenery raised some serious doubts about whether any of them could be authentic. Some Jewish religious authorities began to suspect that there might be something un-Jewish about the whole phenomenon. Particular discomfort was felt at the more ornate manifestations, which could involve festooning the ark, walls and doors of the synagogue with actual trees and bushes.

A call to abolish the custom was voiced by Rabbi Elijah, the "Ga'on" of Vilna, and his cause was afterwards taken up by several important Lithuanian Rabbis.

Now the Ga'on was rarely enthusiastic about any popular customs that were not firmly rooted in the literary sources of Jewish law. In the present instance, however, he had specific grounds for his objections: The practice of placing trees in the synagogue bore a disturbing resemblance to what went on in the churches on Christian holy days.

The Hayei Adam halakhic digest by Rabbi Abraham Danzig associates the practice with the "Pfingsten," the Christian Pentecost, which falls fifty days after Easter (around May 15) and parallels several features from the Jewish Shavu'ot, such as revelation, baptism of converts and all-night vigils. As frequently occurred, the churches had apparently also incorporated some pre-Christian nature rites into its religious ceremonies. The Ga'on and his followers thus saw the Jewish practice as a transparent violation of the Biblical prohibition against adopting gentile ways, and prohibited the placing of trees in the sanctuaries.

The ban was accepted, with varying degrees of stringency, in many (but by no means all) Jewish communities.

Perhaps it was in order to compensate for the elimination or real trees and flowers from the holiday decorations that Ashkenazic Jews developed the lovely tradition of adorning the walls and windows with the intricate geometric papercuts that are referred to in Yiddish as "Reyzelakh" little roses.

Though they are supposedly intended to evoke the symmetry of flowers, somehow, in our Alberta climate they tend to remind me more of snowflakes.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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    First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 23 1996, p. 7.
    • D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisra'el Vol. 1, Jerusalem 1992.
    • I. Jacobson, Netiv Binah Vol. 4, Tel-Aviv 1978.