Over the generations and across the continents

Varying Shavuot traditions from Europe, the Middle East and north Africa center on agriculture and Torah - but each community has its own spin on things.

shavuot vintage (photo credit: Courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Tel Aviv)
shavuot vintage
(photo credit: Courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Tel Aviv)
Some things change, and some stay the same. At least that's what Dr. Shalom Tzabar, a professor of Jewish folklore at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says about Shavuot customs from Europe and the Middle East, which have endured - and in some cases returned - since the establishment of the state 60 years ago. "Customs are always changing," said Tzabar. "In the 20th century, lots of things were forgotten. There were medieval customs that were forgotten and came back. There's a dynamic." A central feature of the holiday that was important to both Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries was the education of children. While the tikkun leil Shavuot, or night-long study, has been important for adult males, communities have attached special importance to giving children their first taste of Torah during the holiday, sometimes literally. "They would have a special cake they would eat, or they would eat the alphabet written in honey," said Tzabar of a German children's custom. "To learn Hebrew was supposed to be as sweet as honey. In Yemen, they would eat cake in the shapes of Har Sinai or the Torah." Likening the Torah to water was also a running Shavuot theme in both European and Middle Eastern communities, and it continues today in Israel. "In Germany, they would go to a river and throw the crumbs of what the child ate into the river to show that the Torah is living water and that it spreads everywhere," explained Tzabar. "Today, the Breslav Hassidim are reviving that custom. The Moroccans had a custom of splashing water on people, and now everyone does it." One major difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities, according to Tzabar, was how they related nature to the holiday, which is referred to in the Bible as the "Holiday of the First Fruits." While European Jews would bring fruits, vegetables and other plants into the home, Tzabar said, Middle Eastern Jews would bring their food out into nature. "There was a tradition [in Sephardi communities] to go have a picnic near the graves of holy people, to sing, eat and dance there," he said, adding that Jews from Baghdad would go to the traditional grave of Ezekiel. "I remember from my childhood that we would go to Mount Zion, to the grave of David. In Israel it felt more real because we were in Jerusalem." With the immigration to the Land of Israel at the beginning of the century, Tzabar says that the concept of the Holiday of the First Fruits gained prevalence, especially among Zionist communities. "The idea of the first fruits was renewed in Israel because we were connected to the land," he said. "The idea is universal. It's a national thing." The traditional emphasis on Torah study, however, has also increased, according to Tzabar, even among non-religious groups. "Almost every community participates in it," said Tzabar of the night-long study. "When I was a child, secular Israelis did not learn on Shavuot. Now, where they learn, there's no place to sit." q The Diaspora Museum has collected images of Shavuot celebrations from Europe and Israel, which help shed some light on our collective past.