Shavuot: The Tree of Life

We decorate our homes and synagogues with vegetation to express the absolute importance of Torah for Israel and the entire world.

shavuot shaved head_521 (photo credit: Photo: Israel Weiss ( http://)
shavuot shaved head_521
(photo credit: Photo: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://)
The accepted custom throughout Israel is to decorate the synagogue and home with flowers and plants in honor of the festival of Shavuot. In the words of Rav Yosef Karo (Shulhan Aruch Orah Haim 494/3): “It is our custom to set out plants and flowers in the synagogues and the homes in order to enhance the joy of the Torah.”
It’s fascinating to note the different commentators who interpret the significance of this widespread custom.
The Levush (Rabbi Mordecai ben Avraham Yoffe 1530-1612) and the Birkei Yosef (Rabbi Haim Joseph David, 1724-1807) in their commentaries to this passage in the Shulchan Aruch explain: “‘In order to enhance the joy of the giving of the Torah’ because Mount Sinai sprouted vegetation and blossomed, as we know from the fact that the Israelites were prevented from grazing their sheep near the mountain (Exodus 34:3).”
The kabbalistic book Atik Yomin writes that we spread flowers around our homes and synagogues because of the verse “Your lips are like roses” (Song of Songs 5:13), and our sages expound that every word that came from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, filled the entire world with sweet-smelling spices (Talmud Shabbat 88b).
Rav Zvi Elimelech Shapira (in his commentary Bnei Yissachar to Leviticus 23:3 ) writes that since Israel is compared to a rose and the world is compared to an orchard of flowers, our King will never destroy His orchard – the world – because of the merit of the Torah which was given to Israel, the rose.
Interestingly enough, the great Gaon of Vilna was adamantly opposed to placing flowers, plants or small trees near or in synagogues or Jewish homes on Shavuot (Mishna Brura Orah Haim 494, 10). His argument was that since the Christians celebrate their major festival with a tree, we are prohibited from doing so by the verse “You shall not go in accordance with their statutes” (Leviticus 18: 3).
The New Orhot Haim (written by Rav Nachman Kahane of Spinke) takes strong issue with the view of the Vilna Gaon. He insists that as long as we are doing what we do as Jews for our own Jewish reasons, there is no prohibition against doing something which gentiles do for their own reasons. Hence, while it would be forbidden for us to bring a tree into our homes on December 25, bringing plants into our homes and synagogues for Shavuot for one of the above reasons is perfectly permissible.
The final reason for our custom is my personal favorite. It is presented by Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber in his book Customs of Israel Part 1 in the name of Rav Yaakov Mann. According to the Talmud (B.T. Shabbat 87a), God descended on the mountain during the third day of the week, which was a Tuesday. He commanded that the next three days be dedicated to preparation for the giving of the Torah; animals were not to graze near the mountain and men and women were not to cohabit. The Torah was to be given the following day; on Shabbat.
Tuesday was not only the day when God commanded us to prepare for the Giving of the Torah, it was also the day on which God created the grasses, herbs of the field and the fruit trees (Genesis 1: 11). This vegetation is the most fundamental source of nutrition, and maintains physical life on our planet. Our sacred Torah is also called “A Tree of Life to all who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18). It is a Tree of Life because just as the Earth’s vegetation provides physical sustenance, our Torah provides spiritual sustenance. Moreover, unless the civilizations of this world accept the ethical teachings of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai, humanity will destroy itself and life as we know it will not survive.
We therefore decorate our homes and synagogues with all manner of vegetation to express the absolute importance of Torah for Israel and the entire world. Life cannot be sustained unless humanity internalizes the primary lessons of God’s Torah: That every human being is created in God’s image, and must forever be free; that no totalitarian government can enslave its citizens with impunity, as God taught the world at the time of the Exodus; and that freedom without the moral responsibility revealed to us at Sinai will only lead to frenzied anarchy.
Through Torah, life will flourish and humanity will be redeemed.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.