Community members study Torah during Shavuot celebrations

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Seven weeks after they gathered for Passover, Baltimore Jewish community members are coming together to celebrate Shavuot.

Creamy mascarpone cheese cake with strawberry and winter berries
One common way people observe Shavuot is by eating dairy foods, like cheesecake. (GreenArtPhotography / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The holiday, which starts the evening of June 4 and ends the evening of June 6 this year, commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. Many synagogues in the Baltimore area have events scheduled for the holiday, ranging from serious services to ice cream socials for younger children.

Shavuot means “weeks” and signifies the end of the counting of the omer, marking the seven weeks Moses traveled through the desert to reach Mount Sinai. Though it started as an ancient grain harvest festival, it is now mainly associated with the study of the Torah. It is customary during the first night of Shavuot to stay up until the early hours of the morning studying the Torah, a practice known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Shavuot night watch).

The readings for Shavuot include the poem Akdamut, the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth — the last due to the fact that parallels can be drawn between Ruth’s embracing of Judaism and the Jewish people accepting the Torah. The story also takes place during the barley harvest, similar to how Shavuot used to be a harvest festival.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is not the only way that people celebrate the holiday. One of the customs most closely associated with Shavuot is the consumption of dairy. Foods like blintzes and cheesecake are common, with a more traditional meat-based meal eaten later. According to chabad.org, it is theorized that this is because with the receiving of the Torah, the Jews were then obligated to keep kosher. As no cattle could be slaughtered on Shabbat, they ate dairy products instead. It is also because the Song of Solomon likens the Torah to “milk and honey under your tongue.”

“We relive the moment [of standing on Mount Sinai] together,” Cantor Melanie Blatt of Beth El Congregation of Baltimore said of the holiday. “We recognize that we are tied together by the Torah, and some believe that all the souls that exist were on the mountain when we received it. And every year, we reenact that.”

People celebrating Shavuot also often decorate their homes with plants and flowers to evoke Mount Sinai and to “bring the outdoors indoors,” according to chabad.org. This is in part due to Shavuot being the first day that people could bring bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Shechter Institutes, Persian Jews call Shavuot “Modeh Gol,” which roughly translates to “the holiday of flowers.”

One synagogue that plans to mark Shavuot is Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which is holding services on June 5 at 8 a.m. followed by a breakfast at 9 a.m., along with a more child-friendly Shavuot Scoop event, from 4-5 p.m., featuring inflatables and ice cream.

Congregation Netivot Shalom in Pikesville has organized a Communal Lunch and Learning event for June 5, starting at 11:30 a.m., with a dairy-based lunch followed by an afternoon of learning and Torah study. The event is free to attend, but they are accepting donations to offset the cost of food. Though it is traditional to stay up late studying on Shavuot, the communal lunch is scheduled for earlier in the day to accommodate for seniors and families who may not be able to study through the whole night.

“It’s a chance to recommit ourselves to studying Torah and to grow in knowledge and commitment, to celebrate what the Torah adds to our lives and to reaffirm what we stand for as a community,” Netivot Shalom Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz said. “The point is to come together and celebrate our commitment to the Torah, and we’d love to welcome new people in that endeavor.”

Kaplowitz recommended that people sign up soon on the congregation’s website.

For those looking for other services, Beth El Congregation of Baltimore is holding Shavuot evening services on June 4 at 7:45 p.m., followed by a study session from 8-11:15 p.m.

Community members in the downtown Baltimore area have also organized several community events, including a potluck dinner at B’nai Israel before the holiday on June 3 at 8:15 p.m., a dairy brunch and reading of the Ten Commandments at Chabad of Downtown on June 5 at 10 a.m. and a BBQ in Little Italy to cap off Shavuot on June 6 at 1 p.m.

“We know not everyone practices the same way, but we still wanted people to come together at some point during the holiday,” said Betty Cohn, a member of the Chabad of Downtown’s Young Jewish Professionals planning committee. “If anyone who’s not necessarily religious wants to come hang out, they’ll be able to do so.”

If people are interested in attending these downtown events, Cohn requests that they contact her at bcohn2@jh.edu for additional information regarding registration.

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