Shloshet Yamei Hagbalah
Three days before the festival of Shavuot, in preparation for the chag, the strict rules of the Omer period are relaxed. People can get married, as described in Exodus(19:10-11) “Go to the people…Let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day God will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mt Sinai”.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
In gratitude for the gift of the Receiving of the Torah, the custom is to spend the whole night before Shavuot learning Torah and many synagogues arrange study programs for congregants. This all-night study session is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot.
Shacharit (Morning Service) – First Day
Six psalms (113-118), known as Hallel (‘praise’), are said immediately after the Shacharit Amidah. Reciting Hallel at this time is thought by some to be a mitzvah of the Torah. The mood and tempo of Hallel express jubilation and celebration for the festival.
The name of this Aramaic poem means ‘introduction’. This is a hymn attributed to Rabbi Meir Ben Isaac Nahorai of Orleans in Southern France. It was written in the 11th Century and is 90 verses long. It is recited just before the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot. The first part of the poem describes the majesty and glory of God, while the second takes the form of a dialogue between Israel and those who seek to convince Israel to give up the faith that we have in God. The poem concludes with a lavish description of faith in the Messiah.
On the first day of Shavuot, Exodus 19 and 20 are read, describing the Giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. The Maftir (concluding part of the Torah reading) comes from Numbers 28:26-31, saying “On that day of the first fruits, the Feast of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to God, you shall observe a sacred occasion.”
The Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) on the first day is from Ezekiel 1:1-28 and 3:12. Chapter One describes a vision Ezekiel had concerning the conquest of Jerusalem. Ezekiel 3:12 ends the portion on a high note, “then a spirit carried me away and behind me I heard a great roaring sound, Blessed is the presence of God in this place.”
Following the Torah reading, an additional Amidah is added to morning prayers on Shabbat and festivals, including Rosh Chodesh and the High Holy Days. This is called the Musaf, and it makes special mention of the sacrificial offerings of the Temple times. Recalling the offerings of the day is especially relevant on the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. These festivals were celebrated by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple, and thus the pain of the loss of the Temple is especially felt at these times. The Musaf Amidah reflects this pain.
Mincha – Afternoon Service
Megillat Ruth (also called ‘The Book of Ruth’ and ‘The Scroll of Ruth’)
- During the period of the Judges, Ruth, a Moabite woman, and her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, both lost their husbands after having left Israel during a famine.
- Instead of returning to her people, Ruth converted to Judaism, and after marrying Boaz she gave birth to a son who became King David’s grandfather.
- Ruth embraced Judaism with the famous phrase “Wherever you go, I will go,… your nation is my nation, and your God is my God.”
Megillat Ruth is read as a prelude to the Afternoon Service on Shavuot. The story takes place against the background of the barley harvest, which reflects the agricultural nature of the festival. It relates the story of the first convert of Judaism, the Moabite woman Ruth, who marries Boaz.
Reasons for reading Megillat Ruth on Shavuot
There are various reasons given for reading Megillat Ruth on Shavuot:
1. Shavuot is the Festival of the Farmer and Megillat Ruth tells the story of a farmer in biblical Eretz Israel (the land of Israel); a man who sows and gives leket (the poor man’s share of the crop), who reaps and sleeps in barns.
2. Shavuot is the Festival of Reaping and the events of Ruth’s story occurred between the barley harvest and the wheat harvest, namely during the reaping period.
3. According to tradition, King David was born on Shavuot and died on Shavuot, and the Megillah tells of the beginning of the Davidian dynasty (Ruth was the mother of King David’s grandfather). On Shavuot it is also customary to visit King David’s tomb on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
4. Our Sages explain that the Israelites received the Torah on Shavuot. Ruth converted to Judaism during the harvest period. At Mt Sinai, 613 mitzvot were given to Israel, whereas only seven commandments were given to the gentile nations. When Ruth came to convert, she observed her seven commandments and accepted an additional 606 mitzvot (According to Gematria, the letters making up Ruth’s name add up to 606.)
Shacharit (Morning Service) – Second Day
Hallel is recited again on the second day.
The Aramaic name of this prayer translates as ‘True is the Word’. On the second day of Shavuot, just before the Haftorah (reading from the Prophets), this piyyut (liturgical poem) is read. It is a prayer for the welfare of the Jewish people. It is generally attributed to Rabbenu Tam, the grandson of Rashi.
The Torah portion for the second day of Shavuot is Devarim (Deuteronomy) 15:19 – 16:17. This portion contains a series of laws relating to Israel including tithes, rules for release of debts in the seventh year, setting aside food for the poor, the release of slaves and rules for the three pilgrimage festivals. Devarim 16:9-12 deals specifically with Shavuot. The maftir (concluding part of the Torah reading) is the same as on the 1st day.
The Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) for the second day is Habbakuk 2:20-3:19, which is often called “The Prayer of Habbakuk”. It contains a vivid and poetic description of God as a warrior. While almost nothing is known of the author, the context of the writing places it at the time of the Assyrian exile (8th century B.C.E.).
Yizkor (memorial prayers)
A memorial service for the dead is said after the Torah and Haftorah readings on the second day. The opening words, “Yizkor Elohim” (“may God remember”) give the prayers their name. Every person who has lost a parent or other loved ones recites these prayers. Yizkor is said on Shavuot because the Torah reading includes the verse “They shall not appear before the Lord empty handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God bestowed upon you.” (Deut. 16:17). With its pledge to charity, Yizkor serves this purpose.
The Musaf service (an additional prayer service normally prayed immediately after Shacharit, the morning service) is held on Shavuot (both days of Shavuot if outside Israel).
Customs of Reading Megillat Ruth
There are various customs related to the reading of Megillat Ruth on Shavuot. Generally, in Sephardi and Lubavich communities, the Megillah is not read in the synagogue. In the Diaspora, it is customary to read Megillat Ruth on the second day of Shavuot.
The Story of Ruth
Megillat Ruth relates the story of the family of Elimelech of the tribe of Judah, in the days of the Judges. Elimelech (pronounced E-lee-me-lech), his wife Naomi, and their two sons Machlon and Chilyon, left Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), where there was a famine, and settled in the fields of Moab (a neighbouring country).
There, the two sons married Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. In time, the father and his two sons died there, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law. When Naomi decided to return to her homeland, one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, refused to be separated from her, and accompanied her. Once back in Judah, Ruth became acquainted with Boaz when she went to gather ears of corn in his field. The Torah obliges the Israelite farmer to allow the stranger, the orphan and the widow to gather from his crop, and Ruth was a stranger and a widow. Boaz was attracted to Ruth and married her. The child born of this marriage, Oved, was King David’s grandfather.
Megillat Ruth clearly depicts the lives of estate owners and farmers in the land of Judah at the time of the Judges. It depicts their way of life, their customs and the laws of the Israelites dwelling in their country.
Particularly noticeable elements are:
- the redemption of the land,
- the concern for the stranger and the widow;
- strong family ties and feelings of obligation towards relatives; marriage to foreign women and
- usages of the reaping season
The common denominator for all these apparently unrelated themes is the attribute of loving-kindness.
The deeds of the main figures in the Megillah are described in detail, with frequent emphasis on the fact that they acted with loving-kindness, within the letter of the law. Rabbi Zeira said:
“This Megillah contains neither matters of defilement or purification, nor laws of permission or prohibition. Why then was it written down? To teach the reward that is reserved for those who perform acts of loving-kindness”. (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2, 16)
Loving-kindness is the central theme of Megillat Ruth.
Naomi cares for her daughter-in-law Ruth, and Ruth cares for her mother-in-law Naomi. In the relations between Boaz and Ruth it is also felt that both are performing acts of kindness to each other.
Even linguistically the importance of kindness is prominent. The word ‘chesed’ (kindness) appears three times in the Megillah, and each time it is connected with a blessing from God.
The reward for those who perform acts of kindness is the passage from exile to redemption; a direct link to the Kingdom of Israel and the feeling of personal satisfaction that accompanies the good and generous deed.