THE SOCIETY FOR HUMANISTIC JUDAISM:
Shavuot is a minor, ancient pilgrimage festival that marked the harvest of barley. Shavuot literally means "weeks," so named because the festival is exactly seven weeks (plus one day) from the second night of Passover. It is also called Festival of First Fruits, Hag Habikkurim, Pentecost, and the Feast of Weeks. This feast, one of three pilgrimage festivals, marked the end of the barley and beginning of the wheat harvest. In ancient times, it was probably a midsummer festival taken over from the Canaanites.
On this festival in Temple times, according to the book of Leviticus, two loaves (shetei halehem) were "waved before the Lord." These had to be offered only from the best new wheat, from produce grown that year in Israel. Shavuot was associated with the bringing of the bikkurim, "the first ripe fruits," to the Temple of Jerusalem.
In rabbinic times a radical transformation of the festival took place. Based on the verse from the book of Exodus: "In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai," the festival became the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. In the traditional liturgy Shavuot is "zeman mattan toratenu" ("the time of the giving of our Torah"). The ancient agricultural feasts were recreated into festivals marking the anniversary of significant legendary events in the life of the people. Both Passover and Sukkot are connected with the Exodus as well.
Unlike Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot has just a few special rituals. In modern Israel, some kibbutzim have tried to revive some of the harvest ceremonies. In the synagogue, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. It is customary in some congregations to decorate the synagogue with plants and flowers. It is also customary to eat dairy products in the home on Shavuot. In some communities triangular pancakes stuffed with meat or cheese are eaten because the Hebrew Bible has three parts (Torah, Prophets, and Writings). Also, in modern times Shavuot has become a day for confirmation ceremonies and religious school graduations. For Humanistic Jews, Shavuot is a wonderful day for picnics with fresh loaves of challah and is also a time to honor educational achievement, such as graduation from Sunday School.
Blessing over Bread
B'rukhim hamotsiim lehem min haarets. Blessed are those who bring forth bread from the earth.
1. Dissolve yeast with pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Set aside until foamy.
2. Meanwhile, in large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup warm water, sugar, salt, oil, and eggs (or egg whites). Stir well. When yeast mixture is ready, stir it in.
3. Add 4 cups of flour, 1 cup at a time, blending after each addition.
4. Spoon remaining flour onto wooden board and pour dough mixture onto it. Knead by hand for 5 to 10 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic. 5. Put dough in greased bowl. Cover with towel, set in warm place, and let rise 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
6. Punch down dough. Divide into three part, roll each into a rope, pinch ropes together, and braid from center to ends or from one end to the other. To make two medium loaves, divide dough in half, break each half into three parts, roll each into a rope, pinch together, and braid.
7. Preheat oven to 350. Place loaves on lightly oiled baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Brush loaves with lightly beaten egg white and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds.
8. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove loaves from baking sheet and cool on racks.
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