It’s one of the most dramatic scenes in the Torah, as amazing as the splitting of the sea.
Imagine the Master of the Universe coming down to Earth in an astounding fireworks display of thunder, lightning and smoke (see Exodus 19 for the exciting details), singling out a ragtag bunch of escaped slaves to receive nothing less than the master plan of the universe: the Torah.
Not to mention the job description as G-d’s agents tasked with serving the boss and making the world a better place.
But whereas most Jews know how the sea split and the Israelites crossed over on dry land from years of reading the Passover Haggadah, far fewer realize that the holiday of Shavuot, 50 days later, marks the equally miraculous giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
But to make sure that the next generation doesn’t miss out, Shavuot activities, child-friendly celebrations and books bring to life this 3,300-year-old miracle for you to share with your kids and grandkids.
For Sarah Rabin Spira of Washington, DC, when Shavuot rolls around (this year, it’s Saturday night, June 8, lasting two days, through Monday, June 10, and one day in Israel), she pulls pillows and blankets into the center of the living room and spreads out a feast of books for a late-night readathon with her six- and eight-year-olds, often inviting over friends for a pot-luck dinner and plenty of ice-cream as well.
“Several years ago, we hit on the formula of gathering up all their favorite books, especially the Jewish ones — everything they could possibly read in one night — and letting them stay up late,” says Spira, who runs the PJ Library (a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, based in West Springfield, Mass.), and family education and engagement for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
“As parents, we can get behind any holiday where you are encouraged to stay up late, eat dairy and read books. It makes for a special time.”
‘Laws are a great Jewish innovation’
Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks” — also called Chag HaKatzir (“Harvest Festival”), Yom HaBikurim (“Day of the First Fruits”) or Zeman Matan Torateinu (“The Time of the Giving of Our Torah”) — was an agricultural holiday marking the first of the harvest, and the day the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the Voice of G-d declaring the Ten Commandments (at least the first two, until we got good and scared and begged Moses to take over for the remaining eight).
Today, Jews around the globe celebrate the momentous experience of revelation in the desert by staying up late (or for the stalwart, all night) learning Torah, and indulging in such dairy delights as cheesecake and blintzes.
In Israel, the traditions include harvest-welcoming festivals and feasting on native fruits. And each year, tradition has it that a farmer will officially present a basket of fruit and vegetable samples to the president.
“It’s absolutely my favorite holiday,” says Meredith Lewis, director of content, education and family experience for PJ Library.
For one, Shavuot offers parents the chance to explore some deep Jewish concepts with their kids, she says. “What does the idea of bikkurim, first fruits, mean to us in our lives? How does the wisdom and loyalty of Ruth [the book of Ruth is read on the holiday] speak to us today?”
The holiday also represents transitions, she adds, “from school to summer, from being a little kid to a big kid who can stay up and learn with the grownups, and have ideas about what the Ten Commandments mean to them.”
When it comes to Shavuot and Torah in general, “I’m a big fan of interactive Torah,” says Rabbi David Fohrman, founder of Aleph Beta, a program of animated videos around Torah and Jewish holidays that he describes as “Netflix for Torah.”
For Shavuot, the rabbi is hoping that the videos “inspire conversation, which often take a turn you’d never expected.”
One of them, “The Hidden Structure of the Ten Commandments,” for instance, challenges the student to explore how the first five commandments differ from the last five and what they come to teach us today. (For instance, not coveting might mean not being jealous of someone with a nicer house or more prestigious job.)
Shavuot also gives us an easy entrance “into a discussion of why it’s wonderful to have laws, what our world would be like if there were no laws and how they bring us closer to G-d, and what we’re supposed to do as Jews in this world to serve G-d and not some human master. Turns out these laws are a great Jewish innovation.”
A few Shavuot how-to’s for kids
Prepare for some Shavuot fun.
To discover some activities for the holiday, take a look at PJ Library, Chabad.org and My Jewish Learning for a full menu of crafts, recipes and stories designed to bring Shavuot to life for the youngest celebrants.
Stay up late.
For centuries, Jews have learned late into the night in synagogues, homes or community centers for Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the “Repair of Shavuot Night.”
It’s said that our forebearers overslept the morning they were scheduled to receive the Torah so we’re making it for it now.
Another explanation: Digging into the Torah in search of meaning is the best way to honor the gift of it.
Act it out.
Try writing an original skit with the kids (or organizing some improv) around a bunch of Israelites waiting for the Torah, and how it may have felt to suddenly hear the voice of G-d amid the thunder and lightning.
Stand up for Torah.
Go to synagogue the first morning (Sunday). Don’t be surprised that everyone stands when the Ten Commandments are read, just at Mount Sinai. An extra treat: Synagogues often serve ice cream at kiddush.
If it was good enough for our ancestors in the wilderness, why not re-enact the adventure with your own backyard campout, weather-permitting? Or just pitch a tent indoors or build one with chairs and blankets.
Invite friends for a sleepover and stay up telling stories, starting with the escape from Egypt and then being given the Ten Commandments.
The 11th commandment.
Thou shalt eat cheesecake and ice-cream (unless you’re lactose-intolerant, of course).
There are many possible reasons that Shavuot is the only Jewish holiday with a dairy menu, not the least of which is the Torah calls Israel “the land of milk and honey” and the gematria (numerical value) of the word chalav (“milk”) is 40, which is how many days Moses spent on Mount Sinai getting the Torah.
Celebrate the “People of the Book.”
There are quite a few inspiring books to choose from, especially for the younger set — starting, of course, with the Torah itself and its exciting description of the revelation on Mount Sinai.
As PJ Library’s Lewis puts it:
“Even if children don’t get all the complexities, just by feeling the specialness of staying up late, and imagining what it must have been like to stand at that mountain and hear the Ten Commandments all together — that and a piece of cheesecake, and altogether they’ll get a sweet taste of what it means, a new family tradition they won’t forget.”