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Torah Sparks

TORAH READING FOR SHAVUOT (outside of Israel) - YIZKOR (in most congregations)
June 3, 2006 – 7 Sivan 5766

Torah: Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1074; Hertz p. 810)
Maftir: Numbers 28:26 – 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 932; Hertz p. 696)
Haftarah: Habakuk 3:1 – 19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1326; Hertz p. 1032)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The Torah speaks of Shavuot as Hag HaBikurim, the festival of the first fruits. The holiday also is called Hag HaKatzir, the festival of the wheat harvest. The Torah also calls it Shavuot, because it comes after counting 49 days, from the day after the first day of Passover. (The Torah says that the count is to begin the day after the Sabbath; and the rabbis interpreted that to mean the second night of Passover.) What is not explicit in the Torah is a connection between the holiday of weeks and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. That connection was a later development in Jewish history.

Shavuot is called z’man matan toreteinu, “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Our tradition was deliberate in not calling it “the time of the receiving of the Torah,” for the Torah must be received every day. According to tradition, the Israelites’ travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai and the preparations there took exactly seven weeks. Early in the morning of the sixth of Sivan, God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments. Many Jews now follow the custom of staying up all night studying and learning on the first night of Shavuot at a tikkun leil Shavuot. That is done so you will not be caught sleeping when God delivers the Ten Commandments.

Other customs have developed around the festival. For example, it is customary to eat dairy foods, for the Israelites had not yet received the proper laws of kosher slaughter. The book of Ruth is read during services (in the diaspora on the second day) because it deals with Ruth the Moabite, the most famous convert in history. Yizkor prayers are also said; in the diaspora they’re said on the second day.

Many Conservative and Reform synagogues have developed the practice of holding confirmation services on Shavuot. Confirmation ceremonies originally began in the Reform Movement as a substitute for bat mitzvah. Today it is a way to honor teenage boys and girls, around the age of 16, who have continued their Jewish learning beyond bar and bat mitzvah. This again emphasizes the importance of continuing to receive the Torah.

Issue #1 - Talmud Torah

“They are our life and the length of our days, therefore we should study them day and night” (daily prayer book)


  1. We mentioned that Shavuot is the day marking the giving of the Torah; the Torah is received every day. How can the Conservative movement build a culture of Torah study? In a section that is found also in the daily preliminary service, the Talmud mentions a number of mitzvot that are observed in this world but whose reward is in the world to come. These include such fundamental ethical mitzvot as honoring parents, providing for a needy bride, caring for the dead, comforting the bereaved, and going morning and evening to the synagogue. It ends with the words “the study of Torah is equivalent to all of these.” Why? How is it possible that study could be as significant as doing mitzvot that bring healing to the world?
  2. It has been said, “When I pray I talk to God. When I study Torah God talks to me.” (This saying has been attributed to Rabbi Louis Finkelstein as well as to a number of other leading figures in the early Conservative movement.) Many would say Torah study is more important even than prayer. Why?
  3. Many Conservative synagogues now read the Torah in a triennial cycle instead of reading the full parashah each week. Should Conservative synagogues spend less time at Shabbat morning services formally reading the Torah and more time studying the Torah? Should synagogues offer alternate sessions where the Torah is discussed while it is read in the service?
  4. Confirmation honors young people who continue their learning beyond the bar or bat mitzvah. What can synagogues do to motivate more young people to continue learning? Are there other alternatives which could encourage young people to continue studying? What kind of curriculum would appeal to young people?

Issue #2 – Conversaion

“And Ruth said, do not entreat me from following after you, for wherever you go I will go and where you dwell I will dwell, your people will be my people and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16)


  1. The book of Ruth is a very pro-conversion text. Ruth is a Moabite; she is a member of a nation that the Torah explicitly forbids from entering the Jewish people. Yet she converts, and becomes King David’s great-grandmother. What point is the book trying to make? What lesson can we learn from it about the approach we should take toward welcoming converts?
  2. The book of Ezra takes a very different approach. “And Ezra the priest stood up, and said to them, You have transgressed, and have taken foreign wives, to increase the guilt of Israel. And now make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10-11). Ezra forces the men to divorce their non-Jewish wives and abandon their non-Jewish children. Why is conversion not an option? Could the difference have to do with a situation where a woman is supportive of Jewish living (so much so she converts to Judaism) and the one described in Ezra, where the non-Jewish wife prevents her husband from participation in Jewish life?
  3. There is a tension throughout Jewish history regarding conversion. On the one hand, there is the statement of Rabbi Elazar that the Holy One exiled Israel among the nation only in order that converts be added to them (Pesachim 87b). On the other hand, there is Rav Helbo’s famous statement that converts are as difficult as a sore for the people of Israel (Yevamot 109b). There are communities of Jews today that will not accept converts under any circumstances. Sadly, in the Conservative movement there still are people who are suspicious of the motivation of converts.
  4. Why have some Jews taken an anti-conversion approach? What can be done today to make Judaism more welcoming to converts?

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