You already know how to celebrate Shavuot at home: Make a Seder

For most communities, the coronavirus has cancelled Shavuot. That’s because the standard Shavuot celebration revolves around public, shared space events like all-night Jewish learning at a synagogue or JCC. But there is a way to bring this experience home and, in doing so, make it far better.

The all-night Shavuot program is a flawed product. The ostensible goal of the evening is to produce hours of rich, memorable Torah study, together with friends and community. Yet structural impediments abound. Late-night is a notoriously challenging time for intellectual engagement. The standard Shavuot arrangement — “sessions”, offered by a presenter, typically rooted in frontal learning — is itself one of the least engaging (and arguably least Jewish) learning formats.

Scribe | You already know how to celebrate Shavuot at home: Make a Seder

Furthermore, hopes to connect and unite people, through one central gathering, fail on two fronts. In large communities, multiple Shavuot venues lead to “shul-hopping”, as participants move, uncoordinated, between different events. Even within one synagogue, the schedule of sessions means that participants have disjointed experiences. Friends are found in the spare minutes between classes, but then split up again; I might run into thoughtful colleagues at one venue, or we might pass each other blindly on the street. The kids have a term for the feeling this set up inspires: FOMO (fear of missing out). If you put enough people into one program, everyone is alone.

Yet we already have a moment on the Jewish calendar dedicated to all-night study, and its structure is far more effective: the Pesach Seder. In place of a bare study hall or classroom, we build the evening around a family table lush with foods, props, and heirlooms. Instead of an active lecturer and passive listeners, we expect all members of the Seder to together create the night and drive dialogue. The discussion is structured, but notoriously freeform, with room for jokes, digressions, memories, songs, and personal reflections. The space is intimate and concentrated: there is no other venue to which to escape, and nothing to do but connect with the folks around the table. It’s a brilliant educational structure and there is no surprise that the Pesach Seder remains one of the most popular and transmittable Jewish rituals.

It’s time to bring the Seder’s brilliance home for Shavuot. Let’s stay up all night on Shavuot, surrounded by close friends and family, enjoying a rich spread of symbolic foods, with a text that inspires conversation, learning and laughter.

If you try to translate the Pesach Seder to Shavuot, connections immediately jump out. Four Cups of Wine becomes Four Cups of Coffee. “Afikomen”, meaning symbolic dessert, is obviously meant for cheesecake. Pesach has its special bread (unleavened Matzah) and Shavuot was celebrated in the Temple with a special bread offering (leavened wheat). Coffee for wine, Challah for Matzah, and cheesecake for Afikomen, and you are halfway there.

Scribe | You already know how to celebrate Shavuot at home: Make a Seder

Granted, the themes of Pesach don’t translate to Shavuot — but witnessing that contrast is one of the most rewarding experiences of crafting a Shavuot Seder. Afterall, one holiday celebrates freedom, the other responsibility. Pesach asks us to escape Exile, while Shavuot revels in it — indeed, the Torah was revealed outside the Land of Israel. One commemorates a rebellion against oppressive laws, and the other extols law’s acceptance. Playing with the original Pesach Haggadah text provides the perfect opportunity to appreciate these differences. “We were once slaves in Egypt”, changes into “we were once lawless in Canaan”. Whereas the Pesach Haggadah famously notes that this year we are slaves but next year we shall be free, a Shavuot Haggadah recognizes there is more to life than mere freedom. “This year we are unlearned, next year may we be wise!”

I want to share one climactic moment from my version of the Shavuot Seder. On Pesach, the step known as Yachatz — split — is pretty quick. Grab the middle matzah, snap it in half, put aside one piece for later. The notion of breaking a brittle object, as a public and compelling symbol, has a wonderful Shavuot parallel: Moses shattering the Ten Commandments tablets. At our Yachatz, we study the verses about Moses descending from the mount, and — at that critical moment — each participant shatters their (graham cracker) tablets. It is easy to forget that Revelation was an imperfect event. The tablets, before they were ever received, were violated. This too is part of our story. Creating a Shavuot Seder gives us an opportunity to recall, in detail, the actual experience of standing at Sinai: who was there? What did we see and hear? What were its consequences? What are its echoes? It’s easy to ignore these questions at a synagogue-based Shavuot program. It’s the only thing to talk about at a Shavuot Seder.

This year, the synagogues and JCCs won’t be open for Shavuot. So make a Shavuot Seder plate. Prepare 4 cups of coffee and a cheesecake Afikomen. Grab a Shavuot Haggadah (here is mine, one from the Ten Commandments Project, and one from Rabbi David Winship) and celebrate Shavuot using what we already know as Judaism’s most successful, enduring, and beloved tool for all-night learning: the Seder.

Ben Greenfield is the rabbi of the Greenpoint Shul, an inclusive Orthodox shul in Brooklyn, NY.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

How to celebrate Shavuot in quarantine? Make a Seder

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