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7 Classic Reasons for Shavuot Flowers and Greenery

7 Classic Reasons for Shavuot Flowers and Greenery

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Many have the custom to decorate the synagogue and home with greenery and flowers in honor of the holiday of Shavuot.

The earliest mention of this custom is by Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Halevi Moelin, known as the Maharil (Germany, 1365–1427), who writes that it was the custom to spread grass and fragrant flowers on the floor of the synagogue in honor of the “joy of the holiday of Shavuot.”1 However, the custom may go as far back as the Babylonian exile: Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, known as the Chida (Jerusalem, 1724–1806), cites an ancient Midrash that alludes to this custom being practiced at the time of the Purim story.2

Although Rabbi Moelin mentions only the synagogue, others add that it was the custom to decorate the house as well.3

Since these earlier sources don’t elaborate on the connection between greenery and the holiday of Shavuot, subsequent commentators have offered many explanations, although different explanations apply to grass, trees, flowers, and plants in general.

[Before discussing the reasons, it should be noted that some, most notably Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilnius, known as the Gaon of Vilna (1720–1797), advocated abolishing the custom of placing greenery as a decoration in honor of the holiday of Shavuot, due to it having become the practice of non-Jews to honor their own holidays by decorating with greenery and trees.4 Thus, there are many communities that, despite the explanations cited below, refrain from decorating the synagogues with greenery on Shavuot.]

1. Green Pastures in the Desert

Perhaps the most famous reason given is that G‑d warned the Jews at Sinai that “the sheep and the cattle shall not graze facing that mountain [Sinai].”5 Now, the Torah was given in a desert. This indicates that a miracle occurred, temporarily turning that area into fertile land with an abundance of greenery. In commemoration of this miracle, it became the custom to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot with greenery.6

2. Fragrant Speech

Expounding on the verse “His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as banks of sweet herbs; his lips are lilies dripping with flowing myrrh,”7 the Talmud explains that “from each and every utterance [of the Ten Commandments] that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the entire world was filled with fragrant spices.”8 Accordingly, on Shavuot we decorate with fragrant flowers and greenery.9

3. Judgment of Trees

The Mishnah states that on the holiday of Shavuot, G‑d judges the earth and determines the abundance of the fruits of the trees for the coming year.10 Therefore, trees are placed in the synagogue to remind us to pray for the trees and their fruits.11

4. Baby Moses’ Basket

Moses was born on the 7th day of the month of Adar. Three months later, when his mother was no longer able to hide him from the Egyptians, she put him into a basket and placed the basket among the reeds of the river, whereupon he was found by Batyah (Bithiah), daughter of Pharaoh, and miraculously saved. Three months from the 7th of Adar is the 7th of Sivan, the second day of Shavuot. In commemoration of this miracle, we decorate the holiday with grass and reeds.12

5. “A Rose Among the Thorns”

Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Spira of Dynów, known as the Bnei Yissaschar (1783–1841), explains the custom of beautifying the holiday with flowers, as well as a custom to adorn the Torah scroll with flowers, as follows:13

Elaborating on the verse “As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved among the daughters,”14 the Midrash tells the story of a king who had an orchard planted with beautiful trees. He entrusted it to a tenant and went away. After a time, the king returned and found it full of thorns, so he brought woodcutters to cut it all down. However, looking closely at the thorns, he noticed among them a single rose. He smelled it, and his spirits calmed down. The king said: “The whole orchard shall be saved because of this flower.”

In a similar manner, the whole world was created only for the sake of the Torah. After 26 generations, the Holy One, Blessed be He, looked closely at His world to ascertain what it had yielded, and found it lacking. Looking closely, He saw a single rose—the Jewish nation. And when He gave them the Ten Commandments, and the Jewish people proclaimed “We will do, and we will hear,”15 His spirits were calmed. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “The orchard shall be saved on account of this flower. For the sake of the Torah and of Israel, the world shall be saved.”16

6. Harvest and the First Fruits

Some explain that this custom is based on the fact that Shavuot is called the “harvesting festival.”17 Additionally, Shavuot marked the start of the season for bringing bikkurim, first fruits, to the Holy Temple. We decorate with greenery and flowers in remembrance of the custom to adorn the baskets of bikkurim (as well as the oxen leading the procession) with flowers and greenery.18

7. Yissachar is Conceived

The Torah describes how Reuben went in “the days of the wheat harvest” and brought dudaim (flowers) to his mother Leah. Desiring the flowers, Rachel said to her sister Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s dudaim.”

Resentful of Rachel’s position as favorite wife, Leah replied, “Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, that [you wish] also to take my son’s dudaim?” So Rachel said, “Therefore, he shall sleep with you tonight as payment for your son’s dudaim.” The Torah continues that from the union that night between Jacob and Leah, Jacob’s fifth son, Yissachar, was conceived.19

Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508–1593) explains that this incident occurred on the eve of Shavuot. Thus, Yissachar, who was conceived on Shavuot, was especially blessed that his descendants would be Torah scholars and sit on the Sanhedrin.20

Midrash Talpiot explains that based on the opinion that the dudaim that Reuben brought were a type of flower, the custom is to beautify the holiday with flowers.21

Afterthoughts

Of course, what matters most about this holiday is not the flowery decorations, but the commemoration of the giving of the Torah itself. All men and women, and even small children, are encouraged to attend the synagogue to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments on Shavuot.

To locate a synagogue near you, click here.

Footnotes
1.
Minhagei Maharil, Shavuot.
2.
See Birkei Yosef 494:6.
3.
See glosses of Rama to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 494:3.
4.
Quoted in Chayei Adam 131:13 and Chochmat Adam 89:1.
6.
Levush (HaChur) 494:1.
8.
Talmud, Shabbat 88b.
9.
Midrash Talpiot, s.v. Dudaim; Rabbi Shem Tov Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, vol. 4, p. 13.
10.
Rosh Hashanah 1:2.
11.
Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 494:5.
12.
Pardes Yosef, Exodus 2:3; Sefer Ziv HaMinhagim, Chodesh Sivan 7.
13.
Bnei Yissaschar, Chodesh Sivan 4:7.
16.
Vayikra Rabbah 23:3.
17.
See Exodus 23:16 and 34:22.
18.
Sefer Ziv Haminhagim, Sivan 7.
20.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich, Torat Moshe, Genesis ad loc.
21.
Midrash Talpiot, s.v. Dudaim.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous USA May 29, 2017

Donna My heart is filling my soul from here. It is new to learn too. Thank you for the beautiful illustrations and the beauty and the thrill of Torah. Maybe, the eyes aren't important, but it's all so beautiful. Reply

Anonymous May 25, 2017

Amen! Excellent article and very well written! Thanks for posting! Reply

Daniel Flagstaff, AZ June 3, 2014

Sages? Please give the reference for this teaching from the Sages. Reply

Menachem Posner for Chabad.org May 19, 2009

RE: Right flowers a. They serve to remind us of how at the Giving of the Torah the entire world was filled with an exquisite fragrance.
b. Some do not place sweet smelling flowers on their tables during the Sefirah mourning period. It is therefore appropriate to enjoy this delight for the first time in celebration of the Giving of the Torah. Reply

Anonymous May 18, 2009

Right flowers For some reason, halacha brings down flowers that have a special scent. Could anyone comment on this, why is it so. Reply

Gavriela June 6, 2008

flowers We are decorating our synagogue for the first time this year, and we bought flowers. The Religious School director told me that the correct theme is NOT flowers, but the barley and wheat harvests. I knew I wasn't dreaming when I thought flowers were appropriate! I went and bought some dried wheat at a craft store too, and the students who are being confirmed are bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to be donated later to a soup kitchen. But I wonder why the RS director seems to criticize the flowers?

I am very excited about decorating on Sunday, and I hope it becomes an annual tradition! Reply

Chani Benjaminson, chabad.org June 5, 2008

flowers not at all! unleash your flower creativity and enjoy... Reply

Anonymous London, UK June 5, 2008

Flowers Are there any right or wrong flowers for the home during Shavuot Reply

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