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SHAVUOT, Pentecost – Biblical Origin, Prayers, Traditions explained by Ari Lipinski



SHAVUOT (PENTECOST) חג שבועות

The Shavuot Holiday, which takes place 49 days after Pesach (on the 50th day), has actually a number of different names. The fact that various names are attributed to this Holiday indicates that the celebration has various reasons. Shavuot is one of the Three Pilgrimage Holidays (Shlosha Regalim שלושה רגלים): SukkotPesachShavuot. For the purpose of these celebrations the Children of Israel went to the Temple up to Jerusalem. The term “Shlosha Regalim” means that three times a year the Israelites went by foot to Jerusalem to the Temple Mount.

The Hebrew word “Chag” means Holiday or a feast.

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The 8 most well known names of the Holiday are: Chag Shavuot (the Holiday of the weeks), Chag Shvuot (the Holiday of the oaths), Chag HaBikurim (the Holiday of the first fruits), Azeret (gathering, rally), Chag HaChamishim (the Holiday of the fifty days), Yom Hakhel (the day of the convention, the day of the gathering), Chag Matan Torah (the day of the giving of the Torah), Chag HaKatsir (the Holiday of the harvest).

Before we will go into the explanation of each holiday background one more remark will be helpful for the general understanding. The Hebrew name Shavuot has the spelling which integrates more the one meaning. First of all the spelling means “weeks”. It stands for the date the Holiday takes place, namely 7 weeks after Pesach. The same letters in Hebrew can be pronounced as Shvuot. Then these same letters mean due to the difference of pronunciations, oaths. In the spelling of the word Shavuot there are also the three letters integrated, which read as a separate word “Sheva”, which means seven.

The first letter of the word Shavuot (shin ש) is at the same time the first letter of one of the names of God in the Bible, namely “Shadai שדי”. The last letter of the name Shavuot is the last letter of the Hebrew Alphabet (tav ת) and is at the same time the first letter of the word “Torah תורה”. It indicates that already in the name Shavuot (weeks) it tells that at the end of the 7 weeks the Torah was given.

CHAG HASHAVUOT (FEAST OF THE WEEKS)

The Holiday which we celebrate on the 6th of the month of Sivan, that means 7 weeks after Pesach, is called Chag HaShavuot. The name is derived from the book of Deuteronomy, chap. 16, verses 9 – 10. In verse 10 it is explicitly called “the Feast of Weeks”.

Furthermore we learn from the a. m. verse 11 that all layers / social groups should celebrate this feast in the spirit of a communal equality. “and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite who is in your town, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst, in the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name.”.  (NASB)

The preceding verse 10 calls for your “freewill offering”. Everyone should try to be generous as good as he can.

CHAG HASHVUOT (FEAST OF THE OATHS)

This name is based on the book of Exodus. In chap. 24, verse 3 it says “Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” (NASB) In verse 7 we read: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!”

These statements are considered the oaths which the children of Israel took before the LORD. In verse 8 Moses confirmed the mutual covenant and said ““Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

After these mutual declarations Moses went up on the mountain and stayed there 40 days and 40 nights. We know that after God gave him the two Tablets of the Ten Commandments, God told Moses that the people of Israel down the hill were singing. He referred to what Moses later saw as the dancing around the Golden Calf. Even so God was furious an actually offered to annihilate the people, Moses managed to calm down God by reminding him what would the nations say, if God exterminated the nation he had liberated from Egypt. By that merciful forgiving God actually confirmed his previous promises.

Referring to all these a. m. oaths and promises from the side of the Israelites and of God the Holiday is named as theFeast of the Oaths: Chag HaShvuot.

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Chag Matan Thora (The Festival of the Giving of the Torah)

The name “Chag Matan Torah” is not quoted from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) Nevertheless this name is one of the most well known names of this feast. The important Rabbis of the Talmud Era based this name on passages from the Bible. In the Book of Exodus in chap. 19, verse 9 God tells Moses already that he would announce his message to the people of Israel. In Exodus chap. 24, verses 4 – 8 the event of signing the covenant between God and Israel is described. Also in the Book of Deuteronomy, chap. 4, verses 9 – 13 the event of the giving of the Ten Commandments [Footnote 1 below] is recalled by Moses. In Deuteronomy chap. 5, verses 6 – 21 the Ten Commandments are quoted again. (The first time the Ten Commandments were quoted was in the Book of Exodus, chap. 20.) In Deuteronomy, chap. 5, verses 22, 23 the Torah tells again of the giving of the Commandments.

So the Rabbis of the Talmud had sufficient Torah sources to justify the naming of the Holiday as “Chag Matan Torah”.

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Chag HaKatsir (The Holiday of the Harvest)

A central aspect of the Shavuot Holiday is the agricultural context of the harvest period. During the Bible time and well into the post biblical Mishna and Talmud Era the vast majority of the population of the land of Israel was directly dependent on the agricultural harvest. The wheat and barley harvest which takes place in the land of Israel in the month of Sivan is representative for the agricultural harvest in general. In the Book of Exodus in chap. 34, in verse 22 we read “Celebrate the festival of Weeks with the first fruits of the wheat harvest and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.”

Therefor the Holiday of Shavuot is also called the Festival of the Harvest, Chag HaKatsir.

Jom HaBikkurim (Day of the First Fruits)

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The name of the Holiday as “Yom HaBikurim” is based on the explicit text in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 26, verses 1 – 4. There it says “Take some of the Firstfruits of all that you produced from the soil of the land. The LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket…” (NASB)

This “Mitzvah” (Commandment) refers only to the seven species (The 7 Minim שבעת המינים) of the Land of Israel. In Deuteronomy, chapter 8, verses 7 – 8 we read “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills. A land of wheat and barley, of wine and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” (Honey stands for dates, the fruit of the palm trees. The description of the dates as honey results from the phenomenon which the Children of Israel saw when they observed the palm trees when the dates were so ripe that the fluid juice was dripping from the trees. The colour of the juice of the dates resembles the colour of honey. It is also as sweet as honey.)  Therefor it says in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6 verse 3 and chapter 31, verse 20 that the Land of Israel is: “a land flowing with milk and honey”.)

Chag Azeret (The feast of the ingathering of the people)

The word “Azeret” [Footnote 2 below] is one of the names for the event of the ingathering of the people of Israel. In the Torah we read of the instruction for such an Azeret on the 7th day of Chag HaMatzot – The Holiday of the Unleavened Bread (nowadays the whole week is called Pesach, even thou actually in the Torah only the first day is called Pesach). The other Holiday at the end of which the Azeret is convened is Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Based on these two Torah instructions the post biblical Rabbis extrapolated that also during the third pilgrimage Holiday, namely Shavuot, also the ingathering called Azeret should take place.

Another argument for naming the Holiday Azeret was that similarly to the other two pilgrimage Festivals also in Shavuot all the people came to the Temple, so it resembled the situation facing Mount Sinai, when the whole people of Israel was present.

Chag HaChamischim (The Festival of the Fifty)

During the time of the second temple it was customary to call the Chag Shavuot Chag HaChamishim because it took place in the 50th day after Pesach, After the 7 weeks of the Omer counting since Pesach were completed. This name is based on the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), chapter 23, verses 15 – 17. In verse 16 we read “You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath. Then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD.”

The name Chag HaChamishim was also used by the seventy Rabbis who translated the Torah to what is called theSeptuaginta. (This translation to Greek was made in the years 250 – 100 b.c.e.)

The number 50 has also a special meaning as the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee year is the 50th year after seven times of the Shemita year. The Shemita year is the seventh year during which the land of Israel has to rest. So no agricultural production is permitted on the soil within the Land of Israel.

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Jom Hakhel (The day of convening the nation)

The special name Hakhel for the Shavuot Holiday is based on Deuteronomy, chapter 4, verse 10. This special convening of the people of Israel should remind of the special unifying ingathering at the Mount of Sinai, when Israel received as one unit the Ten Commandments. That occasion was the only case in the Torah in which the text speaks for all the people of Israel in singular form: “Wa yichan sham Israel neged haHar וייחן שם ישראל נגד ההר“ (Exodus 19, 2). “When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai… And there Israel camped in front of the mountain”.

Foto: Zvi Katsir, Kibbuz Netzer Sereni, Alon.

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Footnotes:

[1] The Ten Commandments as they are called in English contain actually 14 commandments. In Hebrew the Torah refers to the announcement by God at Mount Sinai with the words “Aseret haDevarim”. Please pay attention that in Hebrew the word “Devarim” does not mean commandments. Devarim (or Dibrot, same word but feminine form) means “outspoken statements”, or “the Spoken”. One may understand the Ten Commandments as the Ten Spoken(statements). We find this formulation three times in the original Hebrew Torah: In Exodus, chapter 34, verse 28, in Deuteronomy, chapter 4, verse 12 (in English, NASB, it is verse 13), and in Deuteronomy, chapter 10, verse 4. The post biblical Rabbis modified the Hebrew words “Aseret haDevarim” to a more common HebrewAseret HaDibrot. (In Hebrew “Devarim” is masculine, Dibrot is the female form.)

Concerning the Ten Commandments, or as we now more correctly call them “Aseret HaDevarim” we may remind, that they were actually communicated in the Torah five times: the first time was the oral (acoustic) announcement at Mount Sinai, when the whole people of Israel was present. Then Moses brought down the first two tablets of stones, which he had to destroy when he saw the children of Israel dancing around the Golden Calf. Later Moses went up again and brought the second two tablets of stone with the Ten Devarim. Since we have in the Book of Exodus in chapter 20 the text of the Ten Devarim and in Deuteronomy, chapter 5 we have again the Ten Devarim, we have all together five times of the Ten Devarim being communicated. We also know that there are a number of text differences between their formulations in Exodus, chapter 20 compared with Deuteronomy, chapter 5.

 [2] See in the Talmud “Massechet (treatise) Rosh HaShana” (New Year), chapter 1, verse 2.

The Number seven is of unique importance since the Creation

Rabbi Zvi David Hoffmann has shown, that the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur(the Day of Atonement) are directly related to the unique significance of the number seven in the Torah. The 7th day of the week, the Shabbat (Saturday) reminds of the week of the Creation by God. The Shemita year, the 7th year, is the year of rest for the ground in the Land of Israel. Rosh HaShana is the beginning of each year as well as, therefore, the basis for the calculation of the 7th year, the Shemita year. The Shemita year reminds that the land belongs to the LORD. Further more after 7 times Shemita year (7 x 7) comes the Yovel (Jubbilee) year which is the 50th year. The Jubbilee year is crucial in the laws settling the state of ownership of land pieces in the land of Israel. The idea is to remind the ownership of God. In the Jubbilee year people who lost their land due to debts can get their property back under certain conditions.

The number 7 is also of special importance concerning other major Jewish holidays from the Torah: Sukkot(Tabernacles) lasts for 7 days. It is one of the three major pilgrimage holidays, in which the Israelites went to theTemple in Jerusalem to celebrate. Since Jerusalem is ca. 860 meter high in the mountain, the pilgrimage was percepted and called as holidays of ascendance, geographically and spiritually. Also the pilgrimage holiday of Pesach is related to the number 7. It takes place in the month of Nissan. The month of Nissan is considered in the Torah as one of the four dates which are each called a new year. (Explanations follow below under the specific Holidays.) The first day of the holiday is the actual Pesach holiday. It is followed by the week called in the Torah “Chag Ha Matzoth” ( the Feast of Unleavened Bread). Nowadays people call all the 7 days of Pesach and Chag HaMatzoth with the one name of “Pesach Holiday”. Seven weeks after Pesach the Shavuot Holiday (Pentecost) takes place. The 7 weeks counted from Pesach to Shavuot undergo a daily special counting called “Sefirat HaOmer” (the counting of the Omer). The Omer is a biblical measure of a barley quantity which is relevant for a sacrifice (it is ca. 3,64 liters).

The holidays Rosh HaShana, Yom Kipur and Sukkot take place in the month of Tishrey, which is the 7th month of the year. The year (of the kings) begins biblically in the month of Nissan. The pilgrimage holiday Sukkot takes place in the 7th month after Pesach. (Note: Pesach is in Nissan, which is one of the four Jewish dates called a New Year.)

In Jerusalem there are 7 holidays defined as non working holidays: 2 days in Pesach (at the beginning and at the end), 1 day in Shavuot, 1 day in Rosh Ha Shana (1 day was during the Temple time and only in the city of Jerusalem. We know of the Rosh Ha Shana being celebrated of 2 days outside of Jerusalem. Today also in Jerusalem Rosh Ha Shana is celebrated for 2 days. Further details see bellow under the holiday of Rosh Ha Shana.), 1 day on Yom Kipur, one day Sukkot and 1 day on Sheminy Azereth at the end of Sukkot. Total: 7 days.

Prayers and Traditions during the Shavuot-Feast

READING THE SCROLL OF RUTH – A FAMOUS TRADITION OF THE SHAVUOT FEAST.


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One of the characteristic traditions of the Shavuot Holiday is the reading and learning of the Scroll of Ruth from the Bible. There are a number of reasons for this custom:

*  The date of the 6thof the month of Sivan in the Hebrew calendar, when the Holiday Shavuot takes place, is at the same time the birthday of King David and the day he died. King David is a descendant of Ruth. This is a good reason to study the family tree and the special message for the future which is correlated with this unique family.

Ruth said to Naomi “Your God is my God”. This statement became world famous. Ever since this statement is considered as the declaration by Ruth which de facto made her convert into Judaism. Since Shavuot is the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah, there is a special idea which connects the Scroll of Ruth and the Torah. The rabbinic teachings of the Mishna and Talmud (the oral Torah) explained that all the souls of the people of Israel of all generations including the souls of all converts into Judaism to come were spiritually present at Mount Sinai during the monumental event when God announced the Ten Commandments (The Ten Devarim). Therefor Chag Shavuot being also Chag Matan Torah is an excellent invitation to read and study the scroll of Ruth as well as the Ten Commandments. It is an important occasion for demonstrating the equality of converts with all the people of Israel.

The events described in the Scroll of Ruth took place during the time of the harvest of the field. Chag Shavuot is also called Chag HaKatsir. The reading and learning of the circumstances of the Story of Ruth provide a special illumination of that biblical time.

*  Another interesting reason for reading the Scroll of Ruth during the Chag Matan Torah, the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah, is directly rooted in the numbers of the Torah Laws. Rabbinical teachings explain that Ruth, being originally a gentile, already was under the seven noachidic laws. At Mount Sinai the Jewish tradition counts 606 Jewish Mitzvot given to Israel. Together 606 and theSeven Noahide Laws make the total of 613 Mitzvot תרי”ג מצוות (commandments / laws) of the whole Torah. Hence there is a relevant connection between the Scroll of Ruth and Chag Matan Torah.

*  The unique story of Ruth in the Scroll of Ruth is a touching illustration of the biblical Hebrew terms “Chessed חסד” (grace, mercy) and “Zedaka צדקה” (charity, justice). Reading and learning the message of the Scroll of Ruth suits perfectly the central ideas of Chag Matan Torah. In the Scroll of Ruth we read about the charity done by Boaz and how this Zedaka reached Ruth. Ruth herself personifies the implementation of “Zedaka” in life. When Ruth stood loyal by the widow Naomi and collected the rest of the harvest in the corner of the field also for her old mother in law Ruth did that without expecting a material reward for it. Ruth was not only unexpectedly rewarded with a noble husband, Boaz, but became the mother of a family out of which the people of Israel were later blessed with King David, and the wonderful Psalms he crafted. Ruth and David are also traditionally the tree out of which a “Netzer” will come out in future. In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 11, verse 1 – 2 we read “There a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse (Yishai), a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The spirit of the LORD will rest on him.”

*  A further special reason for reading the Scroll of Ruth during the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah is that in the Scroll of Ruth we learn the immense importance of carefully paying attention to the exact and accurate reading of the Torah text. Here is the essence of the lesson: In the Torah we read in Deuteronomy, chapter 23, verse 4 in the Hebrew original “Lo javo Amoni uMoavi biCehal HASHEM לא יבוא עמוני ומואבי בקהל השם”. In English we read (in the NASB) in Deuteronomy, chapter 23, verse 3 “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD”. The specialty of the Hebrew formulation lies in the fact, that from the Hebrew grammar point of view the word “Moavi מואבי” refers unmistakenly

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only to a man, since it is unequivocally masculine form. Based on this sentence of the Torah Boaz went to the Rabbi gathering of his city to ask for the permission for his wending with Ruth in spite of the fact that she was a Moabitess. He argued and the Rabbis and all the citizens unanimously agreed that the Torah restriction in Deuteronomy, chapter 23, verse 4 (in Hebrew) spoke only of Moabite men. Therefor the restriction did not apply on Moabite women (Moabitess). For such a restriction relating to female Moabitess the word in the Torah would have one more Hebrew letter (He ה) making the word Moaviah מואביה . Which would undoubtedly be a female Moabitess.

Thanks to this wonderful example of accurate reading Boaz and the Rabbis and his fellow citizen reached the correct interpretation of the Torah text. Thanks to these circumstances Boaz could marry Ruth and Israel were blessed with having later King David.

The Yiskor Memorial Prayer

After the Torah reading and the reading of the Haftara during the morning ceremony of the Shavuot Holiday in the Synagogue for which in orthodox Synagogues at least a Minyan, a gathering of at least 10 grown up men (over 13 years of age) is required, a special prayer in memoriam of the souls of relatives who passed away or were murdered in the Shoah takes place. Before this prayer begins, all children and persons whose parents are still alive, are requested to leave the Synagogue for the short while of the prayer. It is customary in the context of the prayer for the souls of these relatives to commit to donate after the holiday for Zedaka (a charitable purpose).

The special Yiskor Prayer takes place during the three pilgrimage holidays: at Shmini Azeret (ending the Sukkot Holiday, Tabernacles), at the 7 day of Chag haMazot (usually called Pesach even thou actually only the first day is called Pesach in the Torah in the book of Exodus), and at the Shavuot Holiday, which takes place 50 days after Pesach.

Why is it customary in Shavuot to eat no meat and focus on dairy products?

One of the most well known traditions of the Shavuot Holiday is that all meals are without meat. Practically people eat only milk products. Fish is considered neutral. Therefore it can be integrated in the Shavuot menu.

The original reason for this custom is related to the sin of the Golden Calve. Since the Shavuot Holiday celebrates the oral announcement of the Ten Commandments, the event of the sin of the Golden Calve is correlated to it. In order to prevent God from immediately remembering the Golden Calve at the time of this Holiday neither calve meat nor any kind of meat is included in the festive meals.

A further reason for avoiding any kind of meat in the Shavuot Holiday, which is also the Matan Torah Holiday, is to prevent the People of Israel from risking any mistake or any misunderstanding during the preparations of the holiday meals. For this purpose meat is completely avoided. In this way one may not commit any sin of falsely handling the requirements derived from the explicit Torah command “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus, 23, 19 – NIV).

In modern Israel the custom of avoiding meat food and focusing on milk products for all Holiday meals of the Shavuot Holiday became a marketing hype of sales of an incredible variety of milk products. Some humorists go as far as to ask whether the milk producers had good contacts with the rabbis defining the restrictions… Every exaggeration is mostly improper. One should remember that during the 40 years when the children of Israel went through the Sinai desert they did not have this dilemma because they were blessed with the daily Manna provided to them by the Lord. The actual task to strictly separate between meat and milk products started to become relevant only after the Israelites entered the Promised Land of Israel under Joshua (1273 bce).

Tikun Leil Shavuot (“The Reparation Night of Shavuot”)

Shavuot (Pentecost) is as we know at the same time the celebration called Chag Matan Torah, reminding of theAnnouncement of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. In the Torah in the book of Exodus, chap. 19, we read that Moses had to wake up the Israelites in the morning prior to the gigantic event of the Announcement of the Ten Commandments. Since this shows a scandalous lack of passionate excitement prior to this historical event, the people of Israel ever since are trying to make up for it. It became a central custom and tradition of the Matan Torah Holiday to spend the whole night at the beginning of the Holiday by reading and learning the Torah and the whole Bible until dawn. By this the people of Israel try not only to compensate for the inappropriate long sleep at that famous morning at Mount Sinai, but also to make sure that one is awake at sunrise.

The Hebrew name “Tikun Leil Shavuot” indicates that the Israelites are aware of the mistake and are actively making an effort to avoid repeating the mistake and to add to the sense of atonement through additional Bible study.

For the purpose of the night long study special books were compiled. In these books are elements / passages from all chapters of the Torah. (The five books of Moses). Special chapters like the Story of the Creation (Bereshit) and theTen Commandments are quoted at full length. Then all books of the Bible are represented by famous paragraphs from them. From some books complete chapters are quoted. For example the extraordinary and figurative description of the heavenly palace and the Throne of God written by Ezekiel.

Due to the fact that the date of the Shavuot Holiday is both the birthday of King David as well as the day he died, the full text of the scroll of Rut is read during the Shavuot night study. By this a tribute is paid both to David and to Rut and also everyone is reminded of the divine mercy of giving the Torah to Israel and the merciful behaviour of Rut toward Naomi and of Boaz towards Rut. This reading of the Scroll of Rut is a vivid reminder of the special idea of Jewish belief that all souls of the people of Israel of all generations as well as of all those persons who convert to Judaism were present at Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were announced.

During the first hours the persons present read each a chapter or a passage so that all are active (and do not fall asleep…) and no explanations and discussions take place at this stage. The idea is first of all to make sure that the group will manage to loudly read the elements from the whole Bible. Including the full text of the Scroll of Rut. This custom has a very special social aspect involved: by letting everyone just read, practically all participants are equal. The scholars and the more knowledgeable Bible students are not dominating the conversation. It is important as a motivation for everyone to join without hesitating because of minor experience in Bible studies.

The social integrative aspect becomes even more relevant in modern Israel, because many new immigrants came who sometimes have less experience in group Bible studies. It is very nice to observe how tolerant the group is, when a new immigrant – so called Ole Chadash – (for example from Russia or from Ethiopia) is reading a bit slower the unique and rare biblical words which are not usually used in the everyday Newspaper language.

Only if and when the whole compilation of the representative texts of all Bible books and the complete Scroll of Rut are read, then content discussions may take place. Of course the Rabbi and / or the participants may clarify short questions in between as long as the flow of the reading is not substantially delayed.

Many Synagogues arrange for the long night of the “Tikun” a big table around which the group gathering can sit like at the family table. Some families or groups of friends organize the same even not inside a synagogue. Food (of course no meat …) and drinks are provided free of charge. The culinary aspect has two main purposes: 1. To make sure that all remain awake…. and 2. Here again a social aspect serves to remind of the spirit of Zedaka (charity and justice) which is a central message of the scroll of Rut. So all poor people know that they may join the table and eat and drink as much as they choose. In this night it is irrelevant whether they are permanent Synagogue visitors. Everyone is equal at the Bible learning table and has equal access to food and drinks and can equally read from the Bible. This reading does not require the special melody knowledge, as is required by the Torah reading in the morning Torah readings on Monady, Thursdays and Sabbaths. Often at the beginning of such an evening some Rabbis may even skip mentioning who donated the food.

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