Coming Up Roses...and Grasses

Friday, May 27, 2022

Why do we decorate our synagogues and homes with flowers for Shavuot? Is it just a happy coincidence that springtime flowers are blooming and it would be convenient to use them as decoration?

1. The Maharil, Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, lived in the 14th-15th centuries in Germany. He was a student of Rabbi Abraham Klausner and a contemporary of Isaac Tyrnau. Maharil’s book on religious rites and observances was one of the most noted and published works of his day and is often quoted in the later Shulhan Arukh and Rama. In this book of customs, the Maharil simply states “It is customary to lay on the synagogue floor fragrant grasses and lilies for Simhat Regel (holiday celebration).”

Clearly, this is not a robust explanation, though it does seem fairly logical that pretty and nice smelling things will enhance the holiday. Over the next several centuries, the explanations for the custom become more homiletic, poetic, and mystical. Below is the first edition of the Maharil from 1556, Sabbioneta.

2. Just a century or so later, Rabbi Moshe Alshich wrote his commentary on the Torah (Torat Moshe, Belvedere, 1593). In the section on Genesis, the Alshich discuses the story of Reuven going into the fields during the time of the “wheat harvest,” where he finds dudaim, mandrake flowers (30:14). He gives them to his mother, Leah, who then sells them to Rachel – the price of this aphrodisiac is a night with Jacob. The Alshich explains that this specific night was Shavuot and the child conceived of that union was Issachar (whose name reflects the transaction between the wives). The Alshich goes on to explain that this is very fitting, as Issachar, is the one whose ‘portion’ is Torah. He is the fifth son, like there are five books of the Torah. In the Midrash there are many verses used homiletically to portray the tribe of Issachar as the scholars of Israel.

Commentators (eg. Midrash Talpiot, 17-18th c.) explain that the custom for decorating the synagogue with flowers derives from the mandrake flowers Reuven collected which resulted in the conception of Issachar, the founder of the scholarly tribe. We celebrate those who are deeply bound to the Torah with flowers on the night the Torah was given at Sinai, which is also the night of Issachar’s conception.

3. Our next explanation is also from the 16th century. Verse 34:3 in Exodus states “…neither sheep nor cattle may graze at the foot of this mountain.” The mountain in question of course, is Har Sinai, and its location is the Sinai desert. What grazing was there for the livestock in the desert? The Levush, Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, infers that grass must have (miraculously) grown on Mount Sinai, and this is the source for the custom to decorate homes and synagogues in celebration of Matan Torah (receiving the Torah).

R’ Yaffe, the Levush, was a rabbi in the 16th-17th centuries in Bohemia and Poland. He served in many prestigious positions, including chief rabbi of Prague, head of the Council of the Four Lands, and the head of various yeshivot. The title of his chief work of Jewish law and custom, the Levush, is an allusion to the verse in Esther “And Mordechai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes (“levush”) of blue and white, and with a great crown, of gold, and with a garment of fine linen and purple. Like a tailored garment, R’ Mordechai (note his name!) Yaffe hoped his 10 volume Levush would fit on every Jew by providing content that was easy to read and would enrich their lives with meaning.

4. Moving along through the history of Jewish commentators, Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, an early 17th century rabbi from Poland, was also known by his most studied work, the Magen Avraham. Like the Levush, the Magen Avraham is organized according to R’ Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh. And also like the Levush, he incorporates reasons for customs, and often includes Kabbalistic customs from Safed. The Magen Avraham writes that it appears to him that the custom to place trees in the synagogue is to recall that fruit from trees are judged on that day and the congregants will be reminded to pray for them. This explanation references the Mishna in Rosh Hashana (1:2) “At four times of the year the world is judged: On Passover judgment is passed concerning grain; on Shavuot concerning fruits that grow on a tree, on Rosh HaShana, all creatures pass before Him like sheep … and on the festival of Sukkot they are judged concerning water, i.e., the rainfall of the coming year.”

When we see the flowering and fruiting trees in the synagogue, we are reminded to pray on that auspicious day for a bountiful orchard harvest. Included here is the first printing of the Magene Erets, the work of Rabbi Gombiner printed by his son after his death. It was printed by the famous Shabbethai Bass in Dyhernfurth in 1692, where he had set up his printing business to meet the scholarly needs of the German Jews.

5. The Midrash Talpiot was written by Elijah Ben Solomon Abraham Ha-Kohen of Smyrna, Turkey. He compiled many works, often sermons of significant fierceness advocating for an ascetic lifestyle and with a focus on the grim fate that awaits those who sin. His works of midrash on bible, prayer, psalms, etc., include the Midrash Talpiot. It is a compilation of teachings from over 300 earlier works, and was first published in Smyrna in 1736, a few years after the rabbi’s death.

The Midrash Talpiot provides our fifth explanation of the flowery custom. The Talmud in Shabbat (88b) cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who interprets the verse “His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as banks of sweet herbs, his lips are lilies dripping with flowing myrrh” (Song of Songs 5:13) as follows, “From each and every utterance (of the ten commandments) that emerged from His cheeks, i.e., the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the entire world was filled with fragrant spices.” Rabbi Elijah continues in his Midrash Talpiot that we place fragrant flowers and grasses in the synagogue to remind us of God’s fragrant speech during the giving of the Torah.

6. Our next 18th century explanation takes us to the Hida (Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azoulai), though he alludes to a midrash with the earliest record of this custom and its origin. The Targum Sheni is a commentary on the book of Esther which scholars date from anywhere from the 4th to 11th centuries. If we take it at its latest possible date, that is still several centuries before the Maharil’s explanation (from our first explanation) in the 15th century. The Targum Sheni expounds upon the passage where Haman lobbies Ahasvereus to do away with the unnamed nation whose “laws are different from those of any other people” (3:8). The Midrash portrays Haman going through the calendar year, citing the Jews’ various weird customs, and has this to say about Sivan’s holiday: “They come to their houses of worship and say Shema and pray and read from their Torah and prophets…They stand on the roof of the synagogue and scatter lilies and apples and gather them, saying, ‘so too will God collect us from among the nations’ and they say ‘this the day the Torah was given to our forefathers on Mount Sinai’.”

The Hida wrote a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh called the Birke Yosef in 1774. In this work, the Hida references the Targum Sheni and writes “There is support for the custom [to spread grasses] from the aggadah that says that Haman told Ahasvereus that the custom of the Jews is to spread grasses.” While Jewish law is not derived from aggadic material, customs may be established this way.

7. The seventh reason for decorating our homes and synagogues with flowers on Shavuot is provided by Rabbi Hayim Palachi. R’ Palachi was the chief Rabbi of Smyrna, Turkey, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, about a hundred years after Rabbi Elijah of the Midrash Talpiot (quoted in reason #5). He was a prolific writer, and his book Moed LeKol Hai (Time for Every Creature) is his book about the laws of the festivals.

There he writes “Regarding the custom to scatter grasses, these are fragrant grasses, like a species of Shoshan (lily).” His first explanation goes on to echo that of the Midrash Talpiot about God’s fragrant speech. Then he writes “and a hint for this [custom] is seen from the verse ‘and the decree was given to Shushan the capital’ (Esther 8:14)”.The context for this verse in the Esther story is that Ahasvereus finally gave the Jews permission to take up arms against those who came to fight them, and this decree (which foiled Haman’s original plan) was sent out among all the provinces of Ahasvereus’s rule. Incidentally, this is verse is followed by one we quoted earlier, that Mordechai then joyously leaves the king’s presence in the “levush malchut” (royal attire). The Rabbinic subtext to this piece of the Purim story explains that while the Israelites accepted the written Torah on Mount Sinai, it wasn’t until the Purim story when they accepted the oral tradition, i.e. the Rabbinic tradition (see Shabbat 88b). The “decrees” written in the verse in Esther as “da’at” refer midrashically to this second meaning and further acceptance of the Torah. Rabbi Palachi therefore reads this verse as “The Torah was given with lilies” a play on both the type of law/decree and Shushan/shoshan (the city vs. the flower).

8. In our second reason above we discussed the view of the Alshich that Issachar was conceived on Shavuot and his tribe is strongly associated with Torah scholarship. This idea is referenced in Divre HaYamim (Chronicles 12:33) when the tribe is lauded for their men who know the signs of the times and who have 200 chiefs. In various Talmud passages and other commentaries, the tribe of Issachar is highlighted as those who champion Torah study and have a specific insight related to the Jewish calendar and setting of leap years. The 200 chiefs are assumed to be members of the Sanhedrin.

When Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech asked his mentor, the Chozeh of Lublin, why he felt a special affinity to Chanukah, he was told that he descends from the tribe of Issachar, whose light of Torah fills the world. Rabbi Shapiro went on to name his work about the Jewish holidays of the calendar year “Bene Yissakhar” (Sons of Issachar). In this book, the author provides explanation #8 for the custom to decorate our homes with flowers. He shares a parable from Vayikra Rabba of a king who returns to his garden after time abroad and finds it covered in weeds and thorns. He is ready to raze the whole thing to the ground when he finds a single shoshan (bloom) of a rose. He decides to keep the garden for the sake of this flower. So too, the world and its chaos is only preserved by God for the sake of the Torah, the flower, which the Jewish people tend. ㅤ Pictured here is the first printing of the Bene Yissakhar from 1850, 10 years after R’ Shapiro’s passing.

9. The ninth explanation for the custom of decorating with flowers on Shavuot comes from R’ Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first rebbe of the Gur Hasidic dynasty(1799-1866). While like other Hasidic leaders, he emphasized spirituality and building closeness between Jews, R’ Yitzchak stood out as an exceptional scholarly mind who wrote works that even impressed and delighted the “misnagdim” who opposed Hassidism. His writings on the Talmud, Hiddushei HaRIM (novella of Rabbi Issaac Meir) are still studied widely.

In his insights on the bible and holidays, R’ Yizchak writes “It is customary to spread grasses on Shavuot: It would seem the reason is because it is written that Our Teacher Moshe (A”H) was born on the 7th of Adar, and the verse (Exodus 2:2) says ‘[His mother] hid him for 3 months and then put him in the reeds’ this was on Shavuot, and in remembrance of that miracle, we spread grasses.” In other words, since Moshe, the eventual conduit of the Ten Commandments and Torah was miraculously saved and protected by the reeds on the day that would later become “Shavuot”, we pay homage God’s salvation with those helpful reeds by spreading grasses around the synagogue.

10. Since this day commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments, a tenth reason will be supplied here. It is not found in any of the early works of Jewish and law and custom, though it is mentioned in a near obvious state of fact in the book Ziv Haminhagim by Rabbi Yehuda Dov Singer in 1965. There he notes that since Shavuot is the holiday of the Bikkurim, first fruits, it would be fitting to decorate using vegetation. He paraphrases the Mishna, pictured below, that describes the procession of the Israelite pilgrims to Jerusalem, following their oxen festooned with olive leaf crowns and with their fruit baskets decorated with grasses and branches. This edition of the Mishna was printed in the Jerusalem Talmud from Venice, 1522.

We hope you enjoyed this series on Shavuot and have a wonderful and verdant holiday!


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