Shavuot: Flowers and Greenery

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by R. Ari Enkin

There is a widespread1 custom to decorate the home2 and synagogue with plants, flowers, and other greenery in honor of Shavuot.3 The Vilna Gaon, however, opposed the custom due to its similarity to a Christian holiday practice.4 Some say that the Vilna Gaon only opposed the use of trees as part of the Shavuot decorations, but permitted the use of all other flowers and greenery. Most authorities actually encourage decorating the home and synagogue specifically with trees, even nowadays.5
There are many reasons cited for the custom of decorating with flowers and greenery in honor of Shavuot. Although the Torah does not say so explicitly, we know that Shavuot is the day on which the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.6 When the Torah was given, Mount Sinai and the surrounding desert sprouted trees and grass in honor of the occasion.7 Indeed, the Torah may be alluding to the fresh greenery that sprouted all around Mount Sinai when we read how God told Moshe to make sure that the animals don’t graze anywhere near the mountain.8
It seems that the original Shavuot-decorating custom may have been to simply spread grass in the home and synagogue. Other sources claim that the original custom was to decorate the home and synagogue with roses.9 This is based on the verse “k’shoshana bein hachochim”10 which calls the Jewish people “a rose among thorns.”11 Some derive the custom of decorating with roses from a play on words in the Book of Esther which can be poetically interpreted as “the Torah was given among roses.”12 It is interesting to note that Italian Jews refer to Shavuot as “Pasqua di Rose,” the Pesach of Roses.
Another reason for the greenery on Shavuot is to remind us that on Shavuot the trees and other fruit producing plants are judged regarding the quantity and quality of the fruits that they will produce in the coming year.13 Similarly, Shavuot is also referred to as “Chag Habikkurim,” the holiday of the offering of the first fruits. Decorating our surroundings with trees and other plants recalls this theme. It is also noted that the pleasant fragrance of roses and plants are appropriate to the distinctiveness of the day and puts one in a festive mood of “simchat haregel.”14 We decorate with fragrant plants and greenery in order to recall the teaching that a pleasant smell filled the world when the Torah was given. The Midrash Talpiot says that Reuven went out to the fields on Erev Shavuot to collect flowers, which ultimately led to the birth of Yisachar who excelled in Torah study.15 It is said that Rebbe Nachman would run through the green fields near his home before the morning service on Shavuot.16
The custom also has a Purim connection. We are told that among the complaints that Haman brought against the Jews to Achashverosh (in the hopes of receiving the necessary permits to murder them) was the Jewish custom of spreading grass in the synagogue on Shavuot. Haman claimed that this was intended to remind the Jews that they are to observe the laws of the Torah, and not the laws of Achashverosh.17
A final reason for the custom relates to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was born on the 7th of Adar and was hidden for three months. When it was no longer possible to hide him, he was placed in a basket to float on the Nile in the hopes that he would be found and adopted by a loving and compassionate person. The day that Moshe was set afloat “among the reeds” was the day that became Shavuot eighty years later.18

  1. It is interesting to note that the custom of decorating with greenery is not mentioned by Rav Yosef Karo in his Shulchan Aruch, and as such, the practice is not as widespread in Sephardic communities.  

  2. See Leket Yosher, Vol. 1 p. 150. 

  3. Rema, OC 494:3; Levush 494:1; Magen Avraham 494:5; Mishna Berura 494:9. 

  4. Maaseh Rav; Chayei Adam 131:13; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 494:6; Mishna Berura 494:10. 

  5. Magen Avraham 494. See also Yechave Daat 4:33; Yabia Omer 3:24. 

  6. Shabbat 86b; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 494:2. 

  7. See Mishna Berura 494:10. 

  8. Shemot 34:3 Levush 494. 

  9. Maharil, Shavuot; Bnei Yissaschar, Ma’amarei Chodesh Sivan 4. 

  10. Shir Hashirim 2:2. 

  11. See also The Book of Our Heritage, Sivan, p.73. 

  12. Esther 3:15. 

  13. Rosh Hashana 16aMagen Avraham 494:5. 

  14. Maharil, Minhagim Shavuot; Kaf Hachaim, OC 494:54 

  15. Bereishit 30. 

  16. Cited here: 

  17. Birkei Yosef, OC 494. 

  18. Milim Chadetin, cited in the Book of Our Heritage, Sivan p. 73. 

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot.

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