ILLUSTRATIONS: Water festivals in various cultures: (1) Armenian Vartavar;
(2) Polish Shimgus Dyngus

Shavuot lacks the full texture of customs distinguishing its two sister Regalim (Major Festivals), Pesach and Sukkot. Even so, Shavuot has its share of customs. A look at them will show us how Jewish people, in their various lands of dispersion, have blended traditions from their own past and usages from neighboring cultures to create a distinctive religious practice.

The Ashkenazic tradition is familiar to most of the readers of this column. Among Jews of that heritage, three customs connected with Shavuot are prevalent:

  • Staying up all night to learn Torah on the first night of Shavuot
  • Spreading greens and flowers in the synagogue on Shavuot
  • Eating Dairy Meals on Shavuot (Source: OU website).

But what if your grandmother was from the Balkans, rather than Belarus? Or the Mediterranean rather than Minsk? We ought not to be surprised to learn that other customs prevailed in our communities situated in other parts of the world:

Rabbi Michael Molho painted a picture of his native Jewish community, in Saloniki, Greece, celebrating Shavuot with its own ethnic cuisine:

  • “They would pray and spend the night of the festival in holy readings and songs of joy. They would then arrange to spend some time outside the city, in the middle of green fields under a blue sky. Very early, they would leave the city via one of the gates in the city walls, taking with them a basket full of provisions: cheese pies, hard-boiled eggs, mutton with peas, various salads and above all, the famous sotlach, prepared with goats milk and well-cooked so that the cream pudding takes on a light coffee color and the surface is full of wrinkles like the cheeks of an elderly lady…Naturally there was no shortage of raki.” (Traditions and Customs of the Sephardic Jews of Salonica)

The Jewish custom that truly intrigues me comes from Morocco:

“All, young and old, pour water upon each other… paying no attention to the fact that holiday clothes are being worn. Pitcher upon pitcher of water is thus poured, especially in the late afternoon.” (Source: Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals, citing Jacob Toledano, Ner Ha-Ma’arav.)

We are not the only people to celebrate holidays by dousing each other, sometimes strangers, sometimes specifically members of the opposite sex, with water. Two other folk customs come immediately to mind, and I would not be surprised to know that there are many other parallels, as well. In Poland, the day after Easter Sunday is celebrated as Shmigus Dyngus, also known as “Wet Monday”. The Christian explanation is that on that day, in 966, Miesko I, Duke of Polans and first king of united Poland, embraced the Christian faith and was baptized—hence the association with water. The roots of the holiday are most likely older, though, relating to the ancient Slavic beliefs in a “Corn Mother Goddess”. The peasants would fashion a doll from the harvested grain, ceremonially wet it in water, and hold it over the winter, to plant it in the Spring as a magical ritual to encourage the growth of the grain.

Further South and East, and perhaps closer to the Ancient Near Eastern matrix from which Judaism, too, emerged, we see this tradition in Armenia. The summertime festival of Vartavar, taking place 14 weeks after Armenian Orthodox Easter, is still celebrated in Armenia as a time of water play. It was Christianized over time, but its origin was a festival in honor of the goddess Astghik. She was a local variation of the goddess Aphrodite, in charge of fertility, love--- and water.

The Armenian version of the custom calls to mind the ancient myth of ‘Inana and Tammuz. Tammuz, after whom the Hebrew summer month is named, was the shepherd god. He died in June, when the grass would dry up in the arid, early summer heat. The goddess ‘Inana, his wife and queen, would make a hazardous trip down to the infernal regions, where her jealous sister, the Queen of the Underworld, Eresh-ki-gal, killed her. But the wise sky god brought her back to life, by sprinkling on her the Waters of Resurrection. Perhaps this ancient notion lies behind the Easter story of Christianity? Clearly, water has the power to vivify the dormant seed. Its symbolic power to wrest life from death is no great stretch of the imagination.

The Moroccan-Jewish custom is presented without this kind of pagan coloring, although the respective roles of borrowing and adaptation are visible. The Patriarch Jacob blesses his grandchildren by expressing the prayer that they will be as numerous as the fish of the ocean. Following that metaphor, our tradition compares Torah to water, the medium in which we survive. By extension, the water-custom of Shavuot, itself the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, closes the circle neatly.

In both Polish and Armenian cultures, the once-pagan and then-Christian coloring of these days has given way to a secular celebration. Thinking of my summer days working in New York City, seeing neighborhood youths frolicking in the water spraying forth from hydrants, I have no difficulty in accepting that a custom of water play will easily cross cultural borders. Perhaps in Israel today, the semi-assimilated grandchildren of the Moroccan Jewish immigrants of the 1950’s are looking forward to a day of cooling off, and perhaps also a day of flirting?

A word of caution: you don’t want to douse someone unfamiliar with the custom! But I would like to suggest that in the world of the Jewish youth group, this is a holiday custom ripe for revival… and then, once you have dried off, you can switch gears and share a nice slice of cheesecake.

Sei Gesund!

Rabbi Michael Panitz