Adorning the Shul with Greenery on Shavuos: Part 1
Festooning with Foliage
In many shuls around the world, Chag HaShavuos represents ‘going green’. I am not referring to becoming environmentally friendly, but green in a more literal sense. In honor of Shavuos, many shuls, such as Rav Breuer’s Kehal Adas Yeshurun (KAJ) in Washington Heights, New York, and Shomrei HaChomos in Ramot, Yerushalayim (Rabbi Fuch’s shul), receive entire forest-like makeovers. With branches forming a Chuppah-like canopy over the bimah, trees set up next to the Aron Kodesh, and greenery abounding, many entire shuls are festively festooned for Zman Mattan Torah.
Yet, we find, other shuls do perform some adorning, but in a much more minimalist manner, using only flowers and grasses. And, of course, there are shuls where no special Shavuos decorating is done at all. While there are many variations on this theme, and each Kehillah and shul follows its own traditions, this article sets out to explore the main prevailing minhagim customary throughout Klal Yisrael in relation to this inyan, as well as their halachic background.
Minhag Replicating Mattan Torah
The great codifier of Ashkenazic halachah, Rav Moshe Isserlis, better known as the Rema, in Hilchos Shavuos (Orach Chaim 494: 3) writes that “V’nohagin lishtoach asavim b’Shavuos B’Beis Haknesses V’habatim zeicher l’simchas Mattan Torah”, that ‘the custom is to spread grass(es) on Shavuous in the shuls and in houses, as a remembrance to the joy of Mattan Torah’. Mentioned as the tradition of several early Ashkenazic authorities, including the Maharil and Terumas Hadeshen, as well as the Kehillah of Worms, the Rema codified this minhag of greenery on Shavuos as proper practice.
There are several rationales given by our luminaries to explain the connection between our adornment of a shul for Shavuos and the actual day of Mattan Torah - history’s very first Shavuos - including:
- The Levush explains that since at the time of Mattan Torah, the pasuk specified (Shemos Ch. 19: 8) that the cattle and sheep were prohibited to graze in the area, implying that Har Sinai (which was in a desert) became surrounded by grass at that time. Therefore as a Zecher l’Mattan Torah, we do the same.
The Maharil, which seemingly is the earliest mention of this minhag, states that the custom is to festoon the shuls specifically using fragrant grasses and flowers. Several sefarim source this to the Gemara Shabbos (88b) that elucidates the pasuk in Shir Hashirim (Ch. 5: 13) ‘lechayav k’arugas habosem… sifsosav shoshanim’, ‘your cheeks are akin to bundles of spices… your lips like flowers’, to be referring to Mattan Torah. Every dibbur that Hashem spoke filled the world with an ethereal fragrance. Therefore, in commemoration, we spread aromatic flowers on Shavuos.
- The Bnei Yisaschar cites a mashal of the Midrash Rabbah about a king in his orchard to explain that Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai were “K’Shoshana Bein Hachochim, akin to a rose among thorns”(Shir Hashirim Ch 2: 2), to mean that in the merit of Bnei Yisrael’s united and unequivocal declaration of accepting the Torah: ‘Naaseh V’Nishma, we will do and we will hear’, the world was saved. Therefore, to symbolize this, on Zman Mattan Torah we adorn our shuls with flowers.
Interestingly, the Chida cites an early, albeit infamous, source that this minhag originates in antiquity with none other than the vile and villainous genocidal madman, evil Amalakite, and overall arch-enemy of the Jews, Haman HaRasha. According to the Targum Sheini on Megillas Esther, during Haman’s diatribe to king Achashveirosh haranguingKlal Yisrael, he regaled him with all the ‘bizarre’ customs of the Jews, one of which was the spreading and gathering of apples and flowers on the roofs of their shuls on Shavuos. Although we generally do not learn halachah from Agaddah, on the other hand, the Noda B’Yehuda explains that we still can and do glean Minhag Yisrael. Accordingly, and although performed in various communities with variations, nonetheless, we clearly see that this Shavuos minhag has early origins.
Trees Are Terrific
When discussing this minhag, the Magen Avraham adds another element: Placement of trees in the shuls, to commemorate the fact that Shavuos is Rosh Hashanah for Peiros Ha’Ilan, tree fruits (Gemara Rosh Hashanah 16a). Several later eminent authorities, including the Elyah Rabbah, Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Chavos Yair, Chok Yaakov, Ba’er Heitiv, Merkeves HaMishnah, and Rav Yaakov Emden zt”l, follow his precedent, citing this minhag as well. Consequently, in addition to the festooning of grasses / flowers, many Kehillos add trees, giving their shuls a full forest effect.
The Minchas Elazar of Munkacz, in his sefer Shaar Yissachar, cites an allusion to this minhag from the Zohar Hakadosh inParshas Emor. Quoting the pesukim in Parshas Pinchas discussing the Yom Tov of Shavuos (Bamidbar Ch. 28: 26), the Zohar writes that Rav Shimon expounded on the pasuk of ‘Az Yeranenu Atzei HaYaar Milifnei Hashem’, ‘the trees of the forest rejoiced before Hashem’ (Divrei HaYamim I Ch. 16: 33; which we all know from reciting ‘Hodu’ daily), and then goes on to explain the Kabbalistic secrets of trees (‘Sod Ha’Ilan V’Atzei Chaim’). Hence, we see the connection between trees and Shavuos.
It is reported anecdotally (although the facts are somewhat disputed) that the Chasam Sofer was very makpid on this minhag, and one year when the gabbai did not set up the trees in the shul for Shavuos, he did not live out the year. Other reports state that, instead, his house burned down. Whichever way the story actually occurred, we may discern that the Chasam Sofer indeed placed trees in his shul in addition to the greenery of Shavuos.
On the other hand, we find that the Vilna Gaon forcefully and vociferously opposed this minhag, roundly condemning its practice. And according to his Talmid - Chaver, Rav Avraham Danzig zt”l, in both of his essential and renowned halacha sefarim, Chayei Adam on Orach Chaim and Chochmas Adam on Yoreh Deah,as well assefer Maaseh Rav, which details the Gaon’s personal hanhagos, the Gr”a actually and actively was ‘mevattel’ (abolished) this minhag from Klal Yisrael.
His reasons for doing so were that in his day (and nowadays as well) the non-Jews set up trees in their houses of worship as part of their holiday service and festivities. The Gr”a maintained that if we continue to do so as well, it would be violating a basic biblical tenet of “Chukos HaGoyim”, and is therefore essentially forbidden. But to properly understand this, some background is required.
To be continued…
The author wishes to acknowledge Rabbi Gedalyah Oberlander’s excellent ma’amar on topic in Kovetz Ohr Yisrael (vol. 20; Sivan 5760).
This article was written l’zechus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol yotzei chalatzeha for a yeshua teikif umiyad.
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U' Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. He also currently writes a contemporary halacha column for the Ohr Somayach website titled “Insights Into Halacha”. http://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/
 For example, in some Kehillos, aromatic plants are passed around, while other shuls decorate the Sifrei Torah. Some put branches on the wall, while others on the Bimah, and others layer the floor in a ‘carpet’ of grass. Some place pictures of flowers on windows and others hang flowers in glasses from the ceiling.Still others do some sort of flower decorating at home. Some even throw flowers as the Torah passes by. These remarkable minhagim are all variations of the main custom of festooning with greenery for Shavuos. Many of these diverse minhagim are mentioned by the Kaf Hachaim (Orach Chaim 494: 53 - 59).
 See, for example, Minhagei Maharil (Hilchos Shavuos 20, pg. 160), The Hagahos on Rav Yitzchak Isaac of Tirna [Tyrnau]’s Sefer Haminhagim (Minhagei Chodesh Sivan 49), Leket Yosher (Minhagim of the Terumas Hadeshen; pg. 103), Rav Binyomin Halevi’s Machzor Maagalei Tzedek (pg. 87), Minhagos Varmiza [Worms] (pg. 255), Minhagim D’K”K Varmisha [Worms] (vol. 1: 102, pg.110), Rav Yosef Yuspa Haan of Frankfurt’s Yosef Ometz (851), Rav Yehuda Aryeh of Modena’s ‘Shulchan Aruch’ (pg. 67), and Shnei Luchos Habris (Ner Mitzvah 7).
 Levush (Orach Chaim 494: 1). This reason is also given by Rav Yaakov Emden in his Siddur Beis Yaakov (vol. 2, pg. 148: 2), and cited briefly by the Mishnah Berurah (ad loc. 10).
 See the Shevet Mussar’s Midrash Talpiyos (vol. 2 pg. 457, erech ‘dudaim’), Lekutei Chaver Ben Chaim (vol. 2, pg. 34, Lekutei Orach Chaim 494), Rav Chaim Pala’gi’s Ruach Chaim (Orach Chaim 494: 4) and Moed L’chol Chai (8: 33), as well as the controversial Chemdas Hayamim (Hilchos Chag HaShavuos Ch. 3, pg. 105, 3rd column). The Midrash Talpiyos adds an additional interesting reason based on the Alshich’s explanation (Parshas Vayetzei Ch. 30: 14) that Reuven found the ‘Dudaim’ ‘B’ymei Ktzir Chittim’ to be referring to Erev Shavuos. The Ramban (ad loc.) cites several definitions of what the ‘Dudaim’ might be, including a fragrant flower and fertilely drug. Accordingly, this means that Leah conceived Yissachar, the greatest Talmid Chacham of the Shevatim, on Shavuos night. To allude to this we festoon the shuls with fragrant flowers on Shavuos, Zman Mattan Torah. An alternate, but similar approach is given in the Pardes Yosef (Shemos Ch. 2: end 3) citing the Maharam Bennet, as well as in the Sfas Emes (on Megillas Rus, Lekutei Yehuda, Inyanei Shavuos), citing the Chiddushei HaRim. Since we know Moshe Rabbeinu was born on the seventh of Adar and was hidden at home for three months, before he was hidden in the reeds (a type of grass) on the banks of the Nile River, this means that he was actually saved by Basya on Shavuos. As Moshe was the leader through whom we received the Torah, we commemorate this by spreading grasses on Zman Mattan Torah [although according to this understanding they do not necessarily need to be fragrant]. Some make that same cheshbon in reverse, that if Moshe Rabbeinu was born on Zayin Adar, then nine months prior he must have been conceived on Shavuos. Rav Yitzchak Nissim Pala’gi (Yefeh L’Lev vol. 2, 494: 7) adds that Rashi explains the pasuk in Tehillim (45: 1) ‘Lamnatzeach al Shoshanim’, to be referring to Talmidei Chachamim. As such, on Shavuos, the Yom Tov of Talmidei Chachamim (see Pesachim 68b as to Rav Yosi’s feast on Shavuos, ‘ee lo hai yoma d’ka garam,kamaYosef eeka b’shuka’), we honor Talmidei Chachamim in this manner. The She’aris Moshe (Moadim U’Zmanim, Shavuos s.v. taam eisev) writes simply that ‘eisev’, grass, stands for the three names of Shavuos - Atzeres, Shavuos, and Yom HaB ikkurim.
 Bnei Yisaschar (Ma’amrei Chodesh Sivan, Ma’amar 4: 7 & 8) citing Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra, Parshas Acharei Mos 23: 3 s.v. R’ Azarya).
 Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 494: 6). He cites it as ‘Aggadah’.
 Targum Sheini on Megillas Esther (Ch. 3: 8), according to Rav Mordechai Ventura’s Passhegen Haksav translation (from 5490; ad loc.). However, it must be noted that quite intriguingly, the word ‘flowers’ does not seem to be in the original Targum Sheini, nor in the other translations, commentaries, or similar Midrashim.
 See Yerushalmi Peah (Ch. 2, Halacha 4), Rabbeinu Tam’s Sefer Hayashar (Teshuvos 45: 3), Rashbam (Bava Basra 130b, end s.v. ad sheyomru), Shu”t HaRashba (335), Shach (Choshen Mishpat 81: 56), Pri Chodosh (Orach Chaim 128: 20), Tosafos Yom Tov (Brachos Ch. 5, Mishnah 4), Shu”t Noda B’Yehuda (Tinyana Yoreh Deah 161), Shu”t Ba’er Yaakov (Even Ha’ezer 199), Shu”t Chaim Sha’al (vol. 1: 92),Machazik Bracha (Orach Chaim, Kuntress Acharon 51), Shu”t Maharsham (vol. 1: 163 s.v. hinei), Sdei Chemed (Maareches Alef, Klal 95 - 96, and Pe’as Hasadeh,Klal 39), Shu”t Emek Hateshuvah (vol. 2: 1 s.v. v’od), Shu”t Mishnah Halachos (vol. 9: 319 s.v. vhanlfa”d and u’ma”sh) and Shu”t Yechaveh Daas vol. 4: 33). Most authorities maintain that one may learn a halachah from Aggadah if it does not contradict any other Gemara or Halacha. See next footnote.
 See Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 33b) who gleans a different limud from Haman, and Shu”t Noda B’Yehuda (ibid. s.v. umah sheratzah) who makes this distinction, that all would agree regarding learning minhagim, that we may indeed do so from Aggadah.
 See Rabbi Gedalyah Oberlander’s excellent extensive ma’amar on topic in Kovetz Ohr Yisroel (vol. 20, Sivan 5760), which details variations of this minhag in many communities, in deference to the different rationales given for the minhag.
 Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 494: 5 s.v. nohagin).
 Including the Elyah Rabbah (Orach Chaim 494: 12), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (ad loc. 14 and 15), the Chavos Yair’s Mekor Chaim (ad loc.), Chok Yaakov (ad loc. 7), Shulchan Shlomo (ad loc. 6), Ba’er Heitiv (ad loc. 7), the Merkeves HaMishnah’s Shulchan Tamid (vol. 2, Pesach Ch. 19: 4, pg. 105), and Rav Yaakov Emden in his Siddur Beis Yaakov (vol. 2, pg. 148: 3). Interestingly, many of them do not cite the last words of the Magen Avraham ‘vayispalelu aleihem’, that we should also daven for the trees.
 Shaar Yissachar (Maamar Chag HaBikkurim 48), based on the Zohar (Parshas Emor, vol. 3 pg. 96a). Interestingly, the Munkaczer minhag is not to festoon with grass or trees, even though their Rebbe defends the minhag. See also Darkei Chaim V’Shalom (737).
 We also recite the similar ‘Az Yeranenu Kol Atzei Yaar,Milifnei Hashem’, ‘all of the trees of the forest will rejoice, before Hashem’ (Tehillim 96: 12 and 13) weekly in Kabbolas Shabbos. TheNefesh Yehuda (Rav Moshe Frankfurt, Dayan of Amsterdam), in his commentary on the Menoras Hamaor (Chelek Shishi, B’Chag HaSukkos Ch. 3: 148), explains the subtle nuance and linguistic differences between the two sources. “Shekol Yeranenu B’eis HaGeulah”, that the pesukim from Tehillim are referring to the time of Redemption, when all will rejoice.
 As reported in Sefer Chut Hameshulash (pg. 128). See also sefer Tzena Malei Sifra (pg. 184; cited in Rabbi Oberlanders ma’amar ibid. footnote 65) who records the alternate ending of the story. The Chasam Sofer himself expounded on the importance of this minhag as well - see Drashos Chasam Sofer (vol. 2, pg. 285, 3rd column; newer version vol. 2 pg. 576, Drashos L’Shavuos 5562 s.v. v’asisah).
 Chayei Adam (vol. 2, 131: 13), Chochmas Adam (89: end 1), andMaaseh Rav (195).
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!