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A TRIBUTE TO PRESIDENT RICHARD M.

JOEL

Flowers and Trees in Shul on Shavuot
It was my deep honor to work in
President Richard M. Joel’s office for a
number of years and to see first-hand Rabbi Ezra Schwartz
his profound commitment and tireless
Rosh Yeshiva and Associate Director, RIETS
dedication to enhance so many aspects of
our Yeshiva, University and community. Rabbi, Mount Sinai Jewish Center, New York, NY
In honor of Shavuot I have chosen to
focus on our minhag of beautifying how and why this practice was met and the practice extends to homes
our homes and mekomot Torah on with controversy.1 as well as shuls. Moreover for Rama,
Shavuot. This practice highlights but the practice is based on matan Torah,
The earliest source of this practice is
one of President Joel’s achievements; his rather than the generic joy of yom
the Maharil:
spectacular beautification of our Yeshiva. tov. Perhaps placing greenery to
In addition to the many other aesthetic ‫ נוהגין להשטיח רצפת ב”ה בבשמים של‬commemorate maamad Har Sinai is
improvements to our Yeshiva’s campuses, .‫ עשבים ובשושנים לשמחת הרגל‬a fulfillment of the Torah prohibition
President Joel is responsible for the It is our custom to spread the floor of the against forgetting this formative
construction of our gorgeous new Glueck synagogue with fragrant spices and roses event.3
Beit Midrash, which has added significant in order to enhance the joy of the holiday.
This practice was further extended
beauty to our Yeshiva. He was not Sefer Maharil, Hilchot Shavuot
by Magen Avraham (494:5) to place
content, however, with only enhancing our It seems from a careful reading of the trees in shuls and homes to remind us
Yeshiva’s physical appearance. Through Maharil that the practice was to place that Shavuot is a time of judgment,
his sichot mussar and campaigns, he fragrant spices on the ground of the when we are judged regarding peirot
tirelessly combated the corrosive effect shul and this was a fulfillment of the hailan (fruit trees). Effectively Magen
of cynicism that too often plagues batei general mitzvah of simchat yom tov. Avraham is adding an additional
medrash. Effectively he beautified Although every yom tov mandates reason for the practice. Consequently,
our Yeshiva in the physical sense and simcha, the Gemara (Pesachim 68) for Magen Avraham, the practice
improved our culture as well. Both of these teaches us that Shavuot is supposed involved the placement of trees rather
constitute hiddur mitzvah. Maharsha to be more joyous than other festivals. than spices or grasses.
in Shabbat 133b explains that hiddur Hence the practice was limited to
mitzvah is a category that can be applied It is well known that the Vilna Gaon
Shavuot, and not other yamim tovim.2
to mitzvot bein adam lchaveiro as well (Gra)4 opposed this practice. Gra felt
as to mitzvot bein adam Lamakom. Rama’s citation of this minhag that since the non-Jews place display
Through his hard work, our Yeshiva is modifies it somewhat. Rama writes: trees during their holiday, our display
now a far more beautiful, upbeat and ‫ ונוהגין לשטוח עשבים בשבועות בב”ה‬of trees would constitute a prohibition
positive place. Thank you President Joel .‫ זכר לשמחת מתן תורה‬,‫ והבתים‬of chukot akum (following the ways
for this, and for so much more. Our practice is to spread grasses on of the idolaters). Many of the later
Shavuot in the synagogues and the seforim ponder if Gra’s opposition to
There is a widespread custom to
homes as a remembrance of the joy of the practice in fact is at odds with the
decorate our homes and shuls with
receiving the Torah. position of Rama.
trees and flowers on Shavuot. We will
discuss the variety of reasons for this Glosses of Rama, Orach Chaim Some suggest that there is no dispute.
minhag, and the consequent practical 494:3 They contend that a careful read of
implications in terms of the scope of According to Rama, the practice is Rama only supports the practice of
the practice. Finally, we will discuss to place grasses rather than spices, placing grass, while Gra opposed

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
the extension of Magen Avraham to for Pentecost are absent from many Based on this we can explain that
include trees.5 Although there is much of the later editions, which deleted Rama permitted placing trees in shul
merit to this argument, nonetheless the foreign terms in Chayei Adam. and at home since there are legitimate
many leading poskim including Aruch This deletion led to the mistaken logical reasons to do so. Gra, however,
Hashulchan (495:6) understood that impression based on our modern consistent with his position in YD
Gra opposed the placement of all experience that the festival addressed 178, forbids even activities that have a
forms of botany. by Gra was Christmas.8 logical basis.
Others suggest that there is no If Gra meant to oppose the practice of
dispute between Rama and Gra, and both trees and other greenery, and if Endnotes
their differences are due to historical the holiday Gra was concerned with
1 Much of the material cited comes from
considerations. It is generally assumed was Pentecost, then Rama and Gra Rabbi Gedalia Oberlander’s fine article in
that Gra opposed placement of trees would be in dispute. Ohr Yisrael volume 20 (5760) page 136-
because of the similarity between this 150. Rabbi Oberlander traces the practice
Perhaps we can trace this
practice and the Christmas tree that in great detail and offers a fair number of
disagreement back to a well-known other reasons for the practice. For the sake of
was introduced by Martin Luther machloket regarding chukot akum. In brevity, we will suffice with the broad general
(‫ )שר”י‬to replace nativity scenes, and Yore Deah 178:1, Rama paskens like overview presented.
subsequently came into widespread Maharik that the prohibition of chukot 2 In Rabbi Oberlander’s article note 14,
use in Protestant countries. Rama, akum only applies to practices that he connects this with another famous
who passed away in Catholic Poland originated among pagans and does comment of Maharil. Although for Maharil it
in 1572 less than thirty years after not have a good reason. However, is permitted to fast a taanit chalom (a fast for
Luther, may not have been aware of a practice that is based on a solid,
a troubling dream) on every other yom tov,
this practice. Gra, however, who lived on Shavuot one may not fast a taanit chalom.
readily comprehensible reason cannot Shavuot mandates an even greater level of joy
200 years later in Lithuania and was be forbidden. Effectively for Rama, than any other yom tov.
well aware of the practice, forbade it.6 the prohibition is only for chukim, 3 See Ramban Devarim 4:9 and Shichichat
However, a careful read of the original practices that are not understood.9 Lavin #2.
source in Chayei Adam indicates Consequently, it is permitted for 4 As cited by Chochmat Adam 89, Gra
that the non-Jewish holiday that doctors to wear special clothing forbade the practice of placing trees since the
concerned Gra was Pentecost rather to demonstrate their educational non-Jews display trees during their holiday.
than Christmas.7 An essential part of attainment, since the reason for this See also Chayei Adam 131. In Maaseh Rav
the observance of Pentecost involved practice is easily comprehensible. (195) Gra writes similarly that the practice
should be nullified since it is not a strict
decorating homes and churches with Gra (178:7), however, disagrees. obligation but only a minhag. Interestingly,
birches and other greenery. Chayei this paragraph was absent from a number of
According to Gra, even practices
Adam writes: the editions of Maaseh Rav. See 2009 edition
that are grounded in comprehensible note 106.
,‫הגר”א ביטל מנהג מלהעמיד אילנות בעצרת‬ reasons may be forbidden. His proof
‫משום שעכשיו הוא חוק העמים להעמיד‬ is from the Gemara in Sanhedrin 52b, 5 See Rabbi Oberlander, loc. cit. page 146 in
the name of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
‫אילנות בחג שלהם (שקורין “זאלאניע‬ where the tanna Rabbi Yehuda forbids
)”‫שווענטע” או “פינגשטן‬ carrying out the mitat beit din of hereg 6 This is the approach of the Sefer Halikutim
printed on the side of Maaseh Rav 2009
Gra nullified the custom to place trees on (capital punishment) with a sword, edition.
Shavuot because now it is the custom of since the idolaters use a sword to kill.
non-Jews to place trees on their holiday Gra maintains that there is a logical 7 I would like to thank Dashiell Ferguson for
alerting me to this point.
(which is called Zielone Świątki or reason to employ a sword; swords
Pfingsten). simply do a good, neat job of killing. 8 My brief survey of this matter shows
that all versions of Chayei Adam published
Chayei Adam 131:13 Even so, the tanna Rabbi Yehuda until 1960 contained the foreign language
wants to forbid the use of a sword. terms. Those who removed the terms may in
Chayei Adam identifies the non-
Apparently reason alone does not fact be in violation of Rabbenu Tam’s strict
Jewish festival he is referring to by its
suffice to conclude that an action will admonition not to amend the text in sefarim.
Polish name Zielone Świątki and its
not constitute chukot akum. 9 See Rashi Bamidbar 19:2.
German name Pfingsten. These terms

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777