For centuries, synagogues were decorated with greenery (and Torah scrolls were even adorned with fresh roses) to celebrate the blossoming of springtime. The practice lasted until Jewish communities became self conscious that the practice was too similar to the presence of greenery in churches on Palm Sunday.
Eastern European Jewish communities eventually removed their actual greenery and decorated instead with Shavuot-inspired paper cuts called shavuoslech (little Shavuots) and raizelech (little roses), which ultimately became the inspiration for the significant art of Jewish papercutting that we know of today. Papercutting is the inspiration today for many ketubahs (Jewish wedding contracts) and mizrachs (artistic plaques indicating the Eastern wall in traditional Jewish homes so that prayer groups that are gathering there know which way to face at prayer time) that feature so prominently in Jewish Art.
I wanted to lift up this little known piece of Jewish history because I think that we often make the mistake - on Shavuot and every other day of the year - of presuming that the sum total of Jewish inspiration that our people has produced has come by way of books (of Scripture, Talmud, Jewish law, philosophy, poetry, and liturgy). While Jewish literature is most certainly important, and worthy of our study, it's not the "sum total" of everything that the Jewish People has produced. We have also produced incredible art...art that is just as well-equipped as any piece of Torah to teach us and inspire us to bring justice and meaning into the world.
So: on this Shavuot, as we celebrate the giving of Torah - let's be sure to honor "Torah" in the widest sense of the term...by lifting up both the words of our Tradition, and the majestic art that goes hand in hand with it as well.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
1) Check out this short article on the history of Jewish papercutting, and view some photos of the art form.
2) There's no better way to mark Shavuot by visiting New York's most significant collection of Jewish art by visiting the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side. Be sure to include a meal there at the Museum's very own Russ and Daughters location, where you can enjoy a gourmet dairy meal! (Eating dairy is another Shavuot tradition.)
3) Shavuot is also the time when the Book of Ruth is read in some synagogues. According to Tradition, Ruth is the first woman to choose (or convert to) Judaism. Read this beautiful reflection on that theme, complete with a new Shavuot recipe.