October 17, 2019

Our 11th Commandment: Make Shavuot Fun for Kids

Poor Shavuot — it’s not very high on the priority list of Jewish holidays. Unlike Passover, there is no boisterous family seder to attend. You are not obliged to eat matzo, Charoset or bitter herbs. You don’t need to buy tickets to come to shul and nobody is blowing a shofar. There is no fasting to stress about. There are no huts to build in the backyard, and I can’t think of any popular Shavuot songs. For nonobservant Jews, Shavuot is about as popular as Earth Day. It comes and goes with very little fanfare. 

Personally, though, Shavuot is my favorite Jewish holiday. In my hometown of Montreal, it usually occurs at the beginning of a long-awaited summer. The hockey playoffs are over, the trees are green again, the barbecue is filled with propane and the hammock is in resting position. A couple of days off work, a deliciously cool dairy lunch and some intense overnight Torah study are the highlights of my Shavuot. 

But this holiday commemorates the very special day that the Hebrews received the Ten Commandments, so how do we spread the word about this extraordinary event, especially to our children? About 15 years ago, when my kids were, well, kids, our ambitious synagogue youth director approached me with an unusual request. Would I play the part of Moses and bring down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai on the first morning of Shavuot? 

Shavuot commemorates the very special day that the Hebrews received the Ten Commandments, so how do we spread the word about this extraordinary event, especially to our children?

Well, you just can’t say no to an appeal like that, so on Shavuot, I dressed myself in a white caftan, put on my sandals, donned a long gray beard and draped my tallit over my head. I discreetly climbed up the hill in the park across the street from the synagogue, where I hid behind some trees with 10 cardboard commandments and no script. 

The kids, with our youth director and his wife in the lead, crossed the Red Sea (a dead-end street) and camped out at the bottom of Mount Sinai. On cue, I lumbered down the side of the mountain, commandments in hand, to the either cheering or jeering of the crowd of tiny Israelites. I recited the Ten Commandments in my best Moses voice (did he have a Yiddish accent?) and then stuck around for some Q&A. Here are some of their questions:

“Hey, Moses, how come you’re wearing a watch?”

“Aren’t you Rebecca’s father?”

“What’s adultery?”

After the children received the commandments and promised to observe them in good faith, I led them into the main synagogue sanctuary, where the rabbi reinforced their commitment with a short lecture and a quiz. This was followed by cake and ice cream. 

The tradition continued for many years, and with every year the costume got a little better, the commandments a little heavier and the kids a little wiser. I don’t know if this is done in any other congregation in the world, and I would like to think it is one of the things that help to make our shul a special place. Last year, I decided to do a rap, and I present it to you, dear readers, as a cool way to teach the Ten Commandments to your children or grandkids. 

“The Ten Commandment Rap”
My name is Moses and I’m here to say
I’ve got the Ten Commandments here for you today
Listen closely so you all can hear
They come from HaShem
Who you should love and fear.

Commandment number one says, “I am the Lord”
I brought you out of Egypt so you wouldn’t be bored.
Say it again in a different verse
“I’m the only God in the whole universe.”
Commandment two says, “Don’t be no fool!”
Praying to idols is not very cool.

If you see an idol walking down your block
Close your door and bolt the lock.
Now for commandment number three
It’s easy to learn, just take it from me
Never say God’s name in vain
If you do, you’ll cause him a lot of pain.

If want to obey commandment four
Here’s a rule that you can’t ignore
Keep Shabbat, it’s a holy day
Walk to shul, where you can pray.

The fifth commandment is like no other
It says to honor your father and mother
Try not to cause them any pain or strife
If you don’t do that, you’ll have a long, long life.

Number six says don’t you be a villain
Don’t get a gun and start some killin’.
Don’t obey number seven if you’re a louse
It means you been cheatin’ on your spouse.

Do no stealing says number eight
You may end up behind a metal gate.

Number nine says don’t tell no lies
Against your friends, whether girls or guys.
Commandment ten really means a lot
It says to be happy with what you got
Don’t be jealous of your friends’ new stuff
It’s more important just to have enough.
My name is Moses and I’m here to say
All of these laws you should obey
Join me now in joy and awe
Say, “Na’aseh v’nishmah.”

Happy Shavuot.

Paul Starr is a recently retired systems analyst living in Montreal. He belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation.