WHAT IS IT?
The commemoration of the giving of the Torah, and the end of the wheat harvest in Israel. Pronounced “Shah-voo-ot” (some say “Shav-oo-us” in Ashkenazi Hebrew.)
WHY IS IT?
The Torah commands a 49-day counting period (Sefirat Ha-omer, the Counting of the Omer) beginning on the second day of Passover. This counting ends on the 50th day, Shavuot. Agriculturally, the barley harvest took place during Passover, and the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was the concluding festival of the grain harvest, the way the last day of Sukkot was the concluding festival of the fruit harvest. Shavuot also recalls the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple. Historically, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is known as Zman Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah). The Rabbis teach that the holiday is called the time of the giving of the Torah, rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah because we “receive” the Torah continually, but this was the only time it was “given.” Spiritually, there is a link between Passover and Shavuot: At Passover, we were freed from serving a human master, and at Shavuot we committed ourselves to serving God. The counting of the Omer period between the two festivals expresses a yearning (like a “count down or count up”) to the Giving of the Torah.
WHEN IS IT?
Although the Torah does not provide a date for Shavuot, the Rabbis determined that it falls on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which usually falls around late spring. In modern Israel and among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, Shavuot is celebrated for one day. Outside Israel, the holiday is celebrated for two days by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
WHERE IS IT FROM?
The Torah, where it is listed as one of the three pilgrimage festivals (the other two are Sukkot and Pesach.) In Exodus 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16:10 it is called The Festival of Weeks (Hag Hashavuot); in Exodus 23:16 The Festival of Reaping (Hag Hakatzir); and in Numbers 28:26 The Day of First Fruits (Yom Ha-bikkurim.) The Mishnah and Talmud refer to Shavuot as Atzeret (a kind of stopping and a solemn assembly); since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Christians gave it the name Pentecost.
WHAT DO WE DO?
Like the other two pilgrimage festivals, we refrain from work, attend special prayer services and have holiday meals. Shavuot also has customs of its own: The Book of Ruth is read at services and Yizkor (memorial prayers) are recited and many people engage in all night Torah study called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot.” According to tradition the Israelites actually overslept on the morning of the giving of Torah and so to compensate, we stay awake the whole night now! The spiritual significance of the Tikkun is to prepare ourselves all night for the awesome moment when we receive Torah in the morning, and hear the Ten Commandments read. The Kabbalists would study all night on Shavuot, they believed that at midnight the heavens would open and receive the thoughts, study, and prayers of those who remain awake on the anniversary of the Revelation.
WHAT DO WE EAT?
Because the Torah is likened to milk, and because of the special connection to the Land of Israel (“flowing with milk and honey”) it is a custom to eat dairy foods including cheese blintzes and cheesecake. A legend suggests that before the giving of the Torah the Jews did not keep kosher, so it was on this first Shavuot, finding themselves without kosher meats or utensils, the Israelites chose to eat only dairy.
WHAT DO WE SAY?
“Chag Sameach” (“Happy Holiday!”) – “Tekebel Hatorah im Simcha u’b’penimee’yoot” (I Bless you that you Should Receive The Torah with JOY , and in an a fashion that speaks to your innermost being.)
You too were at Mt. Sinai!
The midrash teaches that every Jewish soul that was alive at the time, and every Jewish soul that was yet to be born were present at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses was given the Torah. It was this moment of receiving Torah that transformed us into a holy people.
A Celebration of Milk and Honey
- “Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue.” (Song of Songs 4:11) We learn in the Song of Songs that the words of Torah are like milk and honey.
- Just as milk and dairy are nourishing to the body, we eat dairy products on Shavuot as a statement of how nourishing Torah is to the soul.
- During Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. Tradition has it that Ruth came to Israel around the time of Shavuot, and her acceptance into the Jewish faith was analogous of the acceptance of the Jewish people of God’s Torah.