Shavuot 101

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Everything you need to know about the history and customs of Shavuot.

Although biblical references to Shavuot and its early history revolved around the summer grain harvest, the "Feast of Weeks" is now more closely associated with commemorating the time the Israelites received the Torah while wandering in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.  

The holiday is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Since the counting of this period (Sefirat HaOmer) begins on the second evening of Pesach, Shavuot takes place exactly 50 days after the first seder.

History

Because of its agricultural origins, Shavuot is considered one of the three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel, when Israelite males were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem, bringing offerings of the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple. Pesach and Sukkot are the other two pilgrimage holidays. These agrarian roots are remembered and highlighted in reading the Book of Ruth, which takes place during the seasonal harvest associated with Shavuot. Ruth, a Moabite woman who chose to join her mother-in-law Naomi's people, is seen as the paradigmatic convert to Judaism. In a sense, she was the first to reject her own ancestral faith and willingly take on Jewish law and tradition.

In the rabbinic period, the sages focused on Exodus 19:1, which stated that "on the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt…they entered the wilderness of Sinai." By this calculation, the Israelites were at the foot of Mount Sinai on the first of Sivan and therefore received the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan, the day of Shavuot. By linking Shavuot to the "birthday of the Torah," the festival became much more powerful and significant — the celebration marking the beginning of the covenant between God and Israel. 

Observance 

For those who observe two days of Shavuot, two Torah scrolls are read on each day. The portions for the first day describe the giving of the Ten Commandments and the festival itself. Both Hallel, the Psalms of Praise, is recited and Yizkor, the memorial service, is observed.

Special readings for the holiday include Aramaic piyyutim, or medieval poems, that were meant to strengthen the people’s faith during the Crusades, and the Book of Ruth. In addition to taking place at the time of the barley harvest, Ruth’s adoption of Naomi’s religion reflects the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. King David, who is alleged to have died at this time of year according to rabbinic tradition, is also mentioned at the end of the story. 

Excerpts from sacred writings are also read in an all-night study session called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. This tradition developed as a way to compensate for our heavy-lidded ancestors, who, according to legend, mistakenly fell asleep on the night before receiving the Ten Commandments. In addition to showing that we are always ready to receive Torah, Jewish mystics had the idea that the heavens open at midnight and favorably receive the thoughts, study and prayers of those who remain awake on the anniversary of the Revelation. Moroccan Jews believed that staying up all night would guarantee them life for the next year. Today's tikkuns might consist of a series of seminars on a variety of topics based on ancient or modern texts, Jewish history or current events. 

It's also customary to eat rich dairy foods on Shavuot. Although the reasons for this tradition are not completely clear, some derive the practice from scripture, saying we eat dairy to symbolize the "land flowing with milk and honey" promised to the Israelites, or that "milk and honey are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11). Ancient rabbis interpreted the poem as a metaphor for the love between God and Israel, viewing the "honey and milk" verse as a reference to Torah. And, since two breads were offered in the Temple, Jews eat two challot on Shavuot. A braid in the shape of a ladder may be placed on top because the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up the word "sulam" add up to the same number as "Sinai."

In Eastern Europe, young children between the ages of 3 and 5 were often introduced to yeshivah study around Shavuot. They were given cakes, honey and candy to associate Torah study with sweetness and joy. Many American congregations also hold confirmations around this time. 

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