Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jews. The Talmud tells us that God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jews on the sixth night of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Shavuot always falls 50 days after the second night of Passover. The 49 days in between are known as the Omer.
Origins of Shavuot
In biblical times Shavuot also marked the beginning of the new agricultural season and was called Hag HaKatzir, which means “The Harvest Holiday.” Other names Shavuot is known by are “The Feast of Weeks” and Hag HaBikurim, meaning “The Holiday of First Fruits.” This last name comes from the practice of bringing fruits to the Temple on Shavuot.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the rabbis connected Shavuot with the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. This is why Shavuot celebrates the giving and receiving of the Torah in modern times.
Celebrating Shavuot Today
Many religious Jews commemorate Shavuot by spending the entire night studying Torah at their synagogue or at home. They also study other biblical books and portions of the Talmud. This all-night gathering is known as Tikun Leyl Shavuot and at dawn participants stop studying and recite shacharit, the morning prayer.
Tikun Leyl Shavuot is a kabbalistic (mystical) custom that is relatively new to Jewish tradition. It is increasingly popular among modern Jews and is meant to help us rededicate ourselves to studying Torah. Kabbalists taught that at midnight on Shavuot the skies open for a brief moment and God favorably hears all prayers.
In addition to study, other Shavuot customs include:
- Chanting the Ten Commandments.
- Reading Megilat Rut, known as the Book of Ruth in English. This biblical book tells the story of two women: a Jewish woman named Naomi and her non-Jewish daughter-in-law Ruth. Their relationship was so strong that when Ruth’s husband died she decided to join the Jewish people by converting to Judaism. The Book of Ruth is read during Shavuot because it takes place during the harvest season and because Ruth’s conversion is thought to reflect our acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. Also, Jewish tradition teaches that King David (Ruth’s great-great-grandson) was born and died on Shavuot.
- Decorating our synagogues and homes with roses or aromatic spices. This custom is based on midrashim that connect the events at Sinai to spices and roses.
The Foods of Shavuot
Jewish holidays often have some food-related component and Shavuot is no different. According to tradition we should eat dairy foods such as cheese, cheesecake and milk on Shavuot. No one knows where this custom comes from but some think it is related to Shir HaShirim (The Song of Songs). One line of this poem reads "Honey and milk are under your tongue." Many believe that this line is comparing the Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey. In some European cities children are introduced to Torah study on Shavuot and are given honey cakes with passages from the Torah written on them.