Jewish Holidays 101: Shavuot

Photo courtesy of Temple Ohav Shalom in Pittsburgh, PA
Jews celebrate the Torah on Shavuot.

Jews all over the world will celebrate their acceptance of the Torah from God during Shavuot, which begins at sunset tonight. It’s not a well-known holiday in the secular world, but Shavuot is always observed with reverence.

A Gift from God

The Torah was offered as a gift from God to the Hebrew people. This sacred event took place on Mt. Sinai more than 3,300 years ago, but Jews reaffirm their acceptance of the Torah every year during Shavuot. On the Hebrew calendar, Shavuot begins on the 5th of Sivan and ends on sundown of the 7th of Sivan. Shavuot will be observed when the sun sets this evening. The holiday ends at sundown on Monday, June 10th.

Shavuot takes place seven weeks from the second night of Passover. Also known as the “Festival of Torah” or the “Feast of Weeks,” the literal translation from Hebrew reveals two meanings to the word Shavuot: “weeks” and “oaths.” God pledged His eternal devotion to the Israelites, and they did the same. This is why the notion of an oath is so significant.

The Torah itself is comprised of the first five books of the Bible and is known as “the Tree of Life”. This great work reveals the Jewish peoples’ quest for truth, freedom, learning and wisdom. According to the Bible, it was during Shavuot that God revealed himself to the Jews on Mt. Sinai and presented the Ten Commandments to Moses in the form of two tablets.

The History of Shavuot

Thousands of years ago, when Jews lived in a primarily agrarian society, the holiday was celebrated in the Temple in Jerusalem as a harvest-themed festival. For this reason, it was also known as Festival of the First Fruits. Back then, the finest seasonal fruits; including figs, pomegranates or grapes, for example, could be brought to the Temple as an offering of thanks. The Talmud tells us that these fruits were designated as being the “first fruits” for the festival with a red thread tied around them.

The Festival of First Fruits was a highly-anticipated event, with families waiting for the procession into the Holy City since dawn. People traveled to the Holy City from all over and would camp overnight in the hills outside Jerusalem. Their music filled the air, and they eagerly presented their bounty of fruits and olives to pile onto the altar. Elders from the Temple and artisans from the city would meet the people and then lead them to the Temple, accompanied by joyous music and singing.

Shavuot Today

In modern times, this holiday is observed by going to synagogue. It’s customary for congregations to read the Book of Ruth on the second day of Shavuot.

Ruth was a princess from Moab.  Unhappy with the way her own people were worshiping idols, she became the first Jewish convert. 

Ruth left her royal life in Moab to live in poverty among the Israelites in Judah. In honor of this courageous woman, some congregations will have a Jew-by-choice speak or conduct a program regarding conversion.

Jews have also been honoring the holiday with all-night Torah study sessions, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot. They stay awake all night as a symbolic gesture to God.

Confirmation ceremonies, which usually take place when Religious School students are in the 10th grade, are often held during this holiday. Another tradition is the reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue on this day.

Details of the “Feast”

After services, families will traditionally return home for a dairy-based meal. Foods like cheese blintzes, kugels and cheesecake are always present, and there is are a couple of theories about this: After their experience at Mt. Sinai, the Kosher-keeping Hebrews were said to be so wiped-out that they didn’t have enough energy to make a meat meal.

Consuming a primarily dairy meal also symbolizes Israel as the “land flowing with milk and honey”, which God promised to His people.

©️Jill Cueni-Cohen