What is Shavuot?
Shavuot is a Jewish festival which takes place on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, falling out in late May/ early June in the Gregorian calendar. From the second day of Passover the forty-nine days leading up to Shavuot are counted in great anticipation. This seven-week period is the reason behind the name Shavuot, which is Hebrew for "weeks".
We count our way from physical redemption on Passover to spiritual redemption on Shavuot. This spiritual redemption is represented by the giving of the Torah by G-d to the Jewish people on Shavuot.
Shavuot is one of the three foot-festivals. The foot-festivals were times of pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem when it was still standing. People from all over the country of Israel would travel in order to stand before G-d on these festivals.
All three foot-festivals have agricultural and historical significance. In the case of Shavuot, it is a commemoration of the harvest of the first fruits and their being brought to the Temple. An alternative name for Shavuot is Chag Ha-Bikkurim, meaning the Festival of the First Fruits. From an historical perspective, it's a celebration of the giving of the Torah by G-d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. Another name for Shavuot is Chag Matan Torateinu meaning the Festival of the Giving of our Torah.
What is the source for Shavuot?
In the book of Leviticus, chapter twenty-one, there is a commandment to count seven weeks and on completion to celebrate a festive day.
What are the religious practices and customs of Shavuot?
- One may not work on Shavuot.
- Women light holiday candles to welcome in the festival on the eve of Shavuot.
- There is a custom to stay up all night on the night (or in the case of the Diaspora the first night) of Shavuot and to study Torah. One explanation offered for this custom is that the Jewish people failed to rise early on the day that they received the Torah. To compensate for this Jews accepted upon themselves the custom of learning all night on the night of Shavuot.
- Jews make a special effort to hear the Ten Commandments being read in Synagogue on Shavuot day as a way of re-accepting the Torah from G-d.
- Since Shavuot is a harvest festival, there is a custom to decorate the house and synagogue before the festival with greenery, flowers and fruits. Furthermore, it is related by the Sages that Mount Sinai was bare as it was situated in the desert but when the Torah was given on it, it bloomed and sprouted flowers.
- It is customary to eat dairy products on Shavuot. There are varying opinions as to why this is done. One reason offered is that the Torah is like nourishing milk. Another is that on Shavuot a two-loaf bread offering was offered up in the Temple. In commemoration, we eat two meals on Shavuot- a dairy meal followed by a meat meal.
- The Book of Ruth is read in many synagogues on Shavuot. Once again several reasons are offered. One explanation is that Ruth was a convert and when the Jews accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, they too were converts. Additionally, Shavuot is the date on which King David was born and passed away. Ruth was King David's great-grandmother.