Shavuot: An Overview

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18 May 2015
Shavuot, along with Passover and Sukkot, is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. It is celebrated on the 6th of Sivan in Israel, and the 6th and 7th of Sivan in the diaspora. The Bible describes Shavuot as an agricultural holiday: the festival of Reaping (Jeremiah 5:24, Deuteronomy 16:9-11, Isaiah 9:2). Seven weeks were counted from the spring festival (Passover), when the people would begin to harvest barley, and ended with Shavuot, with the harvesting of wheat. The counting of this seven week period is called the Counting of the Omer.Today, Shavuot is most widely known as the Jewish holiday that commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. According to the Torah, it took seven weeks for the Israelites to travel from Egypt to Mount Sinai. The name Shavuot, meaning “weeks,” refers to this seven-week journey.
On Passover, the people of Israel were liberated from their Egyptian slavery; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and committed themselves to serving God. While Passover marks their liberation from slavery, Shavuot marks the renewal of their commitment and dedication to God.

Holiday Names

Festival of Weeks- חג השבועות (Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10)

Shavuot has this name because of the seven weeks between Shavuot and Passover.

Festival of Reaping- חג הקציר (Exodus 23:16)

Each of the three pilgrimage festivals marks a new period in the agricultural season. Passover is also known as Chag ha-Aviv, the Spring Festival, which marks the beginning of the new planting season. The basic meaning of the word aviv is the stage of growth in grain when the seeds have reached full size but have not yet dried. Chag ha-Katzir, or the Festival of Reaping, is when the first crop of the season is ready. This happens at the time of Shavuot. The next agricultural step is for all of the crops to be gathered. This happens with the third pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, which is also referred to as the Festival of Gathering, Chag Ha-Asif.

Day of the First Fruits- יום הבכורים (Numbers 28:26)
In ancient times, people would bring Bikkurim, their first and best fruits, as an offering in the Holy Temple. Bikkurim were brought from the Seven Species for which the land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8).


Customs & Rituals

Unlike most other Jewish holidays, Shavuot has no prescribed Torah commandments other than the traditional festival observances, such as having joyous feasts, special holiday prayers and abstention from work. Shavuot does, however, have many minhagim, or customs.

All Night Torah Study: According to Midrash, the Israelites went to bed early the night before receiving the Torah in order to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead, but then overslept and had to be woken by Moses himself. To atone for this national mistake, many Jews study Torah all night long, in symbolic anticipation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot day. This practice is also known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

Greenery: According to Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers and greenery in honor of the giving of the Torah. So today, many Jewish families decorate their homes with greenery in honor of the holiday.

Dairy Foods: It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot for a number of reasons: 1) Shavuot occurs during the milking season. 2) Before receiving the Torah, the Israelites did not follow its laws of ritual animal slaughter, so their utensils were not yet purified for kosher meat use. So instead of meat, the Israelites celebrated with dairy foods. 3) King Solomon compares the Torah to milk in the Song of Songs: “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” (4:11).

Counting of the Omer: “Omer” refers to the Omer offering which was given on the first day of the barley harvest. The Torah states: “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the feast of weeks” (Deuteronomy 16:9). The Talmudic Sages explained that these seven weeks connect the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Today, we begin counting the Omer from the second day of Passover and continue for the next seven weeks, until the day before Shavuot. The Omer is also a time of semi-mourning to commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. The rules of mourning end with Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer, because that is the day the deaths ceased. (This is also the day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, died.)

Book of Ruth: The Book of Ruth, one of the five scrolls of Tanakh is read at morning services on Shavuot. (Outside of Israel, this happens on the second day of Shavuot.) Megillat Ruth mostly takes place during the harvest season (Ruth 1:22), so we read it on the Harvest Holiday: Shavuot. Additional reasons we read Ruth on Shavuot include: 1) King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot (Chagigah 2:3). 2) Ruth was a convert, entering the covenant with God of her own accord. The Israelites did the same when they entered their covenant with God on Shavuot by receiving the Torah. 3) In the Torah, there is a command stating that no Moabite may marry into God’s nation (Deut. 23:4). Ruth was only able to marry Boaz because of the Oral Law’s interpretation of that command, which states that this law only applies to the Moabite men. The story of Ruth is told on Shavuot to highlight the necessity of both the Written and Oral Torah.

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