Shavuot Tidbits: An Overview of the Holiday

June 30, 2006


Hard to be brief; I’ll try.


  • SOP (standard operating procedure) for women lighting Shabbat candles is light them, cover eyes, say Bracha. Should have been Bracha before lighting, but maybe Bracha is acceptance of Shabbat and then lighting would be forbidden.
  • Yom Tov should be Bracha and then light because we can transfer flames on Yom Tov, so there is no problem.
  • Some authorities say women should light Yom Tov candles the same way they light Shabbat candles.
  • Others say they should say Bracha first, then light. (If a match was used to light, don’t blow it out; put it down safely and let it go out by itself.)
  • Yom Tov candles should be lit at “regular” candle lighting time. Some have a custom to light Yom Tov candles late, upon return from shul, right before Kiddush.
  • Anyone lighting late on Yom Tov – by custom or circumstances – must use a pre-existing flame. If a match or toothpick is used to transfer the flame, it may not be extinguished after use. Put it down in a safe place and let it go out by itself. And, in lighting Yom Tov candles after dark, Bracha should definitely be said first and then light. Not the same one the one hand, on the other as above, when lighting at the pre-sunset time.
  • This year, with Yom Tov on Friday, Shabbat candles can be lit only from a pre-existing flame. Otherwise, SOP for Shabbat candles should be followed. Eruv Tavshilin on Thursday allows lighting Shabbat candles. If you didn’t make an Eruv, ask a Rav.
  • No Havdalah from Yom Tov to Shabbat (Havdalah is from a higher Kedusha to a lower one, not vice versa).

From Z to A…

  • On Shavuot morning, after the Kohen is called to the Torah, but before the reading begins, it is the Ashkenazic custom to responsively recite AKDAMUT, a 90 line poem praising G-d, His Torah and his People. Written by Rabbi Meir of Worms (one of the teachers of Rashi), the poem conveys the spirit of love of G-d and Judaism even in adverse conditions. Rabbi Meir’s son was killed by Crusaders and he himself died soon after a “forced debate” with the Christian clergy of his town. The poem is a “celebration of Torah” – beautifully appropriate for Shavuot morning.
  • Each line of Akdamut ends with the syllable TA, spelled TAV- ALEF, the last and first letters of the Alef-bet. Some see this as a reminder of the nature of the Torah itself – as soon as we complete reading or learning the Torah, we immediately begin it again.


  • It is customary to decorate the shul (and the home) with leaves, verdant branches and flowers. Some say it is commemorative of Har Sinai that was uncharacteristically (miraculously) rich in greenery during Matan Torah. Additionally, decorating with flowers and the like reminds us of the decoration of the Bikkurim baskets which were brought to the Beit HaMikdash starting with Shavuot. (There’s the twin message of Shavuot again.)

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

  • The Midrash tells us that some of the People of Israel slept on the night before Matan Torah and G-d had to awaken them in order to give them the Torah. Our Sages do not fault them for sleeping – they were exhausted from their travels. However, a custom developed to spend the night prior to Matan Torah immersed in Torah study, as a “better” preparation for the event of the morning. One whose davening would be compromised by having been up all night should rather learn for a few hours and get some sleep.
  • Those who do stay up all night should carefully avoid wasting time, since it is the learning – and not just being awake – that is significant. When one has stayed up all night, there are a few parts of the pre-Shacharit davening that cannot be said, as follows: MODEH; ELOKAI, NESHAMA; BIRCHOT HATORAH; and the last of Birchot HaShachar – HAMA’AVIR SHEINA [through HA’GOMEL CHASADIM…]. One should try to hear these brachot from someone who slept and answer AMEN. Men and boys who have worn their tzitzit all night should hear and answer to someone’s tallit-bracha in lieu of the tzitzit-bracha.


  • Shavuot is a Yom Tov. On Yom Tov we have the mitzva of Simcha. One of the traditional forms of Simchat Yom Tov is festive meals with meat and wine.
    • (Note for veggies and others who prefer not eating meat: Meat as Simcha is subjective – if you don’t like meat, then you need not have it on Yom Tov; if you enjoy eating meat dishes, THEN it is proper to honor and enjoy Yom Tov in that way. This is when we have no Beit HaMikdash. In the time of the Beit HaMikdash, Simcha is associated with the korban called Shalmei Simcha.)
  • Additionally, we all know of the custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuot. Some people will have a dairy meal on Yom Tov night and a meat meal for lunch. This has a certain logic, since the nighttime is “more specifically Shavuot” and the day is “more generically Yom Tov”. Other families will have meat at night and dairy during the day. Still others will make Kiddush and HaMotzi, have some dairy dish (blintzes, perhaps), then bench. Following a short break and a change in table covering, they will wash again, this time for a meat meal. Everyone according to his/her custom.
  • Some of the reasons might have produced the custom, while others might be merely additional symbolisms after the fact. Furthermore, some reasons explain why we eat dairy, while others make sense only in the context of having BOTH dairy and meat dishes.
  • This custom has become so entrenched in our collective practice of Judaism, that it is tantamount to law, and should not be treated lightly.
  • Shir HaShirim poetically describes those who merit the acquisition of Torah as having “honey and milk under your tongue”. This verse is considered one of the sources of having dairy on Shavuot. In addition, it gave rise to the custom of including honey in the preparation of dairy dishes to be eaten on Shavuot.
  • Having both dairy and meat dishes as mentioned above requires strict attention to the laws of separation of milk and meat. These laws, of course, are based on the Torah’s prohibition of “meat in milk” as presented by the phrase “Do not cook a goat in its mother’s milk”. This phrase (twice) follows, in the same verse, the command to bring Bikurim to the Beit HaMikdash. Shavuot is Yom HaBikurim. Therefore, we eat both dairy and meat dishes, with proper attention to the strictures of halacha, specifically on Shavuot.
  • Halachically (especially when handling the food with our hands), it is improper to use the same loaf of bread for both meat and dairy meals because of the food residue that might adhere to the bread. Therefore, a dairy meal and a meat meal will require 2 loaves of bread, a reminder of the 2 Loaves offering of Shavuot.
  • According to tradition, Moshe Rabbeinu was born on the seventh of Adar and was successfully hidden by his parents for three months. It was on the sixth (or seventh) of Sivan (future Shavuot) that baby Moshe was placed in the basket on the river and found by the daughter of Pharaoh. We are taught that Moshe refused to nurse from an Egyptian woman which led to Miriam’s suggestion that Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, be his “wet nurse”. He, who was to teach all of Israel the Torah, could not drink “mother’s milk” from a non-Jew. We commemorate this with dairy dishes on the day of Matan Torah. It might also be suggested that the day of the receiving of the Torah is like the birth of the Nation of Israel, and we have milk to symbolize the spiritual infancy of the People of Israel.
  • With the receiving of the Torah, the people of Israel officially changed their status from Bnei Noach to Jews. It was therefore impossible to eat meat with its many halachic requirements immediately after receiving the Torah. It takes a few days to kasher our vessels, prepare meat according to halacha, etc. We mark this by eating dairy foods on Shavuot.
  • There are sources that suggest that the Children of Israel did not drink milk prior to Matan Torah for fear that it would constitute a violation of Eiver Min HaChai (limb from a living animal), this being forbidden even to a Ben Noach. One of the teachings of the Torah is that milk is indeed permitted to us. This is based on the Torah’s repeated description of Eretz Yisrael as a Land flowing with Milk and Honey. Accordingly, it was on the first Shavuot that we partook of dairy foods.
  • The Torah commands us to bring in the Beit HaMikdash a Mincha Chadasha LaShem B’Shavuoteichem. The initial letters of this phrase spell the word MI’CHALAV – “from milk”. This, too, is considered one of the origins of the custom. Furthermore, the numeric value of the word CHALAV is 40, a number integrally associated with Matan Torah (forty days and forty nights that Moshe spent on Har Sinai).
  • The Midrash uses many nicknames for Har Sinai including GAVNUNIM, from the word for cheese, describing the mountain as being white and smooth like cheese.
  • Whether it is cheese blintzes, yogurt with honey, cheesecake or lasagna, dairy dishes on Shavuot provide us with much food for thought.
  • What we learned at the Seder table – the value of transmitting Torah knowledge to the next generation via questions and answers – should be applied to all Holidays, Shabbat, and every other opportunity. Spend some quality time at meals or otherwise, evoking questions, explaining things, learning Torah with your spouse and children, guests, etc.

Megillat Ruth:

  • Most communities read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot morning before Torah reading (outside of Israel the custom is to read it on the second day). Some communities read it in the afternoon. When read from a kosher megillah scroll (Minhag Yerushalayim), the reading is preceded by the brachot …AL MIKRA MEGILLAH and SHEHECHEYANU. When it is read from a printed page, no brachot are recited.
  • Several varied reasons combine to make Ruth the perfect reading for Shavuot. The text itself tells us that the story of the Book takes place at the time of the “cutting of the wheat”. Shavuot is CHAG HA’KATZIR.
  • One of the major purposes of the Book of Ruth is to tell us of the lineage of David HaMelech and the Davidic line leading to Moshiach. Tradition tells us that David HaMelech died on Shavuot. (Many people – especially Sephardim – visit Kever David to say Tehillim, on Shavuot.)
  • Perhaps most significantly, the story of Ruth is the inspiring story of Kabbalat HaTorah of an individual, just as Shavuot is the commemoration of Kabbalat HaTorah of the Nation. All of Israel were like converts at Sinai.

Reminder: Eruv Tavshilin – Thursday, Erev Yom Tov – May 20th

  • The mitzva is to take a Challah roll or matza plus a cooked food – meat, fish, hard-boiled egg – on Erev Yom Tov, when Friday is Yom Tov, and designate them for Shabbat. The following bracha is recited. (It is advisable – not required – to do the Eruv Tavshilin in front of the family and/or explain it to them, so that they understand what it is.)
  • Following the bracha, one makes the following declaration. Traditionally, it is said in Aramaic (because that was the spoken language among Jews), but because it must be understood; one can/should say it in Hebrew or English (as well) if necessary.
  • With this ERUV it shall be permitted for us to bake, cook, warm dishes, light candles (from a pre-existing flame), and do other Shabbat needs on Yom Tov (Friday) [for us and all Jews living in this city].
  • In order to “activate” the last phrase of the Eruv declaration and have one’s Eruv benefit others if needed, one should take the Eruv foods and give them to a halachic adult (non-family is preferable to a family member) and ask him/her to accept the foods on behalf of other Jews in the city. If not, the Eruv is still good for you, but others will have to rely on the Eruv of someone else (which in a big city is not much of a problem).