The Customs of Shavuot
Shavuot is the second of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover being the first, Sukkot is the third). The holiday, which means “weeks”, is seven weeks after the second day of Passover. Each of these Pilgrimage Festivals has both agricultural and religious meaning.
For Shavuot, which falls during the Hebrew month of Sivan (the first month of summer), the agricultural significance is connected to the harvesting of the first fruits. Religiously, Shavuot marks the anniversary of G-d giving the Torah to the Jewish people. Referred to as Zman Matan Toratenu (or the season of the giving of our Torah), Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
Here are some of the agriculturally-based and religious customs associated with Shavuot:
Tikkun L’eil Shavuot (Restoration of Shavuot Eve)
It is customary on Shavuot to stay up all night long, learning Torah. Jewish legend teaches that the night before G-d gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Israelites went to sleep early to be well-rested. They overslept, nearly missing their historic moment. G-d had to awake them with thunder and lightening. To atone for their ancestors’ carelessness, many Jews today participate in all-night study sessions. Some attend lectures sponsored by their synagogue on Shavuot-related issues, while others prefer to study various tracts of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), Mishnah (Written Law) or Gemarah (Oral Law) together with a study partner (chavruta).
It is customary on Shavuot to eat only dairy, rather than the traditional meat-based meals associated with other holidays, such as Passover, Sukkot and even Shabbat. The most common explanation for this custom is that when the Jewish people received the Torah, they were given instructions for how to keep kosher, including how to slaughter and cook meat. Until they had a chance to make their meat and utensils kosher, they ate only dairy, which is less restricted.
Another more symbolic reason for eating dairy is that just as milk is our first and most sustaining food (i.e. a nursing infant), Torah is the ultimate spiritual sustenance for the Jewish soul. On the anniversary of receiving the Torah, Jews eat dairy foods to honor this symbolic truth.
Also known as Chag HaBikurim (The Holiday of the First Fruits), Shavuot was celebrated in ancient times by offering Temple sacrifices of the seven species of Israel: Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Today, many Jews honor the original bikurim (sacrifices of the first fruits) by decorated their homes and synagogues with greens and flowers. In Israel, children adorn their heads with wreaths made from wheat and fresh flowers.
This tradition is also rooted in a Jewish legend, which teaches that when Moses received the Torah, the normally barren and desert Mount Sinai was lush with greenery when Moses received the Torah.
Aseret Diburim (The Ten Commadnments)
On Shavuot, Jews read the Ten Commandments at morning services. It is customary for everyone – even children and the elderly – to attend this morning service in order to relive that historic day and to symbolically stand again at Mount Sinai. By including everyone in this service, the community as a whole is reaffirming its commitment to honoring G-d’s Torah.
Megilat Rut (The Book of Ruth)
In many Jewish communities, the Book of Ruth is also read during the morning Shavuot services. Ruth was the first Jewish convert and the great, great grandmother of King David, who was born and died on Shavuot. (The Jewish people believe the Messiah will descend from King David’s lineage.)
One explanation for reading Megilat Ruth is that her story is believed to have taken place during the harvest season, just like her great, great grandson David was born during the harvest season. Symbolically, Ruth’s conversion – which she eagerly took on with a full and open heart – is considered as parable for the Jewish People’s acceptance of the Torah.