What is Shavuot?
Shavuot was originally a harvest holiday. Along with Sukkot and Passover, it is one of the Shalosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals), during which people made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem to present their agricultural offerings.
The ancient Israelites brought the first harvest of their crop to the Temple to offer to G-d at Shavuot, 49 days after Passover. (The name Shavuot, literally translates to "weeks," and symbolizes the completion of this seven-week period.) In Leviticus 23:21, the Torah commands: "And you shall proclaim that day to be a holy convocation!” This period is known as The Counting of the Omer.
After the Temple was destroyed and the people of Israel could no longer bring their harvest as an offering, the rabbis restructured the holiday. The rabbis attributed Shavuot to the journey through the desert to Mount Sinai, from the story of Exodus. The journey took nearly seven weeks (“shavuot”) and this period of time was canonized through the Counting of the Omer. At Mount Sinai Moses ascended the mountain to meet G-d and receive the Ten Commandments.
Based on the Torah’s description of when the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 19:1), the rabbis set the date of the giving of the Torah as the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, and the holiday that was once purely agricultural became the commemoration of the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, even as we remember its agricultural roots, the holiday has also become a celebration of the Torah.
Shavuot is known by several names: Chag HaShavuot (the Festival of Weeks), Chag HaBikkurim (the Festival of the First Fruits), Z’man Matan Torateinu (the Time of the Giving of Our Torah), and Chag HaKatzir (the Festival of Reaping).
The Book of Ruth
During Shavuot the Book of Ruth is read, a story with significance for those who have converted to Judaism. A famine within Israel forces Elimelech and his wife Naomi to flee from their home to the country of Moab. Soon after, Elimelech dies, and Naomi is widowed in a foreign land. She continues living there with her two sons, who eventually marry two Moabite girls – Orpah and Ruth. Sadly, both sons also die, leaving Naomi to live with her two widowed daughters-in-law.
Naomi decides to leave Moab and journey to Bethlehem to live amongst the Israelites again. She encourages both Orpah and Ruth to return to their parents and remarry in Moab. Orpah reluctantly agrees, but Ruth refuses – out of love, she chooses instead to stay with her mother-in-law and embrace Judaism. This could not have been an easy choice, for Ruth had to leave behind everything she knew in order to stay with Naomi. Her kindness and allegiance to G-d are eventually rewarded in Bethlehem, where she marries a wealthy farm owner named Boaz, and together they have a son named Obed, the grandfather of King David.
It was Ruth who said, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your G-d will be my G-d.” The story of Ruth teaches us that unconditional love often requires sacrifice. Ruth makes a difficult choice, and her kindness is rewarded in the end.
How is Shavuot Celebrated?
Shavuot is traditionally observed by abstaining from work and attending synagogue services. A few special readings are recited during these services. A ceremonial poem called Akdamut, which emphasizes the greatness of G-d and, as mentioned above, the Book of Ruth, because the story highlights one woman’s choice to join the Jewish people and accept the Torah. The Ten Commandments are also read, to honor the revelation of the Torah. It is also customary to study Torah all night, and this practice is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (more on this below).
What Foods are Eaten on Shavuot?
Traditional holiday meals on Shavuot center around dairy foods. Milk is considered to be a symbol of the Torah, which nourishes the people directly, as milk does for an infant.
There could be a number of additional reasons for the association of dairy with Shavuot. There is a verse in the Song of Solomon (4:11) which states that the Torah is like “milk and honey under your tongue,” inferring a connection between the Torah-centric holiday and dairy foods.
Some scholars also believe that because the Israelites had not yet received the kosher laws, they had prepared foods on the first Shavuot that did not follow kashrut. When they received the Torah, they read the new laws of kashrut and realized their meat dishes were not kosher, so they chose to eat dairy dishes only. The Hebrew word chalav (milk) has a numerical value of 40, which corresponds with the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.
Still others attribute the focus on dairy to the holiday because Shavuot occurs during the fertile spring period, when animal mothers produce lots of fresh milk.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot - Why Study Torah at Night?
Jewish tradition often discusses the practice of studying during the night. Maimonides councils: “Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night. Therefore, [do not] lose even one night to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like - rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom.”
As mentioned above, Shavuot is sometimes known as Chag Matan Torah - the holiday of the giving of Torah. Staying awake on Shavuot night is a response to a midrash that says the Israelites slept so deeply the night before the Torah was revealed on Mount Sinai that they had to be awakened with thunder and lightning (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah). To contrast our ancestors, we demonstrate our eagerness to receive Torah by pulling an all-night study session.
This all-nighter is called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Shavuot Night Healing). Traditionally, it includes a small section from every book of the Bible and every section of Talmud in order to symbolically study the entire body of Jewish religious writings. In many communities, the content of the study is up to the group and may include modern Jewish thought, storytelling, and even meditation. The practice of studying all night comes from the kabbalist practitioners of Tzfat, who developed the all-night study vigil as a way to celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The first recorded Tikkun Leil Shavuot took place in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the Jewish code of law), met up with Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the composer of Lecha Dodi.
Caro and Alkabetz understood that there is something unique about engaging in spiritual practice during the night. Many cultures have historically revered the state of being where one is neither truly awake or asleep. It is within these times of limbo that a new spiritual state is experienced. The kabbalists suggest that the heavens open up at midnight on Shavuot, making it a powerful time for our prayers and thoughts to ascend.
Participating in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot intensifies the experience of directly encountering the Torah, and can invoke a feeling as though one is fully present at the giving of the Torah. When we study Torah with our community, we prepare for the moment the Torah is revealed to each of us. As the rabbis have said, “Anything any student of any age will say was already given to Moses at Mount Sinai.” Anything we say about the Torah is also a part of what was originally delivered to Moses. The revelation of the Torah began at Mount Sinai but it has never stopped.