Shavuot – The Festival of Weeks

Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that falls on the sixth day of the sixth month (Sivan) of the year. Shavuot commemorates the day the G-d gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Jewish Holiday arrives fifty days after the second day of Passover, marked by 49 days of the Counting of the Omer. The Counting of the Omer derives form the Torah commandment to count 49 days beginning from the day on which the Omer (a sacrifice containing an omer-measure of barley) was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, up until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on Shavuot. Shavuot is celebrated for one day in Israel and two days in the diaspora. Reform Jews celebrate the Jewish holiday for one day irrespective of where they currently reside.

Besides being the day in which Moses handed down the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Shavuot is also connected with the harvest in Israel. Coincidentally (or not) Shavuot falls on the final day of the wheat harvest, giving Jews two great things to celebrate on the Jewish holiday. Staying up all night studying the Torah

To add a third reason for celebrating the Jewish holiday Shavuot, in the “old days” Shavuot marked the first day in which farmers could bring the Bikkurim (fresh fruits) into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Seven Species for which the land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates are bundled together and placed in a basket woven with gold and silver. The baskets would be loaded onto oxen, which were all dolled-up for the holiday with gilded horns laced with flowers and garland, and led in a grand procession into Jerusalem. As the farmers proudly paraded both their pretty oxen and bountiful baskets of tasty fruits, they would be accompanied by Jewish holiday music and parades.

Shavuot today

Unfortunately, long gone are the days of parading made-up oxen, but nowadays there are plenty of Jewish-holiday customs celebrated throughout Israel and the diasporas. If you’re Ashkenazi, you’re probably pretty familiar with the five major customs of the Jewish holiday, if not, read further!

Akdamut

In Temple on Shavuot, you’ll probably hear the liturgical Jewish-holiday poem Akdamut being read. This poem extols the greatness of G-d, the Torah and Israel and is read publicly in the synagogue before the Torah reading. This Jewish-holiday poem was written by Rabbi Meir of Worms (Worms being a German city of course) whose son was murdered during the Crusade of 1096. After his son’s tragic death, he was forced to defend his faith in front of local priests. Afterwards he wrote Akdamut, a 90-line poem which stresses the certainty of G-d’s power, His love for the Jewish people and the excellence of Torah.

Eating dairy foods

As with most Jewish holidays, on Shavuot there is a menu involved. On Shavuot it is customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake or blintzes with cheese. Why you may ask? There are a few different reasons. The big reason is that before Shavuot, Jews hadn’t received the Torah with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals). And because the food they had prepared beforehand was not in accordance with these laws, they opted to eat simple dairy meals to honor the Jewish holiday. Some say dairy is eaten on the Jewish holiday to honor King Solomon who described Torah as “milk and honey under your tongue.” Yet another reason given for eating dairy on the Jewish holiday is that Torah is likened to nourishing milk (and we think Soloman would agree). The Hebrew word for milk is chalav. Through some tricky mathematics, you can add the letters in chalav to get to the number 40, which is coincidentally (or not) the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.

The Book of Ruth

On the Jewish holiday, the Book of Ruth has special significance as it recounts the barley and wheat harvest seasons and Ruth’s desire to become a member of the Jewish people. Furthermore, it is said that Ruth’s great grandson, King David, was born and died on the Jewish holiday Shavuot.

Greenery

Since part of the major Jewish holiday celebrations revolve around the harvest, it’s customary to decorate your home and synagogue with fresh greens, flowers and fruits. Also, Sages recount that even though Mount Sinai was located in a desert, when the Torah was passed down to Moses, the mountain bloomed with beautiful flowers.

Note: In respect of the sanctity of Shavuot, all floral arrangements should be done on early Thursday, before the onset of the Jewish holiday.

Up all night with the Torah

On the first night of the Jewish holiday it is also customary to stay up late! Now kids, tell your parents this is one night when you get to go to bed when you like, but you have to study Torah, no watching cartoons. Seriously. According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people didn’t rise early on the day G-d gave the Torah and because they were still fast asleep, G-d himself had to wake them up! To compensate, Jews started the custom of staying up all night studying the Torah on the Jewish holiday.

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