Welcome to the ultimate Shavuot guide where you can learn all of the holiday’s why’s, how’s and when’s. This fun holiday contains an array of fascinating ideas – join me on a journey to find out what it’s all about!
Shavuot is one of the three Jewish festivals that have both a historical and an agricultural significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). Historically, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Agriculturally, we commemorate the time of the first harvesting of the crops.
Shavuot is also known as Hag ha’ bikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits. This is because of an ancient tradition. In Biblical times, spring harvests begin at Passover and continued for seven weeks until all the crops ripened. The first of each output (known as the bikkurim) would not be eaten but saved for a special purpose.
When Shavuot time came around, the farmers would gather the bikkurim and bring them to Jerusalem as an offering of thanks. The farmers living near the city would bring fresh fruit, those living farther away would bring dried fruit (that wouldn’t get damaged over their long journey).
Another common name for the holiday is Hag Matan Torah, meaning the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. This occasion took place during the Israelites’ journey through the desert, at the foot of Mount Sinai. This was a unique mountain, green and flourishing, a stranger in the dry desert landscape that was all around.
Naturally, the Israelites set camp near the mountain. Then on the third day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, God commanded Moses to prepare the people for His appearance. After those three days, the sky darkened and there was thunder and lightning. The sound of the shofar was heard and the earth began to tremble. It was at that point when God spoke and gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments, that they became a nation.
This invigorating festival is celebrated on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (usually around June). The date is determined as follows: starting the day after Passover eve, 49 consecutive days are counted after which the Shavout celebration begins. These seven weeks of counting are called ‘the counting of the Omer’, they are also the reason for which the holiday is called ‘the Feast of the Weeks’. It is said in the Torah: “Seven weeks shall you number to you … And you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God.”
During the holiday it is traditional to eat dairy meals. There are two customary opinions as to why we do so. The first is so that we remember the promise regarding the land of Israel, in which it was described as a land flowing with ‘milk and honey’. The other, is to commemorate one of the outcomes of the events that took place at Mount Sinai: after receiving the Torah along with the kashrut (dietary) laws, the Israelites understood that their utensils and meat were not kosher (unfit for use, according to the dietary laws) and they had no choice but to eat only dairy foods.
It is also traditional to read the Book of Ruth and study the Torah during Shavuot. There are several interpretations for the symbolism of this act, here is my personal favorite: Ruth (the leading character of the Book of Ruth) was a Moabite woman who accepted the Torah and converted to Judaism. By reading her story during the time of the ‘ Festival of the Giving of the Torah’ we commemorate the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai.