Jewish Life

Welcoming Shavuot with customs of the season

By Deborah Fineblum

(JNS) I’ve often heard it said that Shavuot is the only major Jewish holiday many Diaspora Jews have never heard of or ever celebrated. And so, for the uninitiated, here’s a Shavuot primer. 

For starters, the two-day holiday (celebrated just one day in Israel) begins this year after Shabbat on Saturday evening, June 8, and ends at nightfall on Monday, June 10. Shavuot means “weeks” in Hebrew, arriving seven weeks after Passover, and concludes the counting of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover. 

More widely known, it celebrates the moment some 3,330 years ago when the Israelites interrupted their wanderings in the wilderness long enough to stand together at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, amid thunder and lightning, they were given God’s living laws, in the form of the Torah, that would guide and propel their descendants into becoming the longest-running religion on Earth.

The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, and marks the wheat harvest in Israel. The Torah teaches us to bring the first fruits of our harvest to God on Shavuot, but since the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Jews have had nowhere to bring these fruits. 

There is little else in the Torah to guide our celebrations, except from refraining from work. Note: Tying the holiday to the giving of the Torah was added after Second Temple days.

There are, however, quite a few age-old (and some newer) traditions for celebrating the holiday:

All-night (or at least late-night) learning. Tikkun Leil Shavuot (“Repair of Shavuot night”), instituted by the mystics of Tzfat in the 1500s, is so named because the tradition is to stay up all night learning to make up for our ancestors oversleeping on the morning they were to receive the Torah. It is traditional to stay up through the night engaging in a full night of study.

Cheesecake, blintzes and other dairy delights. This tradition reflects the Israelites’ 40-year trek to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Another connection: Jews compare the words of Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey. Try the spectacular cheesecake recipe included on this page!

An extra charitable deed or act of kindness. Based on the command the Torah gives us (Vayikra 23:22) to leave the corners of our field unharvested so the poor and the convert can come and take it at night (the dark saves them from embarassment).

Decorate homes and synagogues. Some fill their homes with beautiful flowers and greenery for the holiday, as do some synagogues.

Celebrate converts. This honors Ruth, the most notable Jew-by-choice, whose dramatic story we read on Shavuot. Ruth, destined to be the great-grandmother of King David, was known for her commitment and for stating: “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”

CAP: Haredi Jews follow an ancient biblical command and harvest wheat with a hand sickle in a field near the Israeli town of Modi’in. They will store the wheat for almost a year and then use it to grind flour to make Passover matzah. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90.

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