Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that is observed on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which often occurs in May or June. Shavuot 2023 begins at sundown on Thursday, May 25, and is observed for one day in Israel and for two days in traditional communities elsewhere.
While the ancient festival has Biblical origins as a grain harvest holiday, and traditionally marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer and the passing of seven weeks after Passover, many other customs — like celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and eating cheesy foods — have developed over time.
Shavuot is also one of the Jewish holidays that many people often know the least about. Whether this is your first Shavuot or your 50th, read on to learn more about the history of this fascinating holiday, as well as how it’s celebrated in modern times in Israel and around the world!
Why does the counting of the Omer end on Shavuot?
Counting the Omer (which you can learn more about here) occurs during the 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot. There are varying explanations, although one of the most common is that the 50-day period prepares us spiritually to remember the receiving of the Torah. According to the Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th-century Jewish text, the Israelites were only freed from slavery in Egypt in order to receive the Torah.
Is Shavuot mentioned in the Torah?
Yes, although Shavuot is referred to in the Torah by three different Hebrew names:
- Chag HaShavuot (Festival of the Weeks, or Feast of Weeks)
- Chag HaKatzir (Festival of the Harvest)
- Yom HaBikkurim (Day of the First Fruits)
The literal translation of Shavuot is “Weeks,” which many believe alludes to the fact that the holiday occurs seven weeks after Passover, or Pesach, and is when the counting of the Omer concludes. Shavuot is also similar to the word for seven in Hebrew, adding another layer of significance. In English, Shavuot is also less commonly called the Feast of Weeks or the Pentecost (which is different from the Christian Pentecost holiday).
In the Torah, Shavuot was synonymous with the beginning of the ancient grain harvest, particularly wheat. When the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem, some of the harvested wheat was brought as an offering. Shavuot is one of the three Biblical agricultural festivals that involved bringing offerings to the Temple (the other two are Sukkot and Passover).
During Temple times, Shavuot was also the first day that farmers and others could bring fruits to be offered; they often brought the Seven Species of the Land of Israel to the Temple Priests. This is how Shavuot came to be known as Yom HaBikkurim.
Are Bikkurim still part of Shavuot celebrations?
Kibbutzim (communal farms) in Israel have often celebrated Shavuot by hosting special events for both kibbutz members and Israelis from across the country to enjoy and celebrate the farm’s harvest over the last year and the first fruits of the season, as well as honoring any babies born since last Shavuot. While this practice is less widespread now, Israelis still understand the day as a time to appreciate agricultural harvests and the significance of being able to harvest wheat, barley, dates, and other fruits in the Land of Israel.
Wait. I thought Shavuot had to do with the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
It does! These days, Shavuot is known as a late spring holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah. It is celebrated at nightfall with a festive meal, followed by staying up all night, eating dairy foods, studying Torah and other traditional Jewish texts and topics, and then praying Shacharit (morning prayers) at one’s synagogue before going home to sleep. There are special holiday prayer services during the day as well.
However, the correlation between Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is not found in the Bible itself. The Sages, whose wisdom is found in the Babylonian Talmud, were the first to suggest that Shavuot should also mark the day that the Jewish people received the Torah and all of its commandments.
Why do we eat dairy during Shavuot?
There is not one single reason or moment in history that explains why dairy foods came to be synonymous with Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is compared to milk by King Solomon in the Song of Songs (which is read during Passover). Others say it is because before receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, Jews were not obligated to keep kosher, and the first meal they opted for after the revelation of the mitzvot was a dairy meal. Others say that it’s because the gematria (Hebrew numerical value) of the word chalav (“milk” in Hebrew) is 40, which corresponds to the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God.
While many Ashkenazi Jews associate Shavuot with blintzes and cheesecake, there are many Jewish communities around the world who have their own unique and ancient Shavuot recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. If you want to switch up your menu by incorporating global Jewish cuisine, check out our list of 7 Shavuot recipes from around the world!
How do traditional Jews observe Shavuot?
The only clear Biblical requirement for Shavuot is that it is to be observed after Passover. Like any other chag or major Jewish holiday, traditional Jews refrain from working, using electricity, and other acts that are prohibited on Shabbat and holidays, although it is permitted to cook in certain ways once the holiday begins.
While every community has their own practice, the most widespread Shavuot tradition is eating dairy foods. Other common community observances involves reading the Book of Ruth, decorating synagogues and homes with flowers and other greenery, and staying up all night to learn. Many synagogues have shiurim (lectures) on interesting Jewish topics, while others will study a specific traditional text. These all-night study sessions are called a tikkun leil shavuot.
Why is the story of Ruth associated with Shavuot?
There are several explanations that address why the story of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David and traditionally considered the first person to convert to Judaism, is tied to Shavuot. One reason is because, as we stated before, Shavuot is understood as the day that King David died. Another reason is because Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, with an overarching theme of the Israelites’ embrace of the commandments.
Ruth was a Moabite who chose to leave her own family and beliefs behind to follow Naomi and ultimately join the Israelites, take on Jewish traditions, and become part of the Jewish people by entering the covenant. The Book of Ruth explains this journey and is seen as a fitting story to remember during the holiday of Shavuot as we all contemplate and celebrate our own relationships to the Torah, Mount Sinai, God, and Jewish tradition.
How can I celebrate Shavuot 2022?
Reach out to your local synagogue, Jewish Community Center (JCC), or rabbi and find out if they are planning any celebrations or special learning events for the holiday!