Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that today celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people more than 3300 years ago at Mount Sinai. The Talmud tells us that God gave the Torah to the Jews on the sixth night of the Hebrew month of Sivan which always falls 50 days after the second night of Passover.
In Biblical times, Shavuot also was one of the three pilgrimage festivals when Israelite males were commanded to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem to bring the first fruits of their harvest as offerings. However, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, this aspect of the holiday was lost and the focus shifted solely to the spiritual aspect of this day, the revelation at Mt. Sinai.
According to the Midrash, the Jewish people apparently overslept the night before they received the Torah and God had to blow shofar blasts along with thunder and lightning in order to wake them up. So today, in order to rectify this, and to show our anticipation of this day, many Jews celebrate Shavuot by staying awake all night to study Torah at their synagogue or at home. A special book, known as “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” was also composed for this purpose and it includes chapters from the Torah, the Mishnah, Gemara and Zohar.
Almost every Jewish holiday has its special foods and Shavuot is no different. According to tradition, we should eat dairy foods such as cheese, cheesecake and milk on Shavuot. This practice is derived directly from Scripture where Torah is likened to milk, as the verse says, “Like honey and milk (the Torah) lies under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11).
There is also support for this custom based on the spiritual development among the Israelites at the time of Sinai. Until the giving of the Torah, Jews were permitted to eat meat without observing the Jewish dietary laws. However, after receiving the Torah, they could not eat meat without ritual slaughter, and since the first Shavuot occurred on Shabbat, no ritual slaughter could take place. Therefore, they must have eaten dairy on the first Shavuot, a custom which remains to this day.
The Book of Ruth
Another established Shavuot custom is the public reading of the Book of Ruth. In the story, Ruth the Moabitess converted and accepted the Torah (“your G-d will be my G-d”), so too every year Israel is “converted” and accepts the Torah (“we shall do and we shall hear”) anew, . Also, Jewish tradition teaches that King David (Ruth’s great-great-grandson) was born and died on Shavuot.
Decorating the Synagogue
Finally, on Shavuot there is a custom to decorate the home and the synagogue with a variety of plants, flowers and greenery. This also alludes to the Sinai experience as the Midrash tells that when the Torah was given the desert bloomed with flowers as the Earth itself rejoiced.