Shavuot

Do you know the names of the three pilgrim festivals, or as they are called in Hebrew, the "shalosh regalim," in the Jewish calendar? They are the three holidays during which our ancestors walked to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and celebrate together. As God says in Exodus 23: 14-17: " Three times you are to hold pilgrimage for me, every year … At three points in the year are all your males to be seen before the presence of God."

These holidays included Pesach (Passover) – the Festival of Freedom, Sukkot – the Harvest Festival, and … I always forget … oh yes, Shavuot – the Time of Receiving the Torah. It's not so strange that Shavuot tends to get overlooked because unlike the seder for Passover, or the fragile shelters of Sukkot, which both begin on the eve of a full moon, there is very little ritual or moonlight that bonds us to the holiday of Shavuot. So what is this holiday all about?

Shavuot, a holiday celebrated for one day in Israel and for two days outside of Israel, begins on the fifth of Sivan, which falls on the evening of May 27th this year. Shavuot is the Hebrew word for "weeks" and the festival occurs on the fiftieth day (seven weeks plus one day) after the second night of Passover. We actually count the days from Pesach to Shavuot every night at the conclusion of the Ma'ariv or evening service. By counting each day, we recall the biblical custom of the daily offering of an "omer," a sheaf of barley, from the early spring harvest until the time of the ripening wheat.

Many Jews observe the omer as a time of mourning for the loss of the Temple and the plague that befell Rabbi Akiba's students. As a result, these Jews do not cut their hair, attend concerts, or get married during the Omer.

Spiritually, it is a countdown or a "count-up" from the days of our slavery, through the birthing waters of freedom, to the mountain of revelation. It is also an opportunity to heal oneself by experiencing each day as a unique combination of the seven attributes of God, which include: loving kindness, discipline, compassion, perseverance, beauty, foundation-laying, and the manifesting our dreams. By the time we reach day number fifty, we've made a journey through the depths of our consciousness and are ready to receive the gift of the Torah.

But Shavuot has not always been seen as the holiday for receiving the Torah. The Torah itself describes the holiday in purely agricultural terms. As it says in Exodus 34:22: "The Pilgrimage – Festival of Weeks you are to make for yourselves, of the first-fruits of the wheat cutting…" The priests offered two loaves of leavened wheat bread in the Temple to mark the end of the "omer" period and the beginning a new agricultural season. In addition, families brought "bikkurim," or first fruits, to the Temple as specified in the Torah: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

By the end of the second Temple period, there were disagreements between the priests (Sadducees) and the early rabbis (Pharisees) regarding the nature of the holiday. In an attempt to democratize the religion and allow each person to see him/herself as liberated from Egypt and a recipient of Torah, an historical aspect was added to the agricultural nature of the holiday.

Shavuot became the celebration of the marriage contract between God and Israel – the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. With the destruction of the Temple, the loss of the priesthood, and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the historical meaning of the holiday became very significant. The result of the controversy can be seen in the five names for Shavuot:

  • Hag Hakatzir – The Festival of Reaping
  • Hag Hashavuot – The Festival of Weeks
  • Hag Habikurim – The Festival of the First Fruits
  • Atzeret – The Conclusion … The Talmud gives it this name. (M.R.H. 1:2, B. Pes. 68b). Shavuot is the conclusion to the holiday of Pesach much like Shemini Atzeret is the conclusion of Sukkot.
  • Zman Matan Torah – The Time of the Giving of the Torah … The Talmud (B. Shab. 86b-88a) suggests that the Ten Commandments were given on the 6th of Sivan.

Perhaps it is time to reintroduce this forgotten holiday of Shavuot into our lives and to find meaningful ways to bring its message into our homes and communities. Although most of us no longer live an agricultural lifestyle, it is essential that we remember our connection to the earth as humans and as Jews. We observe almost every one of our holidays for an agricultural as well as an historical reason. As we relearn how to live on the earth and in harmony with her cycles, and are able to pass it on to our children and our students, we will experience the simplicity and joy of the original meaning of the celebration. When we can welcome the stories of our ancestors as well as the living Torah of the seasons of our lives, we will truly be enriched by the wisdom of the Tradition.

Customs

  • To maintain a link with the agricultural nature of the festival, it is customary to decorate the home and synagogue with beautiful flowers and greens.
  • In the kibbutzim in Israel, the custom of bringing the first fruits has been revived and the ceremonies included processions, dancing and singing, and a celebration of the blessed fruits of the land.
  • Eating dairy dishes. No on knows for sure why this custom arose. Perhaps it is because of the verse in the Song of Songs 4:11, "honey and milk shall be under your tongue," referring to Torah. Cheese blintzes are one of the favorite foods for Shavuot.
  • The Book of Ruth is read … and for several reasons. In the story, Ruth arrives in the land of Israel around the time of Shavuot. Her genealogy at the end of the book reveals that she is the great-grandmother of King David who died on Shavuot. And her acceptance of our people and our traditions is comparable to receiving the Torah at Sinai.
  • Perhaps inspired by Ruth's choice to embrace the Jewish people, people often complete their learning, go to mikveh, and enter the covenant before Shavuot. Women often take the name Ruth for their Hebrew name. Jews by choice in many places are called to the Torah for the first time on Shavuot.
  • In the Reform and Conservative movements, this is the ceremonial time for the graduation from Hebrew High School.
  • Since the Torah is so deeply connected to learning, there is a kabbalistic custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot studying texts, singing songs and telling stories until the first rays of the sun call us to offer our Shacharit Prayers and read the Ten Commandments.