Worthwhile information about Shavuot 

Note that the material here can also be used in tandem with what is provided in our other sections re: discussions, lessons, activities.

  • a refrigerator filled with dairy products and vegtablesDairy and Vegetarianism:  It is customary to eat dairy on Shavuot. One reason given is the description of Torah as akin to milk and honey. Another is that in immediate celebration after receiving the law, there was no time to kasherpots according to the new precepts. Another perspective is symbolically getting as close as possible to a purer state, akin to olam haba / a next and better world, while celebrating this gift of Torah and a raised level of being. 

    Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook himself (first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine) felt that the complexity of laws regarding kashrut generally and slaughter for meat were both actually meant to discourage its consumption. In regarding vegetarianism as a higher ideal to aim for, he pointed out that Adam and Eve did not eat meat and that in the account of creation we were informed that plants were provided to serve our food needs (Genesis 1:29). He was far from alone in his opinion of such an ethical ideal, the subject going way back to discussions by scholars even in medieval times.

  • When? :  Shavuot is celebrated on the 6th day of Sivan which this year starts the evening of the 14th of May.  It is one day long in Israel, thus continuing through the 15th. It lasts two days outside of Israel, so concludes the evening of the 16th.  
  • Isru Chag / אסרו חג –  This is a mini-festival for liturgical purposes, which follows a pilgrimage festival, in effect to sort of stretch the holiday a little. The basis for this is “Hold on to the festival, even as it departs” (Psalms 118:27). The term isru chag literally means “bind a festival”.
  • Tikkun Leyl Shavuot /  תיקון ליל שבועות  refers to a ‘preparation’ night for Shavuot. This is a custom of gathering together to spend the entire night studying and discussing Torah. Traditionally, in an effort to symbolically cover ‘everything’, one would include a small part from each book of the Tanach / Bible and from each section of the Talmud. (For those celebrating two days, some would have stamina for a second night and devote this to reading Tehilim/ Psalms). Less traditionally, with some advance deciding and preparation, whoever is gathering may choose what will be studied and/or discussed together that night, be it some portion of Torah etc., or some particular theme emphasis, etc.
  • Aseret Hadibrot / עשרת הדברות / the Ten Commandments appear in Exodus 20:2-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. According to tradition, these were given to Moshe that day to serve as the first outline and basis for the rest of Torah legislation and all laws in Judaism. 

    Not everyone is aware that there are actually different ways to separate these commandments depending upon one’s particular religious faith. In the Jewish version, dividing and numbering basically go like this – 1) I am the Lord Your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt.  2) Worship no other gods / no idolatry. 3) Do not take the name of G-d in vain. 4) Remember and keep the Shabbat. 5) Honor your parents. 6) Do not murder. 7) Do not commit adultery. 8)  Do not steal. 9) Do not bear false witness. 10) Do not covet.  

    Note that there are basically two or three subdivisions in concepts and directives here. The first four commandments concern identity of and relationship with G-d. The last six concern how we deal with people. The fourth and fifth commandments also can be said to reflect an overlap or link between those two other subdivisions, falling more in the intimate realm of home and family.

  • The Torah portion read at the service (Exodus 19 and 20) recounts the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.

    Among some communities and congregations, the Torah would customarily be passed on this occasion from person to person.

  • Shavuot is never mentioned in the Torah itself specifically as the time that we received that Torah. It is referred to in this sense for the first time actually in the Talmud. The basis given by the rabbis was where the Torah states that on the third new moon after the Israelites left Egypt  (e.g. 1st of Sivan)  they entered the Sinai wilderness (Exodus19:1). So identifying the chag additionally with Zman Matan Toratenu could be a reasonable supposition. It would also make sense to add to an already existing older festival that fell around that time.
  • Megilat Rut /  מגילת רות –  The Book of Ruth is especially suited to being read on Shavuot, typically as prelude to the afternoon service (on the first day when celebrating two).  For more, please see “Let’s Talk About It”.
  • Akdamut / אקדמות  is a ninety verse long liturgical poem that is read before the Torah portion on Shavuot. Meaning “introduction” in Aramaic, it was composed in the 11th century supposedly by the French rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nahorai. It has three basic parts- the 1st extols G-d, the 2nd discusses a persecuted but stubborn Israel that refuses to give up its faith, and the 3rd describes a future with the arrival of the hoped-for messiah. Akdamut was an Ashkenazi addition. Some Sephardim instead recite the Azharot / אזהרות (“exhortations”) – a liturgical poem form of the 613 mitzvot / commandments.
  • Confirmation was conceived of originally by the Reform movement in the late 19th century to serve as a replacement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, since it was felt that an older age was more suited to a rite of passage of taking on more adult responsibilities. While the Bar Mitzvah milestone did not fade out as expected, this confirmation addition did take hold nonetheless and spread eventually into many Conservative congregations as well.

    The connection to Shavuot thematically works especially well (not only in terms of the school calendar), as this was when we as a people reconfirmed and expanded our covenant with G-d.

    At the younger end of the student spectrum, children at the age of 3-5 were often brought for the first time into their yeshiva on Shavuot. They would be given sweet things to eat like honey and cake to symbolize that Torah study was a sweet and positive pursuit.

  • There is a custom among some of baking a special challah with a ladder-shaped braid on top. This is because the Hebrew letters that make up sulam(ladder) and Sinai result in the same numerical sum, and both would also be associated with ascending, akin to spiritual gain in accepting Torah.
  • Some eat three-sided kreplach / dumplings on this occasion. It’s attributed to such reasons as three kinds of Jews – Israelites, Levites and Kohanim, three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), three components to TaNaCh (the Hebrew Bible), etc.
  • Chag HaBikurim / חג הבכורים  /  Festival of the First Fruits –  Besides bringing a barley offering at Passover, we were actually directed to take first fruits from any land we might own to the Temple through the period extending from Shavuot to Sukkot  (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). By first fruits, the Torah means the seven species. These would be barley, wheat, vines, pomegranates, figs, dates and olive oil (Deuteronomy 8:8).
  • It is a custom to decorate one’s home and synagogue with greenery and flowers, especially fragrant ones. Many also wear white (or at least a white shirt). Younger children in Israel often create and wear a zer prachim (flower wreath for one’s head).

    Besides the seasonal aspects, this time is also thought of as the judgment day of trees according to the Talmud.

    On kibbutzim, emphasis on nature and agricultural elements were brought back more, and thus sometimes include agricultural processions, dance and music presentations.


Shavuot שבועות

Count me in.
Count me among.

With freedom, we start learning to have expectations. 
With freedom, we start needing a new framework too – to function within.
And so, with freedom, we have expectations in turn placed upon us, 
and then, we can start to truly aspire to be more than we were.  

Shavuot is a continuation, a culmination and a beginning.  What began in Egypt, what is recounted and re-experienced in Passover / Pesach, reaches a new defining moment – a most overwhelming one – and it does this a mere seven weeks later, at the time of this festival. 

But before we get there, let’s start at an earlier beginning…  

Shavuot is clearly multilayered, as reflected in its names. Typical of the evolution of our chagim / holidays, its origins were agricultural. Thus it is also known as Yom Habikurim / the Day of the First Fruits, and Chag Hakatzir / the Festival of the Harvest.  Reaping the second grain – wheat – would start seven weeks after the harvest of barley, the first grain (Chag Hamatzot aka Pesach). The word shavuot means “weeks”. As one can see, sefirat ha-omer /  the counting of the omer  grew out of this same orientation. Omer means sheaf or bundle of grain. As instructed in  Leviticus 23:15-16, starting from the offering of barley (second day of Passover),  one should count seven weeks plus one day, or fifty days, to the scheduled offering of the second harvest. 

Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays / shlosha regalim (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). This second grain harvest would commence with its offering of thanks and hope in the form of two loaves baked from the first sheaves of wheat. These loaves were then taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, with one’s procession (transportation animals and carts included) bedecked in greenery and flowers of the season now in full bloom.  

While Shavuot is mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 23:14-19, Leviticus 23:9-22), it refers to this agricultural celebration, not to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The primary emphasis placed on that aspect of the chag only developed somewhat later. Which then gave us yet another name for thisholiday – Zman Matan Toratenu  – “time of the giving of our Torah”. 

Among more observant Jews, sefirat ha-omer is still done daily at this time. But by now the idea had evolved into one of mounting anticipation of a different kind: we are in a state of being newly freed, then transitioning. With Shavuot we arrive at Mount Sinai to receive the framework and wisdom of Torah. 

One might almost look at this as another kind of planting, growth and then harvest of a rather different material – fledgling redeemed people – which would then be further reconfigured and harnessed to the creation and growth of something higher and better. Because what we have here is an ascent – and a quite rapid and steep one at that (also likely due to brass-tacks necessity) – from physical redemption to advancement on a whole new level. A level of “project” that is an even bigger seismic shift than leaving Egypt had been. Because this next step marks the start of intellectual and spiritual redemption, as well as the further molding of a people, a future society, an incipient national consciousness.  

As a demarcation point in terms of the more immediate physical redemption story, Shavuot is therefore also known as “Atzeret” – meaning both assembly and cessation. It was viewed by rabbis in the Talmud as an endpoint to Pesach, which had marked that first initial physical freedom. 

The Book of Ruth / Megillat Rut is read at this time. It is such a wonderfully apt choice of text for Shavuot in its weaving of the holiday’s many themes and layers (see “Let’s Talk About It”).  Not only that, but one may well consider that we too were basically all “converts”, newly committing at Har Sinai

When we celebrate Shavuot, we are not only expressing thankfulness to G-d for both physical sustenance of harvests and higher law and guidance in the gift of Torah. Like Moshe going up that mountain, an ascent is not easy. And this one is continual and active, not static or passive. Shavuot represents a parallel ongoing ascent, albeit with many continual stumbles and failings, for each of us personally and together as a people.  

At this time we are actively re-recognizing that responsibilities come with freedom, we are re-enacting a choice in framework and codes to live by, and we are reaffirming who we together share those codes with by our group identity.  We are either more formally committing for the first time, as youth do with confirmation, or reminding ourselves, reviewing and refreshing our commitments and connections.  

We are truly saying: “we choose”, “count me in”, “count me among”, “let us aspire to grow to be more than we were”, and as part of that, to each ascend “to do more good works / ma-asim tovim”.