The Holiday of Shavuot is a two-day holiday, beginning at sundown of the 5th of Sivan and lasting until nightfall of the 7th of Sivan. In Israel it is a one-day holiday, ending at nightfall of the 6th of Sivan.
What Shavuot Commemorates
The word Shavuot means “weeks.” It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot.
The Torah was given by HaShem (G‑d) to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai on Shavuot more than 3,300 years ago. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we renew our acceptance of HaShem (G‑d)’s gift, and HaShem (G‑d) “re-gives” the Torah.
How to Celebrate
Shavuot is a full-fledged Yom Tov, and as such carries most of the same restrictions as on Shabbat – no driving, no writing, etc. The exception is that food preparation (e.g. cooking) is permitted. In Israel, Shavuot lasts one day; outside of Israel it is two days.
Perhaps the reason for the relative obscurity of Shavuot is because this holiday has no obvious “symbols” of the day – i.e. no Shofar, no Sukkah, no Chanukah Menorah.
On Shavuot, there are no symbols to distract us from the central focus of Jewish life: the Torah. So how do we commemorate Shavuot? It is a widespread custom to stay up the entire night learning Torah. And since Torah is the way to self-perfection, the Shavuot night learning is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which means “an act of self-perfection on the night of Shavuot.”
Those who study all night then say the morning prayers at the earliest permitted time – thus expressing the enthusiasm of the Jewish people to receive the Torah. Most synagogues and Yeshivot will organize special classes and lectures throughout the night of Shavuot.
At synagogue services on Shavuot morning, we read the biblical book of Ruth. Ruth was a non-Jewish woman whose love for HaShem (G-d) and Torah led her to convert to Judaism. The Torah intimates that the souls of eventual converts were also present at Sinai, as it says: “I am making [the covenant] both with those here today before the Lord our HaShem (G-d), and also with those not here today.” (Deut. 29:13)
Ruth has a further connection to Shavuot, in that she became the ancestor of King David, who was born on Shavuot, and died on Shavuot.
On Shavuot, it is customary to decorate the synagogue with branches and flowers. This is because Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers on the day the Torah was given. The Torah (Bible) also associates Shavuot with the harvest of wheat and fruits, and marks the bringing of the first fruits to the Bet Hamikdosh Holy Temple as an expression of thanksgiving. (see Exodus 23:16, 34:22, Numbers 28:26)
On Shavuot morning, the Yizkor memorial prayer for the departed is also said.
The Jewish tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot, various reasons have been suggested, among them:
- The Biblical book Song of Songs (4:11) refers to the sweet nourishing value of Torah by saying: “It drips from your lips, like honey and milk under your tongue.”
- The verse in Exodus 23:19 juxtaposes the holiday of Shavuot with the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. On Shavuot, we therefore eat separate meals – one of milk and one of meat.
- Upon receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jews immediately became obligated in the laws of Sh’chita – slaughter of animals. Since they did not have time to prepare kosher meat, they ate dairy instead.
- The numerical value of milk – Chalav – is 40. This hints to the 40 days that Moses spent atop Mount Sinai, and the 40 years the Jews spent wandering the desert.