Among the annual harvest festivals in the Jewish calendar, Shavuot is the lesser-known, when you compare it to Sukkot and Passover. The holiday is known as the festival of “Weeks” as well. Shavuot is a movable festival that takes place in one or two days in the early part of summer. Shavuot commemorates the announcement of the Torah’s Ten Commandments.
This year, Shavuot is going to be from the sunset of May 28 until the nightfall of May 30.
What is Shavuot?
The literal meaning of Shavuot is “weeks”, and it concludes the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. It recalls the seven-week journey of the Israelites and Moses through the desert to Mount Sinai.
The festival marks the Torah’s revelation to the Jewish people more than 3,3000 years ago on Mount Sinai. Celebrating the Shavuot is renewing the acceptance of the Jewish people of the gift from God.
Many believe that the festival is related to an old agricultural holiday, which became more meaningful due to the occurrence of the events on Mount Sinai. With this belief, Jews decorate their synagogues and houses with greenery and flowers, an act of bringing the outdoors into their homes and places of worship.
In the agricultural calendar, it is the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.
Customs and traditions
Among the many activities the Jews observe during the commemoration of Shavuot, the most significant is studying and preparing to receive the knowledge from the Torah all night (Tikkun Leil Shavuot). Most Jews read the Book of Ruth.
Ruth was one of the widowed daughters-in-law of Naomi, who was a widow herself. The other daughter-in-law was Orpah. They were living in Moab at that time. Naomi wanted to go back to Bethlehem and encouraged the two women to remarry. Orpah reluctantly agreed to follow Naomi’s advice while Ruth decided to stay with Naomi out of love and filial duty.
Ruth had to leave everything behind to be with Naomi and espoused Judaism. Ruth’s obedience to God and her kindness was rewarded. She met and married Boaz, a wealthy farmer in Bethlehem and gave birth to their son, Obed, who later became King David’s grandfather.
Aside from studying the Torah all night, the Jewish people observe several customs and traditions to celebrate the holiday.
At dawn, the Jews say their prayers, to thank God for giving the Torah to Moses
Traditionally, Jews prepare food with dairy products. Milk is associated with the Torah because the Holy Book directly nourishes the Jews. Milk in Hebrew means chalav, which has a numerical value of 40. The number corresponds to the number of days spent by Moses on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
Some people believe that the association of milk with the food eaten on Shavuot has something to do with kosher laws. Only when the Israelites received the Torah did they learn of the kashrut laws. They discovered that meat was not kosher, which prompted them to switch to dairy dishes and fish.
Other people believe that the serving of dairy dishes is due to the availability of fresh milk because spring is the time when many animals produce milk.
Favorite foods during Shavuot are kugels, cheese blintzes, cheese sambousek, cheese kreplach, and cheesecake. Other people prepare “siete cielos” or seven heavens, which is a seven-layer bread that represents Mount Sinai.
The Jews generally believe that Mount Sinai was covered with flowers when Moses received the Torah. In honor of the occasion, the Jews decorate their synagogues and homes with sweet-smelling flowers and greenery.
Jewish people observe several other customs and traditions:
- To usher the holiday, women and girls light up holiday candles on the first and last evening of the Shavuot.
- Everyone, from young children to adults should listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments.
- Jewish people should refrain from working while observing Shavuot.
- The Jews in Israel should listen to the recitation of the Yizkor memorial service on Shavuot’s second day.
Traditionally, Jews exchange different styles of greeting during Shavuot. One of the most common is Chag Sameach, which means Happy Holidays.
For the Ashkenazi Jews, they greet each other with Gut yom tov.
Sephardic Jews exchange Chag same’ ach.
In the tradition of Chabad, people wish each other “kabolas hatorah besimchah ubepnimiys.” The greeting means wishing someone to “receive the Torah with joy and sincerity.”
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