You might call Shavuot the “Pete Best of Jewish holidays.” Like the Beatles’ drummer before Ringo, the festival tends to be a mere footnote for most people or is largely overshadowed by its counterparts.
Shavuot is a holiday in desperate need of a good marketing firm.
Virtually everyone knows Passover is a holiday that the majority of American Jews, even the most unaffiliated or disinterested, observe in some manner or another. But there’s still a sizable percentage of Jews who don’t observe Shavuot — or have even heard of it.
So what is Shavuot? It’s just a yom tov, or holiday, commemorating the seminal event in Jewish history, a moment that some would even say serves as the basis for Western civilization.
A two-day festival that this year starts at sundown on May 30 and concludes at sunset on June 1, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three biblical pilgrimage festivals (the other two being Sukkot and Passover).
The word Shavuot means weeks, and the holiday marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. (Shavuot is the only holiday mentioned in the Torah without a specific calendar date.) The counting is to remind Jews of the connection between the physical bondage from which the ancient Israelites were freed and the spiritual redemption of the giving of the Torah.
Like other Jewish holy days, no working, driving, writing or use of electricity is permitted on Shavuot, and special meals are eaten during the holiday. It is customary to consume dairy foods — blintzes, cheesecake, kreplach, etc. — on Shavuot.
There are myriad opinions on why dairy is traditionally consumed on the holiday. Among them is that Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, including the laws of kashrut, or kosher dietary restrictions.
Some commentators also say the tradition is a reminder of the biblical description of Israel as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Another theory is that the gematriah, or numerical value, of chalav, the Hebrew word for milk, is 40, which was the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.
All Night Long
On the first night of Shavuot, it is customary to stay up all night and study Torah (called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or repairing of Shavuot night), while praying as early in the morning as possible (to symbolize the Jewish people’s exuberance about the giving of the Torah). Most synagogues and yeshivot organize special classes and lectures throughout the night.
On the first day of the holiday, synagogue services are held that feature the reading of the Ten Commandments. On the second day, the Yizkor memorial service for the departed is recited at synagogues, and some communities read the Book of Ruth. That’s because King David — who tradition holds was born and died on Shavuot — was a descendant of Ruth the Moabite.
In ancient times, two wheat loaves were traditionally offered in the Holy Temple during Shavuot. It was also a time when people would bring bikkurim, the first fruits of the harvest, to the Temple to thank the Almighty for Israel’s bounty.
During Shavuot, synagogues are customarily decorated with branches and flowers because tradition holds that Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers on the day of the giving of the Torah.
In Israel, Shavuot holds a special place in the national psyche. In 1967, the Israeli army recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War only a few days before Shavuot. Since then, more than 200,000 Jews journey by foot to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, every Shavuot.
Another recurring Israeli Shavuot tradition is, believe it or not, water fights. In many cities, kids wage impromptu water balloon and water gun battles in streets, parks and public squares. The assumption for this custom is that the Torah often is compared to flowing water.
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