Shavuot is a one-day holiday (two in the Diaspora) with many names, dozens of traditions, and recipes galore. It celebrates the Giving of the Torah in the Desert in 1312 BCE.
The hype surrounding the holiday in Israel — agricultural festivals at kibbutz and moshav communities, special lectures at synagogues and community centers, sales on everything white at shopping malls, cheaper dairy products at the supermarket, school plays, and child-oriented festivals — make it seem as though Shavuot is a much longer holiday.
On Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the first day of the third month after the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel reached the desert of Sinai and camped near the mountain. During the few weeks of traveling in the desert under Divine protection, with daily miracles, such as the manna and the birds, the miraculous sweetening of the water, the defeat of Amalek, and the crossing of the Red Sea, the Jewish people had become more and more conscious of G‑d. Their faith grew more intense daily, until they attained a standard of holiness, solidarity, and unity, never achieved before or after by any other nation.
Moses returned from Sinai and called for the elders of the people and put all these words of G‑d before them. Unanimously, with one voice and one mind, the people answered: Naaseh Venishma – “Everything G‑d has said, we will do.” Thus they accepted the Torah outright, with all its precepts, not even asking for a detailed enumeration of the obligations and duties it involved. When Israel had voiced its eagerness to receive the Torah, G‑d spoke to Moses again (Exodus: 20:17): “Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the L-rd will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.’ No hand shall touch it, for he shall be stoned or cast down; whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the ram’s horn sounds a long, drawn-out blast, they may ascend the mountain.”
Here are facts you may not have known about the holiday:
- Shavuot, which means “Festival of Weeks,” There are four names for the holiday. It also goes by Harvest Festival (Chag HaKatzir), Day of the First Fruits (Yom Habikurim), The Stoppage/Restrain (Atzeret – a reference the sages use to highlight the prohibition against work on this day), and Time of the Giving of the Torah (Z’man Matan Torah).
- Shavuot commemorates the day when the Israelites received the Torah during their desert wanderings 3,332 years ago and is the only Jewish holiday mentioned in the Torah without a specific calendar date. Rather, it is to be celebrated 50 days after the second day of Passover. The rabbis say that Passover and Shavuot are really one holiday – the Exodus from Egypt was only complete with the giving of the Torah. This is why we count 50 days of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot.
- Shavuot is the only Jewish holiday with a dairy menu. The Bible refers to Israel as “the land of milk and honey,” and Shavuot puts Israel’s world-famous dairies in the spotlight.
The Torah that Moses brought to the Israelites included the commandment to keep kosher. It was much easier to celebrate the receiving of the law with a dairy smorgasbord than to immediately set into motion kosher slaughtering techniques. Moreover, the gematria (numerical value) of the word chalav (milk) is 40, the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.
Israel boasts more than 1,000 locally made dairy products.
- In Israel, you know Shavuot is coming when you pick up your newspaper, and recipe booklets drop out. About three weeks prior to the actual date, Israeli newspapers come replete with brand-sponsored recipe booklets and pamphlets promising the “easiest cheesecake” and “fastest blintzes”
- Shavuot is “the” holiday for the farming communities of Israel to show off their agricultural prowess. The symbols of the holiday are the seven species with which the Land of Israel is blessed — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.
Tradition holds that in ancient times, Shavuot was the day to bring offerings to the Holy Temple from the first fruits of the harvest and the first animals born to the flocks.
- Staying awake all night is not just for teenagers. For centuries, it has been customary to study through the night as payback for the Israelites’ error in oversleeping in the morning they were supposed to receive the Torah. This year nearly all of the learning marathons were canceled as the synagogues were closed. There will be zoom sessions on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights before Shavout instead.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or the “Repair of Shavuot Night,” draws people from all denominations to synagogues, community centers, theaters, and schools for white-night group learning sessions. Most people come decked out in white (the color of purity). And while top rabbis and Torah scholars may have started the custom, today you can find speakers from all walks of life – singers, actors, professors, writers, spiritual guides, entrepreneurs – presenting lectures on this night.
Whether it is because of this custom or just because Israelis love to celebrate festivals, the days around Shavuot offer a dazzling array of child-oriented events, happenings, and fairs.
A Mother’s Approval
A young Jewish man excitedly tells his mother he’s fallen in love and that he is going to get married. He says, “Just for fun, Ma, I’m going to bring over three women and you try and guess which one I’m going to marry.”
The mother agrees.
The next day, he brings three beautiful women into the house and sits them down on the couch and they chat for a while. He then says, “Okay, Ma, guess which one I’m going to marry.”
She immediately replies, “The one on the right.”
“That’s amazing, Ma. You’re right. How did you know?
“I don’t like her.”