20 September 2015 - 7 Tishri 5776 - ז' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ו
Observing Shavuot Print E-mail

Shavuot takes place on the sixth and seventh of Sivan and marks fifty days after the first Seder. It marks the end of the forty-nine days of the counting of the Omer.

Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is most importantly, the day in which the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. It marks the true redemption of the Jewish people, freed from the mindset of slavery and ready to receive the laws.

There is reference to Shavuot in the Mishnah when it is described as the “Time of the Giving of the Law.” There is much to be said for the word choice of giving rather than receiving. It implies an active role rather than a passive role for the Jewish people. The word “giving” alludes to the concept that God gave the Torah but it was ours to take, to actively choose to enter into a Covenant.

Shavuot has its roots in an ancient agricultural festival that contributed to many of the customs associated with the holiday. It is one of the three pilgrimage festivals when males were required to offer the first fruits from their harvest to God. Fruit remains thematically important to the holiday.

We read Ruth, one of the five scrolls or Megillot, on this day. There are many reasons to explain why this Megillot is read in conjunction with Shavuot.

First, on a practical level, the story focuses on the grain harvest and connects Shavuot to its agricultural roots and the barley used in measure of the Omer for the offering.

On a deeper level, the acceptance of Ruth of the laws of the Jewish people is reflective of the acceptance of the Jewish people of the Torah when it was given at Mount Sinai.

Furthermore, King David, a descendant of Ruth is said to have died at this time of year. He is mentioned in the Megillot itself as well.

Both Hallel, the Psalms of Praise, is recited and Yizkor, the memorial service, is observed on the second day of the holiday.  There are two Torah scrolls read on each day as well as the inclusion of two medieval poems and the Song of Songs.

As far as other public observances, there is the custom of planting new flowers around the synagogue just prior to the holiday, a reminder of the harvest and the agricultural roots. There is also a tradition of staying up for all or most of the night to study Jewish texts. There is a set liturgy for this study.

To many the holiday is best known for the practice of eating dairy products (the cheesecake holiday).  

While the exact reason for this is unknown, many speculate that it is because once the Jewish people received the Law, they immediately were forced to eat a meatless meal until they could kosher meat for themselves. Other reasons include a reference to “honey and milk” in the Song of Songs, which is read on Shavuot.

Additionally, some people interpret the tradition of eating dairy as a way of people not having to be reminded of the sin of the golden calf. Meat is often a main meal on the second day of the festival.

Additionally, there is the custom of eating two loaves of challah on Shavuot because two loaves were part of the required offering. This also forms a beautiful contrast with Pesach where we are forbidden from eating bread at all.

It is a time of great happiness as once the law was received we were truly free from bondage and ready to accept the Covenant as a people. The generation of Jews with the mindset of slaves was no longer present, after the forty years in the desert, and the future as a people with a direct relationship with God was now realised.

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