Mention Shavuot and what comes to mind? Well, if you are parent of a child in religious school, you think confirmation and the Ten Commandments; others may think of the story of Ruth, and many think cheesecake. Very few may recognize it as one of the three major pilgrimages of our ancestors. Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot was highly significant in the yearly cycle—a time when people brought (bikkurim) or their offerings of first fruits to the Holy Temple. Like many other Jewish holidays, Shavuot began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. Today, it is a “celebration of Torah, education, and actively choosing to participate in Jewish life.”
Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks” and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which occurs seven weeks after Passover. An entire Talmudic tractate deals with this practice, detailing all the pomp and circumstance associated with it. People would first assemble in the large town of the district and would go up together with their first ripe fruits to the Holy Temple where they would be welcomed with song by the Levites.
“An ox walked before them, its horns covered with gold, and with an olive crown on its head. The halil (flute) was played before them till they reached the vicinity of Jerusalem. Upon coming close to Jerusalem, they sent word ahead and decorated their bikkurim. The important officials went out to meet them… and all the tradesmen in Jerusalem stood before them and greeted them, ‘Our brothers, the men of such and such a place, you have come in peace.’”
The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, abolished sacrificial rites and the bikkurim ritual involving bringing first fruits to the Temple. Unlike the other two pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot and Passover, both of which had distinctive rituals, the festival of Shavuot had none. And so in rabbinic times, a remarkable transformation of the festival took place. Based on the verse “In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” [Exodus 19:1] the festival of Shavuot became the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Much of the observance of the holiday centers on the synagogue and its rituals including all-night study sessions. The special readings for the holiday may include medieval poems (piyyutim) and the Book of Ruth and is when special prayers are recited and Yizkor, the memorial service, is observed. An all-night study session is associated with Shavuot which is based on the kabbalists’ [mystics’] practice.
There are many explanations given for the reading of Ruth on Shavuot. One is that the book takes place at the time of the barley harvest and that Ruth’s acceptance of Naomi’s religion reflects the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. And since the Book of Ruth ends with the genealogy of David, whose forbearer was Ruth, it has been suggested that it is read on Shavuot because of the tradition that David died on Shavuot.
When, in the early 19th century, the German Reform movement eliminated Bar Mitzvah as the “coming of age” ceremony for its 13-year-old boys, it instituted a new initiation into Jewish life for its boys and girls: confirmation. The new ritual became associated with Shavuot linking it with giving of Torah and commemorating the voluntary acceptance of Judaism. After being introduced in America in 1846, and adopted by the Conservative movement and even some Orthodox congregations, confirmation grew in popularity, becoming a widespread feature on the first night or first morning of Shavuot. Today, however, Orthodox and the vast majority of Conservative congregations do not hold confirmation ceremonies.
The actual ceremony may vary. Confirmation students may lead all or part of the service, including the Torah reading. In some congregations, the Confirmation group focuses on a theme—such as G-d, learning, social justice, or Israel—and will incorporate this into the service and sermon. Some congregations also require the students to participate in community service projects in addition to study.
As for the eating of dairy, there are differences of opinion as to why it is a custom. Some derive the practice directly from scripture, saying we eat dairy to symbolize the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8) promised to the Israelites. Those of kabbalistic [mystical] bent equate the numerical value of the word halav (milk), 40 with the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and other teachings (Exodus 24:18). There are several more explanations. However, regardless of the reason, Happy Shavuot! Enjoy your blintzes and cheesecake and maybe learn a little!
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004