The holiday of Shavuot is a two-day holiday, beginning at sundown of the 5th of Sivan and lasting until nightfall of the 7th of Sivan (May 28–30, 2020). In Israel it is a one-day holiday, ending at nightfall of the 6th of Sivan.
The word Shavuot (or Shavuos) means “weeks.” It celebrates the completion of the seven-week Omer counting period between Passover and Shavuot.
Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is celebrated seven weeks after the second Passover seder. Although Shavuot began as an ancient grain harvest festival, the holiday has been identified since biblical times with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
How Is Shavuot Celebrated?
- Women and girls light holiday candles to usher in the holiday, on both the first and second evenings of the holidays.
- It is customary to stay up all night learning Torah on the first night of Shavuot.
- All men, women and children should hear the reading of the Ten Commandments on the first day of Shavuot.
- As on other holidays, special meals are eaten, and no “work” may be performed.
- It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. Menus range from traditional cheese blintzes to quiches, casseroles and more.
- On the second day of Shavuot, the Yizkor memorial service is recited.
- Some communities read the Book of Ruth during morning services, as King David — whose passing occurred on this day — was a descendant of Ruth the Moabite.
- Some have the custom to decorate their homes (and synagogues) with flowers and sweet-smelling plants in advance of Shavuot.
Like other Jewish holidays, the traditional Ashkenazi greeting for Shavuot is “Gut yom tov.”
“Yom tov,” which literally means “good day” in Hebrew, denotes a holiday. In Yiddish, it is normally mangled into something that sounds more like “YON-tiff.” Thus, the greeting can sound like “Gut YON-tiff” or even “GutJONntiff.” (When translating “Gut yom tov” into English, you arrive at the strangely redundant-sounding “Good good day.”)
Sephardic Jews prefer the Biblical term for a festival, “chag.” Thus, when wishing someone a joyous festival, they say, “Chag same’ach.” (Note that you pronounce it “KHAHG sah-MAY-ach.”)
In Chabad tradition, in the days leading to Shavuot it is customary to wish one another “kabolas hatorah besimchah ubepnimiys,” to receive the Torah with joy and sincerity.
Dairy Traditions at Shavuot
It is customary to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot. Menus range from traditional cheese blintzes and cakes to quiches, casseroles and more.
There are a number of reasons for this custom. Here are a few:
- On the holiday of Shavuot, a two-loaf bread offering was brought in the Temple. To commemorate this, we eat two meals on Shavuot—first a dairy meal, and then, after a short break, we eat the traditional holiday meat meal.
- With the giving of the Torah, the Jews became obligated to observe the kosher laws. As the Torah was given on Shabbat, no cattle could be slaughtered nor could utensils be koshered, and thus on that day they ate dairy.
- The Torah is likened to nourishing milk. Also, the Hebrew word for milk is chalav, and when the numerical values of each of the letters in the word chalav are added together—8 + 30 + 2—the total is forty. Forty is the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.
- When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, the angels urged G_d to reconsider His decision to give His most precious Torah to earthly beings. “Bestow Your majesty upon the heavens . . . What is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should be mindful of him?” (Psalms 8:5-7). One of the reasons why the angels’ request went unheeded is because of the Jews’ meticulous adherence to the laws of the Torah — including the kosher laws. Not so the angels, who when visiting Abraham consumed butter and milk together with meat (Genesis 18:8). On Shavuot we therefore eat dairy products and then take a break before eating meat — in order to demonstrate our commitment to this mitzvah.
Two Reflections on Shavuot
Shavuot During COVID-19 and Beyond
For many of us, this seven-week journey hits home hard. In what feels like the blink of an eye, we’ve shifted from busy, organized calendars to unpredictability, virtual schooling and cancelled vacations. Unfortunately, many of us have also lost friends or relatives. In very real ways, we’re forced to recreate a “new” life for ourselves in these very strange and trying times. But every dark cloud has its silver lining; instead of turning outwards and mending the world around us as we’re accustomed to doing, we’re able to focus our attention inwards to slow things down and get to know ourselves again.
The Torah introduces this seven-week journey with the word lachem, “for you,” because it can only be successful if done personally. Just like no two weddings or relationships are exactly alike, the pace and practice of personal growth and development is unique to each of us. In life, we get a return on what we invest in—individually, interpersonally, and spiritually. As we emerge from the 2020 pandemic of COVID-19 (hopefully very soon) and look back on how we spent our days, what return on investment will we see? What will our personal growth portfolio look like? What dividends will be able to collect?
Just as a bride and groom solidify all that they’ve worked towards so far in life under their chuppah, and then take those talents and collectively begin the next chapter of their lives together, so too will we take what we learned and how we grew during this time and infuse it into the years that lie ahead. The choice is ours—let’s own it and make the most of it!
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