A New Jew receives the Torah

What is Shavuot?

Image: A new Jew makes a commitment to a life of Torah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Shavuot [shav-00-OHT or sh-VOO-us] is coming. Even thought it is a major Jewish holiday, only the more observant Jews will even be aware of it.

That’s a shame. It’s a beautiful holiday – and in real ways, it is the completion of the journey we began at the Passover seder. The trouble is that unlike Passover, it didn’t see as successful a transition to the new realities Jews faced after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The drama and pageantry of the holiday made Shavuot a major event in the Jewish year.

Perhaps the most famous record of Shavout is that in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2. While that chapter refers to an experience of the disciples that later came to be remembered by Christians as Pentecost, one verse tells us a lot about Jerusalem during Shavuot:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. – Acts of the Apostles 2:5

Jews from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot! This tells us that:

  • Jews lived all over the world by the year we now remember as 33 CE and
  • Shavuot was so important, and such a pleasure, that they would travel from Italy, and Spain, and Babylon to attend the festival.

In the Bible, the festival has three names:

  • Chag Shavuot [Festival of Weeks] (Exodus 34:22) because it comes precisely 7 weeks (49 days) after Passover
  • Chag K’tzir [Festival of Reaping] (Exodus 23:16) because it aligns with the barley harvest in Israel
  • Yom HaBikkurim [Day of the First Fruits] (Numbers 28:26) because this was the festival at which farmers would bring the first fruits from their fields to offer in the Temple.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on June 11 in 2016.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day. We complete the count on the night before Shavuot.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot.
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.
  • Many conversions to Judaism are scheduled for the time around Shavuot, because of the connection with receiving the Torah and the Book of Ruth.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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