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.

Happy Anniversary, Jewish People!

Shavuot is nearly here.

Sometimes I think that Shavuot is the Jewish festival of the future. We know that in ancient times Sukkot was the most-anticipated Jewish holiday, so much so that people called it HeChag, THE Holiday. And in our own era, the big Chag is Pesach, or Passover. More Jews worldwide celebrate Passover in some form than any other event in the Jewish year. But the third Chag, the third pilgrimage festival mentioned in the Torah has not yet been the “big” festival. I wonder if there is some future age in which Shavuot will be the day we all anticipate?

Unlike the others, Shavuot is just one day, sundown to sundown. There are no sukkot for partying, no seder table at which to sit. Instead we eat some cheesecake, say the appointed prayers, and Torah students stay up all night and study. We do these things to remember the fateful day when we, as a people, accepted the Covenant and received the Torah.

I fell in love with Torah study during a Shavuot all-nighter, and it always feels a bit to me like an anniversary. It’s become a time to ask myself, what Torah have I learned this year? What do I want to learn in the future?

That feeling is actually not so far from the reality. A Jewish wedding ceremony consists of two parts: Erusin [betrothal] and Nissuin [the actual wedding.] If Passover was a betrothal, with a formal commitment and the giving of an object of value (freedom) then the Giving of the Torah was the wedding between God and Israel, joined forever in a covenant. This truly is our anniversary celebration.

In Bava Metzia 59b, the sages remind each other Lo b’shemayim hee – “She [Torah] is not in Heaven.” On Shavuot, this year on the night of May 23, we will celebrate the moment when Heaven and Earth met, and Israel accepted the Torah into her arms.

Perhaps one day we will find a way to celebrate Shavuot that will express the gravity and joy of the occasion. Until then, I will simply say, Chag Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!

What’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

A New Jew receives the Torah
A New Jew receives the Torah

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is one of the ways to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. It is an all-nighter Torah study session on Erev Shavuot.

In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the people to prepare themselves for something that will happen on the third day. They are to wash their clothes and purify themselves, and to abstain from sex. The third day, God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai with terrifying lightning and thunder.

There is a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:57) that the Israelites went to bed early on the second night, in order to be well rested for the giving of the Torah. They were so tired (from all the bathing?) that they overslept and Moses was nearly late going up the mountain to receive the commandments. Tikkun Leil Shavuot  “repair of the night of Shavuot” is a way of expressing our hunger for Torah, that unlike our ancestors, not only will we not oversleep, we will stay up all night, studying Torah in order to be ready to receive it.

The first Tikkun Leil Shavuot took place in Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire (now in Greece) in the 16th Century. It was hosted by Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the Shulkhan Arukh and a great Sephardic mystic.)  Today, in many Jewish communities, Jews gather to stay up late or even all night, to study together.

It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but I have some wonderful memories from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which I’ve written about in another post, Why I Love Shavuot.

Whatever you do this Shavuot, I hope that you do something to celebrate this least-famous Jewish holiday. If your community has a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, go for a while (not everyone stays all night.) If you don’t have one available, invite a friend over to read from the Torah and ponder it together. If you don’t have a friend, get out a commentary or look at some of the great learning resources online. Or if nothing else, have some cheesecake!

Soon I’ll post more about online resources. Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!

Why I Love Shavuot

English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt
English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so excited:  my favorite Jewish holiday is coming!

I love Shavuot. I’ve loved it ever since the first time someone suggested I go to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Study for the Night of Shavuot, which might better be called the Jewish All Nighter.

I was a new convert, fresh from the mikveh. I’d been going to Torah Study at my synagogue for a while, but I found it very intimidating. Everyone was so sure of themselves! And loud! I was a bit timid, and while I loved study, Torah study was overwhelming. Still, when someone turned to me and asked if I was going to attend the all night study session to celebrate the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai, I nodded.

I learned a lot of Torah that night, but I learned more about Jews, and about myself. I got a feel for the joy of study, for the adrenaline charge in a good machlochet [difference of opinion]. I learned that even the most scholarly people get silly after 2 am. Most of all, by the end of the night I was one of the gang. I never again felt timid in that room.

It’s been a long time since that first Tikkun. Now I’m a rabbi, and I’m teaching one of the 11:30pm sessions at the community gathering at the JCC. The rest of the night I’ll go from session to session, learning and getting silly and yawning and learning some more. But there will still be that giddy feeling of sitting up all night with the Torah, loving it and loving the people of Torah. What could be more wonderful?