Shalom, everyone! The biblical holiday of Shavuot, also known as the “Festival of Weeks,” is celebrated each year on the 6th day of Mattan, the third month, 50 days after the first yom tov (day of rest) of Chag HaMatzot on the 15th of Aviv. The count of 50 days from Chag HaMatzot until Shavuot begins on the 16th of Aviv. Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah (“Mattan Torah”) to the Nation of Yisra’el at Mount Sinai. This event is recorded in Exodus (“Shemot”) beginning in chapter 19. Shavuot also marks the end of Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer, and commemorates the wheat harvest in the Land of Yisra’el. Shavuot is considered a yom tov, that is, the Nation of Yisrael are forbidden to do normal work on this day.
Shavuot is the second of the three pilgrimage festivals (“Shalosh Regalim”) which The Creator commanded the Nation of Yisrael to celebrate each year in Jerusalem, the others being Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot. The holiday commemorates the anniversary of the giving the Torah to the Nation of Yisra’el at Mount Sinai, an event filled with supernatural wonders witnessed by more than two million people. All in the Nation of Yisra’el were gathered near the base of Mount Sinai, and heard the voice of The Creator as He gave the Ten Statements or Commandments. The people grew very afraid when they saw the wonders of lightning, thundering, fire, smoke, and heard the loud sound of the ram’s horn (“shofar”) and the voice of The Creator coming from the top of Mount Sinai. They were so afraid that they asked that Moses go meet with The Creator and then convey to them whatever He commanded.
The word “Shavuot” is the plural of the word “shavua” which means “week.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, Shavuot is referred to as the “Festival of Weeks” (“Chag Ha-Shavuot”) in Exodus 34:23 and Deuteronomy 16:10, as the “Festival of Harvest” (“Chag Ha-Katsir”) in Exodus 23:16, and the Day of First-Fruits (“Yom Ha-Bikkurim”) in Numbers 28:26.
In ancient Yisra’el, the season of the grain harvest lasted seven weeks, beginning with the barley harvest at Pesach, and ending with the wheat harvest at Shavuot. When the Tent of Meeting and later the Holy Temple stood, a special peace offering of two leavened loaves of bread from the wheat harvest were presented on Shavuot. In addition to this offering, the following offerings were also made on Shavuot:
- Burnt offering: Two bulls, one ram, and seven male yearling lambs
- Sin offering: One male yearling goat kid
- Peace offering: Two male yearling lambs, offered with the two leavened loaves of Shavuot
Shavuot was also the first day on which the people could bring the first-fruits (“bikkurim”) to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The first-fruits were brought from the Seven Species of produce celebrated in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The bringing of the first-fruits to the Holy Temple as an offering expressed the people’s gratitude to The Creator for this harvest. According to the Sages, the world is judged for fruit on Shavuot. For this reason, it is customary to pray to The Creator for an abundant fruit harvest in the upcoming year.
Outside of being a day of rest, having a sacred assembly and the bringing of the first-fruits and sacrificial offerings commanded by YAH, there are no other specific commandments in the Torah of how Shavuot should be observed. In modern times, Shavuot observances are largely based on minhagim, or accepted traditions or customs. On Shavuot, it is now the custom to:
- Have special prayer services at community houses of worship or at home in the evening and the morning, with designated readings from the Tanakh relevant to this mo’ed;
- Engage in all-night Torah study from the evening until the early morning;
- Listen to a public reading of the Book of Ruth. The story’s central character, Ruth, met her future husband, Boaz, during the grain harvest in Yisra’el;
- Enjoy festive meals, a meat meal in the evening and dairy meals in the day time;
- Consume fruit and dairy products throughout the daytime, particularly baked goods and pastries;
- Decorate or homes and houses of worship with greenery.
- Spend quality time with family and friends.