Shavuot – The Time of the Giving of the Torah (May or June)
The holiday of Shavuot takes place over the course of two days. The word “Shavuot,” pronounced “Shah-vu-oat,” literally means “Weeks” because the holiday comes seven weeks (or a week of weeks) after the beginning of Passover. From the time of Passover, Jews count those forty-nine days until the next, or fiftieth, day which is Shavuot. (This is also the origin of the Christian holiday of Pentecost, which comes fifty days after the Christian holiday of Easter.)
Shavuot is described in the Bible as one of the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover in the Spring, and Sukkot in the Fall. On those holidays, in ancient times, Jews would travel to Jerusalem. Shavuot is connected to the harvest seasons in Israel, as the time for gathering in wheat. For this reason, synagogues often are decorated in greenery on Shavuot.
Shavuot also marks for Jews the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Children of Israel came out of slavery in Egypt and began wandering through the desert wilderness. In the wilderness they arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses went up on the mountain and received many teachings and commandments. According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish People at Sinai entered into a covenant with God, to be a People dedicated to God, and to live a life of Torah (Divine Teaching). One message of Shavuot is that with freedom comes responsibility. At Passover the Jewish People gained freedom from slavery. On Shavuot we take on the responsibilities that come with freedom. On Passover we came out of Egypt and became a People. On Shavuot we examine what values we are committed to as individuals, as a community and as part of the Jewish People.
Shavuot is celebrated in many of the same ways other major Jewish holidays are celebrated. Candles are lit in the evening before sunset. Kiddush is said over wine at mealtimes. Services are held during the day, and normal weekday work is avoided, very much like on the Sabbath. Distinctive to Shavuot is the tradition to eat dairy foods (as opposed to meat foods) on the holiday. A special feature of the day is extended Torah study. Since Shavuot marks the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah, we celebrate and honor Torah by studying it. Many communities study Torah throughout the entire night. By shutting out the distractions of the workday, weekday world, we can focus on celebrating what it means to live a life of Torah in the world.
Appropriate greetings for the Festival are “Hag Same’akh” (which is Hebrew), or “Good Yontif” (which is Yiddish). Both greetings mean “Happy Holiday.”