Shavuot–Its Origins, Significance, Customs…and a Story
ENGLISH CORNER, CON LINDA JIMÉNEZ – This week’s trivia question: Why are dairy foods traditionally eaten on Shavuot?
Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks” and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which occurs seven weeks after Passover, on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. It began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest.
So the holiday has two aspects. First, it is a harvest festival. Also, and more importantly today, it’s a celebration of receiving of the Torah.
There are several customs that are traditional components of celebrating the holiday.
First, many people stay up all night studying Torah. This custom, which is known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, evolved from the story that says that when the Israelites were at Sinai, they overslept and had to be awakened by Moses. As a result, many modern Jews stay up all night to study and celebrate receiving the Torah.
Early Zionists celebrated Shavuot in the land of Israel by restoring its original biblical significance. For years, First Fruits Festivals were held on kibbutzim, featuring elaborate pageants and parades, displays of fruits, tractors and babies, and joyous singing and dancing. In the cities, the holiday was also marked with first-fruit pageants and celebrations of second-graders receiving their first Bible text.
Nowadays, all-night study sessions have become extremely popular for all Israeli Jews, of different religious and ideological tendencies. Most of these gatherings are evenings of study for the sake of study and fellowship, and the various themes and topics they address are endless.
It also is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, so cheese, ice cream, blintzes and cheesecake are among the most popular foods that are enjoyed on the holiday.
Other customs are directly related to the acceptance of the Torah. Traditionally, the Book of Ruth is read during services on Shavuot. Ruth is a young Moabite woman who married an Israelite man. When her husband died, she followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel and adopted the Jewish faith and people as her own. The theme of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism is central to this story. Ruth is often considered to be the archetype of all who “choose” or convert to Judaism—accepting the Torah, just as Jews accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Related to this idea, the ceremony of Confirmation—for high school students who have continued their studies and Jewish involvement beyond their bar ot bat mitzvah—often is held on or near Shavuot. Just as the Jewish people accepted the Torah on Shavuot, so do these young people reaffirm their commitment to the covenant and adult Jewish life.
In commemoration of the other aspect of this holiday, it is customary to decorate one’s home with greens and fresh flowers on Shavuot as a reminder of the spring harvest and the ancient ritual of bringing the first fruits to the Temple.
Our story for Shevout is Three Little Heads by Sholem Aleichem. This version was translated by Julius and Frances Butwin, and was published in the book The Old Country, in 1946.