Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is a two-day festival (one day in Israel and more liberal communities) celebrated seven weeks after Passover.
The holiday combines two major religious observances – the grain harvest of the early summer and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The first determines the ritual for the holiday, which was one of three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel. The second determines the significance of the holiday for Judaism, tying it in with the seminal event of Jewish religious memory, namely the entering into a covenant between God and Israel, exemplified by Israel’s assumption of Divine law.
As Jewish communities commemorate receiving the Torah, festivities are understandably filled with much elation. This joy is experienced doubly so, as Shavuot brings to an end the seven weeks of the Omer, a period of semi-mourning.
Beginning on the second day of Passover, the Omer is a stretch of seven weeks during which it is traditional to count the days until the holiday of Shavuot. According to rabbinic sources, this allows us to follow in the footsteps of our Jewish ancestors who, in their anticipation of receiving the Torah, counted down the fifty days between the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah.
In later years, the Omer became weeks of semi-mourning, as many massacres throughout Jewish history took place during this time. Most significantly, the Omer marks the martyrdom of the prominent Rabbi Akiva and his students as well as three Crusades. To designate this period as one of mourning, it is customary to refrain from participating in joyous events, such as weddings.
With the arrival of Shavuot, the sadness of the Omer ends, and the excitement of receiving the Torah begins. Surprisingly, although it is a holiday of so much joy, commemorating an event of such importance, Shavuot is a much quieter holiday than most. Still, while there are comparatively few rituals, those that do exist offer powerful ways of connecting spiritually and understanding the importance of the events at Mount Sinai.
Tikkun Leyl Shavuot
Like most Jewish holidays, the first night of Shavuot begins with a festive meal. However, Shavuot is unique in that the meal signals a beginning, rather than an end, to the night.
In synagogues throughout the world, the night is celebrated with one of the most memorable Shavuot traditions, Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. To observe this custom, congregants spend the night awake studying Torah until dawn. In this way, they show their excitement about receiving the Torah.
In Jerusalem, this ritual is often followed by congregants walking en masse to the Western Wall. There, as the sun rises, the people join together in prayer, showing God their appreciation and love for the Torah.
The Decorated Synagogue
Walk into a synagogue on Shavuot and the sanctuary is transformed – flowers and foliage line the ark and altar, sometimes grass is spread over the floor. The new décor certainly livens up the services. But the significance of the decorations goes beyond a mere beautification of the space.
Flowers and foliage have multiple connections to Shavuot. Putting grass on the floor, for example, serves as a reminder of the grass upon which the Jews stood while at Mount Sinai. Also, the decorations are used to connote the harvest celebrations of Shavuot. Thus, in the greenery, the two aspects of the holiday are combined – as we stand ready to receive the Torah, we also celebrate the bounty of the harvest that God has bestowed upon us.
The Tastes of Shavuot
Outside the synagogue, the Shavuot cuisine also reflects the theme of the day. While Jewish holiday meals tend to be meat-based, Shavuot is traditionally known as the dairy holiday. Festivities typically include such dishes as cheese blintzes, burekas, and cheesecake.
We eat these foods, the rabbis explain, to mimic the choice that the Jews made after receiving the Torah. Having just learned about the rules of kashruth (Jewish dietary laws), they could not eat the meat prepared earlier because it had not been slaughtered properly. Thus, they ate only dairy products for several days until kosher meat was available.
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