For years, when I was a public school teacher, Shavuot always seemed to coincide with final exams or the rush to prepare my classes for finals, or the busyness of getting my three children ready for the end of school. None of the Jewish kids in public schools would consider taking two days off from school to observe the holiday at that critical time of year. If you ask them now “What’s Shavuot?” they probably won’t know! So here’s “Shavuot 101” for those who would like to know:
Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks” and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event that occurred seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt, the holiday now celebrated as Passover. During the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, we ceremoniously count aloud each of the 49 days between the two holidays, a custom called “counting the omer,” omer being the first harvest-offering of the year, brought to the Temple on Passover. This counting is meant to help us remember the time it took for the Israelites to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai, where they received the Torah. It is a time to reflect on the many connections between slavery, freedom, redemption, and revelation.
Shavuot, like many other Jewish holidays, began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. In ancient times, it was a pilgrimage festival during which Israelites brought crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it is a celebration of Torah, education, and participation in Jewish life. One of the most distinctive customs is Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night (or late-into-the-night) study session based on the idea that people study and remain awake to show that they are ready to receive Torah.
Some people believe that at midnight the heavens open and favorably receive the thoughts, study, and prayers of those who remain awake. It is customary to read the Ten Commandments in the synagogue just as they were read in the desert at Mount Sinai. In addition, Shavuot includes a communal service of remembrance called Yizkor, imploring God to remember beloved relatives and friends who have died and renewing the connection between us and loved ones we have lost.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a Jewish holiday if there was no food involved—potato pancakes for Chanukah, matzoh ball soup for Passover, and, for Shavuot, blintzes, kugel, cheesecake, ice cream and other dairy foods. There is no definitive answer for why dairy, but here are some theories: Torah is likened to milk. A verse in the Song of Songs says “Like honey and milk, Torah lies under your tongue.” Just as milk nourishes and sustains a baby, Torah is spiritual nourishment for the human soul. Torah refers to Israel as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” It is believed that the Israelites ate dairy on the original Shavuot when they received the Torah because on that day, they were obligated for the first time to observe the kosher laws. Since the Torah was given on Shabbat, no cattle could be slaughtered nor could utensils be koshered that day, so they could not eat meat.
Regardless of the reasons for eating dairy, it is pleasant to enjoy delicious buttery, cheesy, creamy treats on this holiday!
Hearty appetite and Hag Sameach (Happy Holiday) to all.