Shavuot commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah
June 7, 2019
Shavuot, the "Feast of Weeks," is celebrated seven weeks after Passover (Pesach). Since the counting of this period (sefirat ha-omer) begins on the second evening of Passover, Shavuot takes place exactly 50 days after the (first) seder. Hence, following the Greek word for "fifty," Shavuot is also referred to sometimes as Pentecost. Although its origins are to be found in an ancient grain harvest festival, Shavuot has long been identified with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Shavuot in the home
Since Shavuot is an ancient pilgrimage holiday, it is not surprising that its ritual focuses on the community. Nonetheless, there are a number of customs associated with personal practice. Chief among them is the eating of dairy products on Shavuot. Although the reasons for this custom are not completely clear, it has become traditional to eat milk and cheese products as part of the celebration of Shavuot.
There is no Jewish law regarding home practices or rituals on Shavuot. Jewish practice regarding food on Shavuot is the result of customs and traditions. The main custom is the eating of dairy dishes, mainly dishes containing milk products and cheese. There are a number of theories about how this practice developed. In chapter four of Song of Songs, which is a beautiful love poem containing wonderful descriptions of spring in the Holy Land, it states that "honey and milk are under your tongue." The poem was interpreted by the ancient rabbis to be a metaphor for the love between God and Israel and the "honey and milk" of that verse were interpreted to mean Torah. Consequently Jews eat milk products on Shavuot, the commemoration of the time they received Torah on Mount Sinai; many traditional Jews eat dairy as the main meal on the first day of Shavuot and meat as the main meal on the second day.
In the community
Much of the observance of the holiday centers on the synagogue and its rituals. The special readings for the holiday include medieval poems (piyyutim) and the Book of Ruth. A number of reasons are given for the inclusion of the latter. Among them are that the book takes place at the time of the barley harvest, that Ruth's assumption of Naomi's religion reflects the Israelites' acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, and that King David, who is alleged to have died at this time of year according to rabbinic tradition, is mentioned at the end of Ruth. Another tradition is to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night study session marking the holiday. And finally, Shavuot is one of the holidays on which both Hallel, the Psalms of Praise, is recited and Yizkor, the memorial service, is observed.
By associating an ancient holiday of the grain harvest with the exodus from Egypt, Jewish tradition has imbued Shavuot with religious significance derived from the foundational event in Jewish historical consciousness. In the specific case of Shavuot, this takes the form of the entering into a covenant or formal agreement between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. This is a joyous time, since it is the moment at which God and Israel entered into a figurative marriage with each other, the hopeful springtime of their relationship.