What is Shavuot?
On Shavuot, Jews celebrate G-d giving Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai. A big deal! But what is Shavuot and how do we celebrate?
- אקדמות – Akdamot, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services
- חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese
- רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services
- ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with flowers and greenery
- תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.
The Origins of Jewish Shavuot
by Katrien Vander Straeten
The multi-faceted festival is called by many names:
- Feast of Weeks (Hag ha-Shavuot) (cf. Exodus and Deuteronomy)
- Festival or Reaping (Hag ha-Katsir) (Exodus)
- Day of the First Fruits (Yom ha-Bikkurim) (Numbers)
- Atzeret, which means “solemn assembly” (Mishnak and Talmud)
- Festival of the Giving of Our Torah (Hag Matan Torateinu)
- Day of the Great Oath
The Revelation to Moses
Shavuot is foremost the commemoration of the day the Jewish people were given the Torah.
On the night of Pesach or Passover (when the tenth plague of Egypt “passed over” the houses of the Israelites), the Jews left on their exodus (Greek for “departure”) east, from Egypt to Canaan, the Promised Land. They were led by Moses.
49 days later, that is, on the 50th day, they stopped at Mount Sinai. These 49 days are still counted by the Jewish people in “the Counting of the Omer”. Moses went up the mountain and there was given the Torah. We eat dairy to commemorate the commandments including keeping kosher. It was easier to prepare a dairy meal than a kosher meat meal, so dairy it was!
The Torah: 5 Books, 10, or 613 commandments?
What was the Torah that was given to Moses?
Usually, the Torah or the Law of Moses (“Torah” is Hebrew for “teaching” or “law”) means the first 5 Books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, or of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. For that reason, it is also called the Pentateuch (Greek for “5 containers”). They are written in Hebrew:
However, this “Written Torah” can’t be the Torah that was given on Mount Sinai, because the book of Exodus narrates the event of revelation.
Rather, Moses was given the “Oral Torah”: 613 commandments (248 positive and 365 negative ones), as well as an explanation of how to fulfill them. These weren’t written down until nearly half a century later, in the 5 books of the Written Torah. The belief is that Moses wrote them down on a scroll just before he died, just before the Hebrews entered the Promised Land.
Another belief is that God said them to Moses simultaneously, in which case the question of whether they were 613 or 10 becomes irrelevant. The idea is that all 613 commandments are included in the Ten Commandments.
The oath of the entire Jewish people
Another question is whether God gave the Torah just to Moses or to the entire Hebrew people present at Mount Sinai, some 3 million. Popular misconception (strengthened by Hollywood movies) holds that Moses was the sole recipient, but Moses himself, in the Written Torah, claims the latter.
Once the people heard (or rather, saw) the revelation, they all took an oath of eternal loyalty to God. That is why Shavuot is also called the “Day of the Great Oath” (“shavuah” means “oath”).
Older than Moses
Shavuot may go back even further than Moses. The book of Jubilees (6:15-22 and 44:1-5) describes it as a feast for the appearance of the first rainbow on the day God made the covenant with Noah. After Noah it was forgotten, to be restored by Abraham (Jub. 15:1), to again be forgotten again until Moses restored it, again.
A pilgrimage and harvest festival
Shavout is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals (to Jerusalem) that are mandated by the Torah (the others are Passover and Sukkot).
Connected as it is to the Counting of the Omer, which refers literally to the harvest (an “omer” is a measure of grain), Shavuot too is a harvest festival. It is called the “Festival of the First Fruits” (Hag ha-Bikkurim) because it celebrates the harvesting and offering in the Temple of the first fruits. To connect to this theme, we decorate our houses and synagogues with flowers and greenery.