About Shavuot

By Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life

Shavuot falls on the sixth and seventh days of the Hebrew month of Sivan. (The festival is observed only on the sixth of Sivan in Israel.) Like Sukkot and Passover, it is a multi-dimensional holiday, embracing profound historical, spiritual, and agricultural aspects.

From the agricultural perspective, Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the omer that began on Passover, but it is also referred to in the Torah at Numbers 28:26 as yom ha-bikkurim (the day of first fruits) and at Exodus 23:16 as hag ha-katzir, the harvest festival. In Israel, especially on the agricultural kibbutzim, much has been made of this aspect of the festival, and elaborate ceremonies involving the first fruits of the harvest season have been developed. Outside of Israel, many synagogues attempt to incorporate this theme by adorning their sanctuaries with flowers or other symbols of the fertile earth.

The historical dimension of the festival has to do with the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which, according to tradition, took place on the sixth day of Sivan. This theme is especially prominent liturgically, as Shavuot is repeatedly called z’man matan torateinu (the time of the giving of our Torah).

Laws & Customs
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
On Eating Dairy


Spiritually speaking, Shavuot is the festival of revelation. Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of American and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1988), opens with the words, “We believe in God. Indeed, Judaism cannot be detached from belief in God. Conservative Judaism affirms its belief in revelation, the uncovering of an external source of truth emanating from God.” It goes on to explain that

the single greatest event in the history of God’s revelation took place at Sinai, but was not limited to it. . . . Some of us conceive of revelation as the personal encounter between God and human beings. Among them there are those who believe that this personal encounter has propositional content—that God communicated with us in actual words. For them, revelation’s content is immediately normative, as defined by rabbinic interpretation. The commandments of the Torah themselves issue directly from God. Others, however, believe that revelation consists of an ineffable human encounter with God. The experience of revelation inspires the verbal formulation by human beings of norms and ideas, thus continuing the historical influence of this revelational encounter. Others among us conceive of revelation as the continuing discovery, through nature and history, of truths about God and the world. These truths, although always culturally conditioned, are nevertheless seen as God’s ultimate purpose for creation. Proponents of this view tend to see revelation as an ongoing process rather than as a specific event.

These inspirational words should show the way for contemporary Jews attempting to relate to Shavuot. However revelation is defined, Shavuot celebrates the “single greatest event” in Jewish history. Shavuot is the holiday that reminds us that faith in the truth of revelation is at the heart of all legitimate varieties of Judaism and Jewish identity.

Laws & Customs

The standard laws that relate to rest on the festivals apply to both days of Shavuot. No later than eighteen minutes before sundown on Erev Shavu·ot, candles are lit. Two blessings are recited: the standard blessing over festival candles, barukh attah adonai, eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, asher kidd’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivvanu l’hadlik neir shel yom tov (“Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who, sanctifying us with divine commandments, has commanded us to kindle the festival lamp”) and the She-he’eyyanu. On Shabbat, the first blessing ends: l’hadlik neir shel shabbat v’shel yom tov (“to kindle the Sabbath and festival lamp”). On the second night of Shavuot (or the first night if it follows Shabbat), the kindling of a flame would not be permitted, as the candles are not being lit prior to the holiday but on it. But while fire cannot be kindled on the holiday it may be transferred so it has become customary to light a candle at the same time the candles are lit on the first night, so that on the second night, or the first night that is immediately preceded by Shabbat, the candles can be lit merely by transferring a flame. In addition, a special Yizkor candle is lit just prior to the formal holiday candles for the second day of Shavuot by those who will be reciting the Yizkor Service the following day. There is no blessing recited on the kindling of this candle, although many prayerbooks include appropriate devotional material to recite just before lighting the memorial candle.

There is a custom that services should not begin early on Shavuot as they may on the other holidays so as to make sure that the full s’firah counting period is completed before the holiday begins. On both days of the festival, two scrolls of the Torah are removed from the Ark. On the first day, we read from the first scroll the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Exodus, which describe the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. It is customary for the congregation to stand while the Ten Commandments are read aloud, and to remain standing until the individual honored with that aliyyah concludes the final blessing. The maftir portion, Numbers 28:26–31, which describes the sacrificial requirements for Shavuot, is then read from the second scroll. The haftarah is Ezekiel 1:1–28, 3:12, which describes the prophet’s experience of God’s revelatory presence, a kind of personal version of the national revelation that took place at Sinai.

On the second day, the reading from the first scroll is Deuteronomy 15:19–16:17, which describes the observance of the festivals in ancient times. On Shabbat, however, the reading begins at Deuteronomy 14:22 and the number of aliyyot is increased to seven. The haftarah is taken from the second and third chapters of the Book of Habakuk.

A long, complex, and very beautiful hymn known as Akdamut is read in many synagogues as part of the Shavuot liturgy. It is customarily chanted before the Torah reading on the first day. It is also customary to read the Book of Ruth on the second day of Shavuot. When it is read in synagogue, Ruth is generally read from a printed book, not from a scroll. Even in congregations in which Ruth is read from a scroll, however, there is neither an introductory nor a concluding blessing.

Why is Ruth associated with this holiday? The simplest answer is merely that the Book of Ruth describes events that took place in the season of Shavuot. Another, more satisfying explanation is that Ruth herself is understood as a model of Jewish piety: just as she accepted Judaism wholeheartedly and refused to return to her parents’ home in Moab after the death of her husband, so did the Jewish people accept the revelation of God’s Torah at Sinai without hesitation or uncertainty.

The Yizkor Service is recited on the second day of Shavuot, just as on Yom Kippur, Sh’mini Atzeret, and the eighth day of Passover.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

One of the most interesting (and unexpected) revivals of a custom long fallen into almost universal disuse has to do with the reintroduction of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot in recent years. Originally a custom developed by medieval mystics, the Tikkun is an event during which people remain awake throughout the first night of Shavu·ot studying Torah and then recite the Morning Service at sunrise. What could be more appropriate than immersion in Torah study as part of one’s observance of the holiday which celebrates the receiving of the Torah? Rabbi Isaac Klein relates an alternate explanation of staying awake all night: that this custom arose because the children of Israel camped at Sinai were sleeping far too soundly and the thunder that accompanied the giving of the Torah was sent along to wake them up! Today, the faithful demonstrate their eagerness to accept the Torah by staying up all night, lest they too be caught sleeping when they should be ready to receive the Torah (Klein, p. 149). Many synagogues organize Torah study sessions that continue through the night.

Some synagogues conduct confirmation ceremonies on the first day of Shavuot for young people who have completed a certain stage of their Jewish educations. This ceremony was originally introduced in Reform temples to replace the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony at age thirteen with confirmation at age sixteen. Even Reform congregations no longer use it in place of bar or bat mitzvah, but some modern congregations have nevertheless retained it as a way of encouraging teenagers to pursue their Jewish studies.

On Eating Dairy

Although there are those who see a halakhic obligation to serve meat at all festivals meals, “for there can be no truly joyful feasting except when meat is served” (BT P’sahim 109a), it is nevertheless widely customary to serve only dairy meals on Shavuot (see, however, the gloss of the Rema to the SA Orah Hayyim 494:3, who only seems to know the custom of eating dairy foods on the first day of the festival and who recommends that meat be served after the dairy). The background reason for this tradition is not at all clear. Klein offers the explanation that it might be derived from an interpretation of the verse “honey and milk shall be under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), as a reference to the Torah, whose words are as dear to our hearts as milk and honey are to our lips. Others connect it to the sacrifices that were offered on this day (see the Rema’s comments, loc. cit.).

Still others suggest a more practical explanation: after the Torah was revealed at Sinai, the Israelites could no longer eat the non-kosher meat they had prepared for their journey and so, at least until new provisions could be made, they had no choice but to eat only dairy foods. Klein (p. 151) also suggests one symbolic explanation according to which dairy is the food of restraint, but meat is the food of indulgence. Since the Torah exists, among other things, to inculcate restraint and self-control in its adherents, tradition endorses as appropriate the idea of celebrating its revelation with dairy foods. It has become a popular custom to eat cheesecake or crepes filled with cheese, often called by the Yiddish name blintzes, on Shavuot.