Shavuot: the holiday of the giving and receiving of the Torah.

The Jewish festival of Shavuot is held exactly seven weeks after Passover's second day. The Hebrew word Shavuot means "Weeks," and marks divine revelation. It commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah ("guidance" or "instruction") is considered most sacred and authoritative. It consists of five books and tells the early history of the people of Israel, from the beginning of time to the death of Moses. The five books of the Torah are a direct revelation from God given to Moses, and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. It contains a large body of laws and regulations that are the ultimate source of much of the religious practice of Jews to this day. Shavuot is one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, the others are Sukkot and Passover. It is a time of all-night study of texts and religious-school celebrations, as well as a time to welcome converts and read the Book of Ruth.
Receiving the Law with Moses stretching his hands for the tablets and Aaron (shown as a Christian bishop) and the Israelites (divided according to sex) waiting at the foot of the mountain, at the beginning of a liturgical poem for the first day of Shavuot. Manuscript ca. 1322 Germany .
Nowhere in the Bible itself is any link made between the revelation at Sinai and a commemorative day. Shavuot was originally an agricultural festival and marked the forty-ninth day of 'the counting of the omer' (sheaf of barley), when wheat was ready to be harvested. The 'omer' was a harvest offering that was formerly brought to the Temple (Jerusalem). It was a one-day festival during which two loaves of leavened bread were brought to the Temple as an offering of thanks. It marked a new agricultural season, when the first fruits of the land were brought to the Temple. After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the focus of Shavuot changed significantly, as Jews could no longer observe the agricultural rites in the Temple.
Omer calendar, Amsterdam mid 18th century. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama.
With the fixing of the Hebrew calendar, the holiday's date permanently became the 6th day of the month of Sivan. Some families have an 'omer board' which helps them to keep count. Like many Jewish holidays, Shavuot has undergone major change over the millennia and over the centuries a variety of customs have arisen. The Sabbath preceding Shavuot is called Shabbat Kallah, the name typically given to a Sabbath before a wedding. But in this case, the marriage or Covenant is between the Jewish people and God. Some have the custom of decorating the home and synagogue with flowers, sweet-smelling plants, branches, and even trees. Symbolically, the Torah has always been known as a "Tree of Life" as it provides spiritual vitality. 
Synagogue with Shavuot decoration.Photo thanks to Finish Israel on Twitter

Cut-paper decorations of trees and flowers, particularly roses ,have been popular on this holiday. Shavuot's special flower is the rose because of a play on words in the Book of Esther. Esther and her cousin Mordechai came from the Persian town of Sushan, and the Hebrew word for rose is שׁוֹשַׁנָה shoshan.

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The festival has five names, the second is "Yom HaBikkurim," the day of "First Fruits," because it is also the celebration of the wheat harvest and the ripening of the first fruits. The third is Chag Hakatzir meaning the "Harvest Festival". In the Talmud, Shavuot is also called Atzeret, which means "the stoppage," a reference to the prohibition against work on this holiday. The fifth name is Zeman Matan Torahteinu, a name referred to in the holiday prayer service, "Time of the Giving of the Torah".

  • Women and girls light candles on the first evening to usher in the holiday.
  • All men, women and children should go on the first day of Shavuot to the synagogue to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments. 
  • It is customary to stay up all night learning Torah on the first night of Shavuot.
  • It is customary to eat dairy foods,from traditional cheese blintzes to cheesecake and quiches. According to legend, when the Israelites received the laws of kashrut (kosher practices) at Sinai, they realized that not all their cooking pots were kosher, so they ate uncooked dairy foods instead. Another view compares the sweetness of Torah to "milk and honey".
  • As on other holidays, special meals are eaten, and no “work” may be performed.
  • Shavuot's second day is known as the festival of matnat yad ("the day of giving").A special prayer is recited on behalf of those who contribute to charity. 

Courtesy of Jewish Community Center Shimon and Sara Birnbaum

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