There are people who say quite often that “The Jewish holidays are late this year” or “The Jewish holidays are early this year” when in fact neither is true. According to the Jewish calendar, they are always right when they are supposed to be.
The Jewish calendar is based on the moon which is different than the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the sun. Periodic adjustments do get made to the calendar to account for the differences between the cycles of the sun and the moon. In order to complete its cycle, the moon takes 29 ½ days on average and with 12 lunar months, that equals 354 days in a year. In comparison, a solar year takes 365 ¼ days, that’s a difference of 11 days per year. An extra month is added to the Hebrew calendar so that the Jewish holidays occur in the correct season. This happens seven times within a 19 year period and helps to avoid holidays occurring in the wrong season. For example Sukkot, a fall harvest festival could take place in the summer months, while Passover, a spring holiday, would occur in the winter.
History of Shavout
Known as the Festival of Giving of the Torah, shavuot is spoken of in the Bible and tells the story of how, after the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel traveled to Mount Sinai that was in the desert. Once there, Moses headed to the mountaintop to meet God. Given to Moses were two stone tablets which contained the Ten Commandments and were to be delivered to the Children of Israel.
It took the Children of Israel seven weeks, or 49 days to reach Mount Sinai from Egypt according to the Torah which tells us “And you shall proclaim that day to be holy convocation!” (Leviticus 23:21). Defined to mean “weeks”, shavuot is a symbolization of the completion of the seven-week journey the Israelites undertook. By associating shavuot with the receiving of the Torah by Moses from God on Mount Sinai, rabbis strengthen this connection between the two.
Shavuot is also considered to be a holiday for the harvest. Ancient Israelites would bring fresh fruits to Temple as an offering to God during shavuot. The holiday is also one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals at which people would gather in Jerusalem bringing their agricultural offerings with them, much like Sukkot and Passover.
While Ashkenazi Jews may pronounce and write the shavuot holiday as Shavous, it is certainly not the only name that the holiday is known by. shavuot is also known as Chag Hashavuot (the Festival of Weeks), Chag Habikkurim ( Feast of the First Fruit), and the Festival of Reaping (Chag Hakatzir).
Customs and Rituals of Shavout
While these days, Jewish people are no longer able to bring the first fruit of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem, which means that there are no distinct mitzvot or commandments that are connected to the shavuot holiday. Several rituals are available, which are a traditional component that can be used when celebrating shavuot.
It is not uncommon to see people staying up all night in order to study the Torah. This practice has its roots in the story that when they finally reached Mt. Sinai, the Israelites overslept and had to be woken up by Moses. Because of this tale, many Jews will stay up all night and study as well as celebrate receiving the Torah. Known as Tikkun Leil shavuot, which translates to “Rectification for shavuot Night” is the custom that in order to re-experience standing at Mount Sinai with the other Israelites where the Torah was received, those studying the Torah should study with a community. Developed in the 16th century by mystics in Safed, they believed that studying on shavuot would symbolically prepare Israel so that they may enter into a sacred relationship with God. Studying a wide range of topics has become a modern practice and interpretation of this.
The Zionists, who downplayed the elements of religion in Judaism in order to focus on its cultural aspects more, felt that the shavuot in Israel’s restoration of its biblical format what the right direction to take. First Fruit Festivals had been held on kibbutzim for a year and would have elaborate pageants and parades with displays of fruit, tractors, and babies, and also filled with joyous singing and dancing. Those living in an urban area would also celebrate the holiday by having first-fruit pageants and celebrations for second-graders who were receiving their first Bible text. Tikkun Leil shavuot is observed in greater numbers solely by those Jews who were Orthodox.
As time has passed, any divide between the differences has blurred and Tikkunim is very popular for all Jews in Israel. A person can spend an entire night going from Tikkun to Tikkun. These are normally held in synagogues, homes, community centers as well as education centers of every ideological and religious flavor. These evenings of study wholly for the sake of studying and fellowship while the themes and topics that are covered can be endless.
Eating dairy on Shavuot is common place among Jewish people. This is because the words of the Torah are compared to the sweetness of milk and honey as tradition tells us. Making blintzes and cheesecake are popular choices that are made and enjoyed during the holiday.
In the Congregation
The Book of Ruth, which is located in the section of the Bible known as Writings is traditionally read during services on Shavuot. Ruth was married to an Israelite man, herself being a young Moabite. Upon the death of her husband, Ruth accompanied her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel and converted to the Jewish faith and adopted the people as her own. In order to feed herself and Naomi, in the field of Boaz, who was a rich man, she would glean the fields. Boaz falls for Ruth and they marry. The famed Kind David is one of their descendants.
The conversion to Judaism that Ruth chose is the central theme of the story. In Ruth 1:16-17, she tells us: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following after you. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” She is considered by many to be the model for those who “choose” or convert to the Jewish religion meaning that they accept the Torah, just as the ancient Jews at Mt. Sinai accepted the Torah, the passage above from Ruth is traditionally understood to be her conversion statement.
For high school students that continue their studies as well as Jewish involvement past b’nei mitzvagh, the confirmation ceremony is typically here on or near Shavuot. Confirmands affirm their commitment to the covenant and an adult Jewish life, the same as other Jewish people that have accepted the Torah on Shavuot.
Decorating the home with fresh flowers and greens on Shavuot is a customary reminder of the harvest of spring and the ritual of bringing the first fruits to Temple. Families will often get together to enjoy a meal that may contain dairy as a way to remind them of the sweetness of the Torah on Shavuot.
Shavuot: Preparing for the Holiday
Israelites were given three days to prepare for the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai according to the teachings of the Bible. In order to ready themselves, the Israelites were told to wash their clothes and stay ritually pure. Just like the ancient Israelites, we can use those three days before Shavuot to get prepared personally, as a family, and as a community to experience this life-changing event in our own way.