Customs and Rituals During Shavuot

Shavuot is one of the biblically recognized Three Pilgrimage Festivals. It is one of the important Jewish holidays that occurs on the sixth of Sivan of the Hebrew calendar (falling seven weeks after Passover or Pesach at the end of the counting of the Omer), or somewhere between May 15 and June 14 of the Gregorian calendar.

Like many other Jewish festivals, Shavuot began as an agricultural festival that marked the end of spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest, according to the Sages. During the ancient times, Shavuot was celebrated as a festival among pilgrims, during which the Hebrews presented offerings to the Temple of Jerusalem – the “first fruits” (bikkurim) of their harvest.

Except in big cultural and religious events, most modern-day Israeli Jews can no longer bring agricultural offerings as their ancestors did (and thus there are no particular commandments, or mitzvot, associated with Shavuot). However, they still practice some of the age-old rituals as they embrace the Torah and take inspiration from the traditional Jewish teachings.

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai as well as the grain harvest for the summer. Today, the faithful celebrates this festival by attending the synagogue to hear the Ten Commandments, enjoying festive meals that mostly consist of dairy foods, and staying up all night to read the Book of Ruth. But why do the Jews partake in such customs during the Shavuot?

Dairy foods

Shavuot is commonly linked to the consumption of milk, butter, yogurt, cheese (check out the types of cheeses in Israel) and other dairy products, as well as the dishes prepared with them.

Regarding dairy products, there are many explanations and theories for them. Among the most popular ones is that when the Jews were receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, they were pure and innocent like newborns are. Newborn babies need milk to nourish themselves. Thus, during Shavuot, there are lots of dairy foods to enjoy – cheesecakes, cheese and crackers, chocolate milk, yogurts, and many other delectable dairy treats.

For the lactose intolerant, thankfully there are many varieties of vegetarian and vegan alternatives so that they can still celebrate Shavuot with “dairy.”

All-night Torah study

Devout Jews stay up all night to learn the Torah because the day that it was supposed to be given, the ancient Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the important day ahead, so they would accidentally oversleep.

But today’s Israeli Jews are making up for the mistakes of their ancestors and are looking forward to stay up late to learn the Torah. Several neighborhoods and communities will go out to stage “learnathons” that go on until sunrise, and then recite morning prayers together.

The Book of Ruth

In the Book of Ruth, Ruth was a Moabite woman who became a Jew following the death of her husband. She remained with her mother-in-law Naomi. Later, she married Boaz and became the ancestor of King David, of whom the Messiah would become a descendant.

Ruth is probably the most famous convert in Jewish history. Her story is quite relatable to the Jewish people, who wanted to be given the Torah and become servants of God, who they refer to as “HaShem”.

So why is the Book of Ruth read on Shavuot? Here are the following reasons:

  • King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot;
  • Shavuot is the time of harvest, and the key events that happen in the Book of Ruth occur at harvest time;
  • The numerical value – or gematria – of Ruth is 606, which is also the number of the commandments given at Mount Sinai, aside from the Seven Laws of Noah already given, totaling it to 613;
  • Shavuot is traditionally considered as the day of the giving of the Torah – the entry of all Jews into the covenant of the Torah is a major theme of the day. Ruth’s conversion to Judaism and eventual entry to that covenant is told in the book;
  • Hesed, or loving-kindness, is the central theme of the book and a major theme of the Torah.

Although some of you may not have heard of Shavuot or celebrated it yet, this year is a great time to start. Don’t forget to bring home a cheesecake from your favorite bakery (or bake your own), dress in your best clothes for the synagogue, and be ready for some fascinating and eye-opening Torah learning. Remember to take a cup of coffee – you’re going to need it!