May-June Illustration: Masha Manapov

What is Shavuot?

Shavuot, the festival of Weeks, celebrates God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It is one of the three pilgrimage festivals named in the Torah, on which Israelites were to journey to Jerusalem and bring sacrifices to the Temple.

Like many Jewish holidays, Shavuot began as an agricultural holiday. Its name, which means “weeks,” comes from the fact that the holiday marks the end of a seven-week agricultural cycle that begins during Passover with the barley harvest and ends on Shavuot with the wheat harvest.

While Shavuot originally had no historical context, Jewish tradition associates the Hebrew month of Sivan, in which it falls, with the date the Torah was given. This tradition allowed the sages to reframe Shavuot in the context of Jewish history, preserving the holiday’s relevance when the Temple lay in ruins and the first fruits could no longer be brought there. Thus, a holiday celebrating the success of individual farmers became a celebration of a national event that united 12 disparate tribes into a people.

When is Shavuot?

The Torah doesn’t specify a date for Shavuot. Instead, we are given instructions to count seven weeks “from the day after the Shabbat, from the day on which you brought the Omer of offering,” and then celebrate the bringing of the first fruits.  This “Shabbat” is interpreted to be the first day of Passover, so the seven-week count brings us to the 6th of Sivan (usually falling in May). Shavuot is celebrated for one day in Israel and two days abroad, and, as with all Jewish holidays, begins and ends at sundown.

Shavuot 2015 – May 23 to 12 in Israel, 25 in the Diaspora

Shavuot 2016 – June 11 to 12 in Israel, 13 in the Diaspora

Shavuot 2017 – May 30 to 30 in Israel, June 1 in the Diaspora

Shavuot 2018 – May 19 to 20 in Israel, 21 in the Diaspora

Shavuot 2019 – June 8 to 9 in Israel, 10 in the Diaspora

How do we observe Shavuot?

After the destruction of the Temple, the traditional observance of Shavuot – bringing the first fruits to the Temple – was no longer possible. As such, new observances had to be made. These days, we read special Torah portions about receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-20). The Book of Ruth is also read on Shavuot, both because the story takes place during the harvest season, and because Ruth, as the most famous of converts to Judaism, became a symbol of voluntarily accepting the Torah.

It is customary to induct young Jewish children to Hebrew school on Shavuot, so that they can begin learning Torah on the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.

In the 16th century, Rabbi Joseph Caro began the tradition of holding all-night Torah study sessions on Shavuot. These came to be called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot.” It is customary for Orthodox Jews to partake in these study sessions, Tikkun Leil Shavuot are catching on among Israel’s secular society as well.

When Jews resumed farming the Land of Israel in the late 1800s, Shavuot reclaimed its place as a harvest holiday. In the Kibbutz movement, Shavuot was celebrated with jubilant processions featuring tractor parades, hay rides, music, and folk dancing. While the first fruits of the kibbutz used to be agricultural products proudly displayed in woven baskets, nowadays those baskets are just as likely to contain industrial products made by kibbutz factories.

One of the best-known traditions of Shavuot is eating dairy foods, a tradition very loosely based on a series of rabbinic linguistic puns that tie Torah to milk.

What do we eat on Shavuot?

Dairy food is the key to a traditional Shavuot meal. There are a number of explanations for this custom, including the idea that when the Torah was given to the Israelites in the desert, they couldn’t prepare meat meals according to the new commandments right away, so a dairy meal was made instead.

Another explanation is based on a reading of the erotic Song of Songs verse: “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue.” According to this particular reading of the verse, it is not the lips of a lover but rather the Torah itself that is likened to honey and milk. If that is true, what better way, the explanation goes, to celebrate the receiving of the Torah than by eating cheese cake and blintzes?

Shavuot Reading