This Jewish holiday, also called the Feast of Weeks, takes place on the sixth day of Sivan. This is sometime during May or June. The holiday commemorates the day that the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai and received the Torah from God.
Shavout ends the Counting of Omer, the seven week period anticipating the giving of the Torah between the celebration of Passover and Shavout. It is more widely celebrated by Jews in Israel, although many Jews outside of Israel still celebrate. It is one of three Shalosh Regalim, or pilgrimage festivals. Observers are not supposed to work on Shavout.
There are many customs associated with the festival. This includes staying up throughout the night to study the Torah, putting plants and flowers throughout houses as decoration, studying the Book of Ruth, and eating dairy products. In the morning after the Torah is read, observers often go to services synagogues. These services hold readings of the Akdamut along with the Torah. The Akdamut is a liturgical poem that celebrates the power of God and the Torah. Rabbi Meir of Worms wrote the poem after his son was killed in the Crusade of 1096. Some services also include a reading of another liturgical poem, Yatziv Pitgam.
The feast, a meal at night and another during the day, usually features dairy products at meat. The night meal commonly features meat and the other dairy. It is unclear where the tradition of dairy foods came from, but many believe it is because of the Jewish law of Shechita, which required pots and other tools used to cook meat must be kosher. Dairy utensils did not have such restrictions. The dairy products featured during the feast often include:
- Cheese blintzes, a type of cheese pancake.
- Cheese kreplach, or dumplings
- Cheese sambusak, a fried pastry
- Kelsonnes, a dish similar to ravioli
- Other cheese dishes
Many services and individual observances include a reading of the Book of Ruth. Many books are associated with certain Jewish holidays, and the Book of Ruth corresponds to Shavout. Ruth was a woman who wanted to become part of the Jewish people. David is believed to be her great grandson, who allegedly both was born and died on Shavout.
The tradition of decorating synagogues and homes with greenery comes from the Midrash, which state that Mount Sinai grew flowers and vegetation in anticipation of the reception of the Torah on Mount Sinai’s summit.
The reasoning behind the all night Torah study also has its roots in this story. Before the Torah was given, the Israelites went to sleep early in order to be well rested for the upcoming events, but they overslept. All night Torah study is supposed amend this. Observers in Jerusalem walk to the Western Wall after finishing this study. Some synagogues hold confirmation events for young Jews who finish their religious study.
Another tradition is the Ceremony of First Fruits, also called Bikkurim. This is when farmers would bring baskets of first fruits to the temple. Farmers walked in a procession to the temple, which sometimes included parades and festive music. The baskets were filled with the first fruits of the Seven Species of fruits associated with the land of Israel to ripen, which farmers marked with reed or string. The ceremony thanks God for the harvest and his guidance.
God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai on the 50th day following the exodus from Egypt. It is seen as a commitment between God and the Israelites. The Torah included the Ten Commandments, the basis of Jewish law and morality. This is why the holiday is also called the Festival of the Giving of the Law.
Early observances of the holiday included offering an Omer, or piece of barley, to the temple on each day between Passover and Shavout. This is because the holiday is also associated with the season of harvest.
Contemporary observers honor this custom by simply counting each day.