Counting On Shavuot
A holiday of mitzvot, rejoicing, study — and a lot of really cheesy stuff
The Holiday: Shavuot, or "weeks," in Hebrew.
Shavuot lasts two days or, in most Reform congre-
gations, one day. This year, the holiday is celebrat-
ed today, Friday, June 6, and tomorrow, also
Why We Celebrate: Like all the major Jewish holi-
days, the origins of Shavuot are in the Torah. You
can read about Shavuot in Parshat Emor (Leviticus
23: 15-21); the holiday is not named here, but
you can learn about the Method of determining its
date, as well as the rituals associated with it.
Shavuot has the unusual distinction of being the
only Jewish holiday whose day is not determined
by calendar date, but by counting days after
another holiday. In this case, God commands the
Jewish people to begin counting on the second
day of Pesach and continue seven weeks, with the
50th day being Shavuot.
gave us the. Torah at Sinai. So in the liturgy of
Shavuot, the day is referred to as Zman matan
Torateynu, "The time of the giving of our Torah."
How We Celebrate: In commemoration of God's
giving us the Torah, Jewish mystics inaugurated
the custom of staying awake to study the entire
night on the eve of Shavuot.
Over the generations, staying awake all night
has become widespread. Synagogues and temples
post all-night schedules. Morning services are held
early, usually around 5 a.m., after which congre-
gants head straight for sleep.
Shavuot has specific prayers and Torah readings,
plus a few extras. On the first day of Shavuot, after
the kohen has been called to the Torah for the first
aliyah (Torah reading) and before he recites the
In Other Words ...: In Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus
23:16), the Torah calls the holiday Chag Ha-
Katzir ("Festival of the Harvest"), and in
Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 28:26-31), the Torah
identifies it as Yom Habikurim, "the day of
first fruits." These are references to the
Shavuot sacrifice, offerings from the crop of
Until Shavuot, all meal offerings were
made of flour from earlier crops. The pas-
sage also labels the holiday a festival of
"your weeks." For a third time, in Parshat
Reeh (Deuteronomy 16:9 12), God com-
mands the Jews to observe the holiday;
here, it is called Shavuot.
In ancient times, when much of the
Jewish population of the Mediterranean
spoke Greek, they took to calling
Shavuot by the Greek name of Pentecost,
derived from the Greek word for "50."
How To Celebrate: Beyond the grain and
animal sacrifices, the Torah does not speci-
fy rituals of Shavuot. What we are told to
do is rejoice.
In The Beginning: From early on, the rabbis
viewed Shavuot as more than an agricultural
festival. Based on its linkage to Pesach, and the
commandment to remember the days of our
bondage in Egypt, the rabbis determined that on
what later came to be known as Shavuot, God
Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1:16), from "The Five
Scrolls," illustrated by Leonard Baskin (copyright
blessing, the Torah reader or the chazan recites
Akdamut. This long poem was composed by Rabbi
Meir ben Yitzhak, who lived in Worms, Germany,
in the 11th century.
Written in Aramaic, the 90 verses speak of the
.majesty of God, the suffering of the Jewish people
and their ultimate restoration to Jerusalem and the
Land of Israel, and the glory of the messianic era.
On the second day of Shavuot, after the reading
of the first verse of the Haftorah, the Yetziv Pitgam
is chanted. This is another poem in Aramaic com-
prising 15 verses, with a theme similar to that of
Akdamut. This was composed by Yaacov, the son
of Rabbi Meir Levi, whom some scholars believe is
Yaacov ben Meir of Orleans, the grandson of the
great Jewish scholar, Rashi.
Also on the second day, the Book of Ruth is read
in the synagogue. Why this book? Many of the
events in Ruth occur at the time of the harvest.
Further, just as Ruth accepted the Torah and
became Jewish, so did the children of Israel at
King David, a descendant of Ruth, died on
Shavuot and by reading the book, we commemo-
rate his yahrtzeit.
Traditionally, the synagogue or temple on
Shavuot is decorated with flowers and greenery
This is based on the belief that when the Torah
was given, Mount Sinai was lush with vegeta-
Food For Thought: Shavuot has a culinary
theme of dairy cuisine, which includes cheese
blintzes, cheese kreplach, and all sorts of
deserts, especially cheesecake.
The reason for dairy foods on Shavuot is a
mystery. Some believe that until God gave
the commandments concerning which ani-
mals were kosher and laws regarding slaugh-
tering and kashering of meat, aside from
Temple sacrifices the Jewish people had to be
satisfied with dairy foods.
Others point out the proximity of the
Torah verses discussing the first fruits with the
commandment to separate meat and dairy in
the kosher diet.
One tradition states that the Jews waited so
long for the Torah that they were positively
exhausted afterward, and when they returned to
their tents they fixed the simplest food possible,
which was dairy.
In the Song of Songs, the Torah is likened to
honey and milk. I I