Shavuot, also known as the “Feast of Weeks” is a Jewish holiday which celebrates two important events in Israel; the giving of Torah (the first five books in the Hebrew Bible) to Moses at Mount Sinai and thanksgiving for the spring grain harvest. Every year, Shavout is celebrated on the Sunday that comes seven weeks or 49 days after the “Feast of First Fruits.” Since Omer, which is the calculation of the number of days, begins on the second evening of Pesach (Passover), Shavout is observed 50 days later and thus is referred to by the name of Pentecost, which is Greek for “50.”
The story behind Shavout
Shavout was called Hag HaKatzir, meaning “The Harvest Holiday,” since it marked the commencement of a new agricultural season. Being one amongst the three pilgrimage festivals, Shavout was the day Israeli males could take the first fruits of the harvest called Bikkurim to the temple. Bikkurim constituted of the seven species of fruit that Israel, being predominantly an agrarian society, was acclaimed for—wheat, grapes, dates, pomegranates, barley, olives, and figs. Farmers tied a reed around the first fruit from each of these varieties that ripened. When these specific fruits were harvested, they were placed in wicker baskets or ones woven with silver and gold by the richer folks. The baskets were loaded on oxen that were bedecked with garlands of flowers. The farmers led the oxen in a grand procession with melodious flutes playing along, all the way to Jerusalem. Bikkurim conveys gratitude to God for first fruits as well as for his guidance.
Celebrating the gift of land, bread and fruit: Shavout today
Although the significance of Shavout is serious and spiritual in nature, the commemoration of advent of the Torah and the Spirit is purely joyful. Preparation for Shavout begins on the previous day, so everyone can enjoy the day without worrying about smaller details.
The setting sun on the eve of Shavout brings out people on the streets of Jerusalem dressed in their finest clothes. Many choose to wear white. They make their way to the synagogue where the Ten Commandments are read to reaffirm agreement with God and His Torah.
The sound of singing and laughter fill the air. Happy children dance around like angels with floral garlands of varicoloured spring flowers sitting like halo’s on their head. On Shavout, parents make an exception and allow them to stay up late to join the festivities. They enjoy the special sweets and candy which symbolise the sweetness of the Torah.
Jewish families from around Israel and other parts of the world come together for dinner on Shavout. The feast is not short of amazing, with prayers, songs and smiles filling homes all throughout. Traditional Jewish delights include dairy products like Cheesecake and Cheese Blintzes. Cheese Blintzes are crepes stuffed with sweetened cheese and topped with sour cream and/or jam and eaten with challah, loaf of white leavened bread that is typically braided. Two challah loaves are baked connected at the centre, to represent the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. In some houses, challah is decorated with a seven step ladder made of dough to symbolize the seven layers of heaven which legend says God descended to appear on Mount Sinai.
Why dairy products? Some say it’s because when Moses returned from Mount Sinai, people did not have time to slaughter an animal and prepare food, so instead they celebrated with dairy products. Others say that the learning of Torah is healthy and sweet, just like milk and honey as was compared by King Solomon.
According to tradition, since the Torah was received in the morning, devout Jews stay up all night reading the Book of Ruth, the poem called “Akdamut”, composed by Rabbi Meir and study the Torah until the sun rises. At the crack of dawn, with gratitude in their hearts, thousands of people head towards the Western Wall or the “Wailing Wall” in the Old City of Jerusalem, believed to be the spiritual centre of the world for Jews. Young and old, men and women, from Jerusalem or from as far as New York City, pray and sing together at the Wall. Some with elaborate head gear—Fedora hats, yarmulkes, kippas and head scarves, and some without. Some wear proper pin-striped suits, while others wear tallit and the tzitzit.
Candles are lit all over the town, and the sparkling lights spread joy and hope during this festival. Homes and synagogues are lovingly adorned with fruits, flowers and greenery, symbolising the story in which Mount Sinai, although located in the desert, bloomed with flowers and lush greenery when the Jewish nation received the Torah. Synagogues decorate and cover the bimah, or the speaker’s platform with plants and flowers so that it appears similar to a chuppah, or Mount Sinai.
Shavout is enjoyed most on a kibbutz. Many kibbutzim hold their own individual Bikkurim ceremonies that include colourful parades and delightful displays of produce grown on the kibbutz—first ripe fruits of Israel, ears of wheat and flowers. While many kibbutzim ceremonies are open to the public, some may charge a small fee for participation.