What Is Shavuot? 101 Guide
What Is Shavuot Really About?
Shavuot – or “The Feast of Weeks” – is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Sukkot. It is celebrated on the 6th of Sivan in Israel, and the 6th and 7th of Sivan in the diaspora.
The Bible describes the Shavuot holiday as an agricultural celebration: the festival of Reaping (Jeremiah 5:24, Deuteronomy 16:9–11, Isaiah 9:2). Today, Shavuot is most widely known as the Jewish holiday that commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, although Biblical references to Shavuot refer only to a spring harvest festival.
According to the Torah, it took seven weeks for the Israelites to travel from Egypt to Mount Sinai. The name Shavuot, meaning “weeks,” refers to this seven-week period. Each day is counted, which is known as the Counting of the Omer, or Sefirat HaOmer. In the days of the Temple, the counting marked the seven weeks from the wheat harvest on the spring festival of Passover, to the harvesting of barley on Shavuot.
On Passover, the people of Israel were liberated from Egyptian slavery; on Shavuot, they were given the Torah and committed themselves to serving God. While Passover marks their liberation from slavery, Shavuot marks the renewal of their commitment and dedication to God.
It is this national decision (often referred to as a “marriage” between God and the Israelites) that created the Jewish people. After accepting the commandments at Sinai, the Jewish people were no longer just descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now, they became God’s chosen people, who had chosen God in return, and would study and abide by the laws of the Torah as part of their service to the Almighty.
We explain more about the deeper relevance of this holidays in our Shavuot Dvar Torah videos.
The Meaning Behind The Names Of Shavuot
The spring Jewish holiday of Shavuot has many names and meanings, each of which can teach us something about the nature of the festival. Shavuot is pronounced “Shah-VOO-ot” in English, and it is also predominately known as the Time of the Giving of the Torah (Zeman Matan Torah).
Festival of Weeks – חג השבועות (Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10)
Shavuot means “weeks” in Hebrew, which is why it is also known as “The Festival of Weeks” in English. The name is derived from the seven weeks of counting from Passover that culminate in the Shavuot holiday.
Festival of Reaping – חג הקציר (Exodus 23:16)
Each of the three pilgrimage festivals marks a new period in the agricultural season:
- Passover is also known as Chag ha-Aviv, the Spring Festival, which marks the beginning of the new planting season. The basic meaning of the word aviv is the stage of growth in grain when the seeds have reached full size but have not yet dried.
- Chag ha-Katzir, or the Jewish Harvest Festival of Reaping, is when the first crop of the season is ready. This happens at the time of Shavuot.
- The next agricultural step is for all of the crops to be gathered. This happens with the third pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, which is also referred to as the Festival of Gathering, Chag Ha-Asif.
Day of the First Fruits – יום הבכורים (Numbers 28:26)
Yom Habikurim (Day of the First Fruits) comes from ancient times, when people would bring Bikkurim, their first and best fruits, as an offering to the Holy Temple. Bikkurim were brought from the Seven Species for which the land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8).
Shavuot and Pentecost
The Greek name for the Shavuot holiday, Pentecost, means “Fiftieth day.” This name refers to the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot.
Understanding The Feast Of The First Fruits
The Feast of the First Fruits was a ceremonial way for Jewish farmers to give thanks to God for providing another harvest, and for the bountiful land of Israel in general. In preparation for the Feast of the First Fruits, reeds or string would be tied around the first wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates to ripen each spring. This special produce, known as the bikkurim, was displayed in beautiful baskets and taken to the Holy Temple in a joyous procession. Farmers would recite a passage from Deuteronomy 26:5 (which refers to Jacob’s escape from Lavan) marking the miracle of the Jewish nation flowering successfully in the land of Israel. Rabbi Fohrman takes a closer look at this Bible verse to uncover a deeper meaning behind the offering of first fruits.
Difference Between First Fruits & Tithes
The giving of Bikkurim, or first fruits, is not the same as fulfilling the Biblical commandment of tithing the land. There are two kinds of Biblical tithing:
- Terumah is a portion of corn, wine, oil, vegetables, and fruit set aside to provide for the Kohen, or priest.
- Maaser is a tenth of what remains from the crop that is given to the Levi.
Neither Kohanim nor Leviim owned land in Israel, and Terumah and Maaser provided their sustenance as they served in the Holy Temple.
When Is Shavuot?
The holiday of Shavuot is celebrated at sundown on the 6th of Sivan:
- Saturday, 08–09 June 2019 (5779)
- Thursday, 28–29 May 2020 (5780)
- Sunday, 16–17 May 2021 (5781)
- Saturday, 04–05 June 2022 (5782)
- Thursday, 25–26 May 2023 (5783)
- Tuesday, 11–12 June 2024 (5784)
- Sunday, 01–02 June 2025 (5785)
Shavuot Traditions, Customs & Rituals
Because of the agricultural and spiritual significance of the holiday, there are many Shavuot traditions that celebrate both the Jewish people receiving the Torah, and the Jewish harvest festival.
Unlike most other Jewish holidays, Shavuot has no prescribed Torah commandments other than the traditional festival observances, such as having joyous feasts, special holiday prayers and abstention from work.
Shavuot does, however, have many minhagim, or customs.
Tikkun Leil: All-Night Torah Study Before Shavuot
According to Midrash, the Israelites went to bed early the night before receiving the Torah in order to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead, but then overslept and had to be woken by Moses himself. In order to atone for this national mistake, many Jews study Torah all night long, in symbolic anticipation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot day. This practice is also known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot.
Counting the Omer to Shavuot
The Torah instructs us to count the weeks between the first barley harvest and the Feast of Weeks. Talmudic Sages explain that these seven weeks, known as the Omer, connect the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. The Omer is a time of semi-mourning, which ends with Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer. This Lag BaOmer video explains more about the significance of this holiday.
According to Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers and greenery in honor of the giving of the Torah. So today, many Jewish families decorate their homes with greenery and flowers in honor of the holiday.
Prayers recited on Shavuot include a blessing over lighting the candles, the kiddush blessing on wine, and the Shechiyanu blessing.
Why Do We Eat Dairy Foods On Shavuot?
It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. Ashkenazi Jews often enjoy cheesecake and cheese blintzes on the holiday of Shavuot, while Sephardic Jews eat cheesy dumplings and pancakes. Jews from Greece, Morocco and Tunisia often eat a sweet, seven-layer bread called pan de sietecielos (bread of the seven heavens).
Dairy foods are eaten on Shavuot for for a number of reasons:
- Shavuot occurs during the milking season, when dairy is plentiful and fresh.
- Before receiving the Torah, the Israelites did not follow its laws of ritual animal slaughter, so their utensils were not yet purified for kosher meat use. So instead of meat, the Israelites celebrated with dairy foods.
- King Solomon compares the Torah to milk in the Song of Songs: “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” (4:11).
Not all Jews eat a dairy meal on the night of Shavuot. If meat is served at the meal, diary products will not be served, in observance of the laws of kashrut.
Shavuot Torah Reading
The Book of Ruth, one of the five scrolls of Tanakh is read at morning services on Shavuot. Megillat Ruth mostly takes place during the harvest season (Ruth 1:22), so we read it on the Harvest Holiday of Shavuot.
There are several other reasons why the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot:*
- King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot (Chagigah 2:3).
- Ruth was a convert, entering the covenant with God of her own accord. The Israelites did the same when they entered their covenant with God on Shavuot by receiving the Torah.
- In the Torah, there is a command stating that no Moabite may marry into God’s nation (Deut. 23:4). Ruth was only able to marry Boaz because of the Oral Law’s interpretation of that command, which states that this law only applies to the Moabite men. The story of Ruth is told on Shavuot to highlight the necessity of both the Written and Oral Torah.
*For a totally new spin on why we read Ruth's story on Shavuot, click here.
What Is the Book of Ruth About?
The Background Story
During the era of the Judges, there was famine in the land of Judah. An Israelite family–Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion–leave their home in Bethlehem and journey to Moab. Shortly thereafter, Elimelech dies and the sons marry Moabite women. Chilion marries Orpah and Mahlon marries Ruth. Ten years pass, and Mahlon and Chilion die without heirs.
Naomi hears that the famine has ended in Judea and decides it is time to return home. As she prepares to leave, her daughters-in-law begin to follow, but Naomi tells them to return to their families. Ruth and Orpah cry and protest, telling Naomi they wish to return with her to her people. But Naomi continues to resist, urging her daughters-in-law to go back to their own homes, saying she has nothing left to give them.
Again the two women break down, and Orpah kisses Naomi farewell, but Ruth clings to her mother-in-law. Naomi tries to persuade her to leave, but Ruth is not swayed. She then says her famous lines of loyalty:
“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
When Naomi sees how steadfast Ruth is, she acquiesces, and the women return to Bethlehem together.
Back To Bethlehem
Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Ruth goes to find sustenance for herself and her mother-in-law, hoping someone will let her gather their leftover grain. The field she finds belongs to Boaz, a close relative of her deceased father-in-law, Elimelech. Boaz asks about the strange woman in his fields and discovers his relation to her. Learning of the great loyalty she has towards Naomi, Boaz shows her special kindness and generosity.
When Ruth returns and tells Naomi all that has transpired, Naomi is thrilled by this “coincidence” as Boaz is one of Ruth’s redeeming kinsmen. This means that because Boaz is a close relative of Elimelech’s family, he is obligated by Levirate law (Yibum) to marry Mahlon’s widow, Ruth, to carry on the family’s lineage.
A "Scandalous" Love Story
Naomi instructs Ruth to go to Boaz in the middle of the night, uncover his feet, and lie there. Ruth does so and when Boaz wakes up in shock, she tells him who she is and says, “Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (Ruth 3:9). Doing so would be considered a formal act of espousal (Ezekiel 16:8). Rabbi Fohrman explains more about this strange part of the "love" story between Boaz and Ruth.
Boaz understands her intent and says that these actions show an even greater loyalty than remaining with Naomi, because now she is demonstrating loyalty to her deceased husband by seeking to perpetuate his legacy.
Although Boaz is a close relative, he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who is truly next in line to “redeem” her by Levirate law. Boaz tells Ruth he will see if this other man will redeem her, and if not, he will marry her himself.
A Significant Ending
In the morning, Boaz meets Ploni Almoni (which is the Hebrew version of John Doe) before ten elders to discuss the matter. Ploni Almoni, not wanting to jeopardize his own estate, relinquishes his right of redemption. Boaz was now free to marry Ruth. Ploni, in accordance with the Levirate practice, takes off his sandal and hands it to Boaz. Boaz proclaims that he is now acquiring all of Elimelech’s estate and acquiring Mahlon’s wife to perpetuate Mahlon’s name. Boaz and Ruth marry and have a son named Obed. Obed is the father of Jesse, who is the father of King David.
The Book Of Ruth: A Study Guide
What is so significant about Ruth's story? When we read Megillat Ruth aloud on Shavuot, it's hard to find something in the way of excitement and grand events in this tale of marriage, death, and daily life in ancient Israel. But looking deeper into Megillat Ruth reveals nothing short of an origin story for nationhood — and the perfect chronicle for Shavuot. Rabbi Fohrman’s PDF guide for the Book of Ruth is full of probing questions and important points to ponder, guiding you to a more meaningful understanding of this seemingly ordinary text.