Shavuot is one of three festival holidays; the other two are Pesach and Sukkot. It marks the time when Moses presented the Torah to “the holy people” at the foot of Mount Sinai. A two day festival, it is known in Hebrew writings as zeman matan toratenu, or the season when our Torah was given to us.
The meaning of the word Shavuot is “weeks”. This celebration follows forty nine days of counting the period between Pesach and Shavuot, called counting the Omer.
In ancient times the date of Shavuot was a subject of controversy but has been determined to begin at sundown on the 5th of Sivan, the third month on the Jewish calendar, and concluding at nightfall on the 7th of Sivan. Israel celebrates only one day, concluding at nightfall on the 6th of Sivan.
One of the agricultural themed holidays, Shavuot marks the bounty of the harvests. Tradition holds that offerings of the first fruits of harvest are shared and homes and synagogues are decorated with greenery and flowers.
The Book of Ruth is customarily read in synagogue on Shavuot. There are a number of reasons given for this. Perhaps the most well known is that Ruth’s arrival in Israel at harvest time coincides with Shavuot.
Another possible reason relates to Ruth’s (a non-Jew) decision to leave her homeland after becoming a widow and the loss of her two sons, to join her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi to live in Israel. She made the choice to accept the beliefs of the Jewish people, and became a “convert”.
Shavuot is not one of the top three Jewish holidays that are high on the list of observance in today’s Jewish world, with possible exception existing in Orthodox or Conservative communities. For many it is remembered more or less as the time to eat a dairy meal that might include blintzes. There are a number of theories of why eating dairy on Shavuot is customary.
One theory relates to the biblical description of Israel as “the land of milk and honey”, therefore making dairy an appropriate meal on the “Feast of the Harvest”. There are other biblical references to “milk and honey” that have been interpreted to suggest consuming dairy for Shavuot.
Another interesting theory is that prior to receiving the Torah, Jews were permitted to eat nonkosher meat that was not ritually slaughtered. After the Torah was given to the people and the festival of Shavuot established, it occurred on the Sabbath when there was no time to cleanse eating utensils, so it was determined best to eat dairy meals during this time.
Shavuot is a good time to connect with friends and family and share a dairy meal together while finding appreciation in reading the Torah.