Shavuot, celebrated on the sixth and seventh days of the Hebrew month of Sivan, is one of three pilgrimage festivals or Shalosh Regalim. On these holidays, which include Passover and Sukkot, Jews traveled to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to offer gifts to God.
Shavuot marks the beginning of the wheat harvest and celebrates the land of Israel's agriculture; farmers offered bikkurim—their first ripened fruits—as gifts to God. Shavuot also celebrates the Revelation at Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people.
The countdown to Shavuot begins exactly 49 days earlier, on the second night of Passover. This period of seven weeks is known as the omer and it is customary to count off these days with the recitation of a blessing each night. On Shavuot we mark the conclusion of this counting, hence the holiday's biblical name, Feast of Weeks.
Shavuot and the Revelation
After the destruction of the Temple, the nature of Shavuot began to change. Since the only ritual associated with Shavuot was the offering of the wheat and first fruits at the Temple, after the destruction there were no longer any rituals to perform. The rabbis pondered what could be done to commemorate this day and over time the rabbis connected Shavuot with the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. The basis for this connection was that the exact date of the Revelation was never known. Sages approximated the Revelation around the sixth or seventh day of Sivan. Later on, the rabbis developed the calendar and they formally designated the sixth day of Sivan as the day to celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. Over time, Shavuot's primary purpose became the commemoration of the Revelation, and the celebration of the harvest festival became secondary.
Passover and Shavuot
Many rabbinic authorities view the counting of the omer, the 49 days counted from the second night of Passover (or Pesach) until Shavuot, as indicative of the strong relationship that exists between both holidays. Some cite Shavuot as the culmination of the harvest season begun on Passover. Others see more of a philosophical connection between the two holidays. They believe that the Israelites were so excited to receive the Torah they actually counted the days from the time of the Exodus until the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Others say that the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is the fulfillment of the Exodus from Egypt. In Egypt, the Israelites worked to prepare themselves and become worthy of receiving the Torah. Therefore, Passover with Shavuot or Exodus without the Revelation would have been incomplete. The counting of the 49 days helps us link the two holidays and reminds us of the commitment that began in Egypt and was sealed at Mt. Sinai.
Book of Ruth
The Book of Ruth is read during the morning service on the first day of Shavuot. The story centers around Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, natives of the land of Moab. The story begins in the land of Moab with the sudden death of Naomi's, Orpah's and Ruth's husbands. Thinking of her young widowed daughters-in-law, Naomi tells them that they must go on with their own loves and forget about her. Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth that she will return to the land of Israel alone and she urges them to return to their own families. Orpah listens to Naomi, however Ruth refuses to leave and says, "Wherever you will go, I will go ... your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16). Ruth converts to Judaism and returns with Naomi to the land of Israel.
Ruth and Naomi return to Israel destitute and hungry. Therefore, they are forced to glean, that is, to gather sheaves of wheat that have fallen in the fields after the harvest. Gleaning is part of a mitzvah in the Torah referred to as leket and was initiated in order to ensure that widows, orphans and the poor are taken care of by the community. Naomi gleans in the field of Boaz, a distant cousin of her departed husband. Boaz has already heard of Ruth's compassion for Naomi and admires and respects her. He demonstrates this by vowing to protect Naomi and Ruth and provides them with food.
When Naomi hears about Boaz's act of kindness, she convinces Ruth to actively pursue him in order to carry on the legacy of her departed husband. Boaz agrees to marry Ruth and redeems her so that her husband's name will be carried on in the future.
There are many reasons the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. The first is that the story of Ruth centers around agriculture—the harvest and gleaning in the fields. Secondly, Ruth's conversion to Judaism and acceptance of the Torah parallels the acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai by the Israelites. Others have suggested that because King David, the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz, was born and also died on Shavuot, we re-read this story to remember the kindness of Ruth and pay tribute to her.
There are many lessons that can be learned from the Book of Ruth. One sees the strength and heroism of Ruth and Naomi and understands how their perseverance and belief in God helped them overcome adversity. Ruth's actions provide a model for all of us to emulate. Her compassion, sensitivity and concern for Naomi teach us the importance of responsibility to one's family. Ruth never abandons her mother-in-law and she even leaves her own home and culture in order to take care of Naomi. Ruth also feels a responsibility to the memory of her departed husband and marries someone that will enable her to keep his name alive. Ruth's conversion to Judaism and the fact that King David is her direct descendent shows us that a person who possesses a true commitment to God can be a catalyst for future greatness.
Mt. Sinai: The Covenant
"All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will listen." (Exodus 19:8) This response was given by the Israelites at Mt. Sinai when they received the Torah from Moses, as they enthusiastically and unanimously agreed to accept the Torah as a way of life.
On the surface, one may ask how the Israelites could commit to a religion, a way of life, before knowing any of the details that were involved. To some, it may appear as though blind faith committed the Israelites to a lifestyle that was foreign to them.
One answer to this question is that the Israelites had inherited a spiritual comprehension of the Torah from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The covenant between God and these Patriarchs was already inculcated into the spirits of the Israelites. The Revelation at Mt. Sinai only sealed the commitment started years before between the Israelites and God. Therefore, the Jews at Mt. Sinai knew the responsibilities involved in Judaism and accepted them voluntarily. Moreover, the Sages said that since every Jewish soul was present at Mt. Sinai, we ourselves also voluntarily accepted the way of the Torah and are therefore obligated to uphold its laws.
Another answer might be that the Jews at Sinai gained complete faith in God because of the miracles that occurred in Egypt and in the desert. This faith enabled the Jews to know that they wanted to lead their lives according to the tenets of Judaism. This was not blind faith, but an affirmation of the commitment that they already made to God.
Bride and Groom
The images of the Jews accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai is one of the most dramatic and moving episodes in the Torah. Some Sages view the Revelation at Mt. Sinai as a metaphorical marriage in which the bride and groom are represented by the Jews and God. The Torah represents a ketubah, the wedding contract between a husband and a wife, and the mountain of Sinai represents a chuppah, a wedding canopy. Like a husband and wife, God and the Jews pledge their eternal love, trust and support to one another. This image of love is used often throughout the Torah to symbolize one of the strongest types of love that exists in the world.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
Many people spend the evening in synagogue on the first night of Shavuot and stay up the entire night learning portions of the Torah. By studying the words of God, they are in a sense re-enacting the Israelites' acceptance of the Torah. On Pesach, we are commanded to feel as though we ourselves witnessed the Exodus of Egypt. During Shavuot, we are told that every Jewish soul was actually present at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and studying helps us to relive this experience. Every time one engages in the study of Torah, it is a reaffirmation of the covenant between the Jews and God.
Other customs include decorating the home and synagogue with greenery and flowers to recreate the physical appearance of Mt. Sinai. In addition, these decorations also remind us of the original purpose of Shavuot—to celebrate the harvest. Another interesting custom that has arisen is to eat foods containing dairy products. Some favorites of Shavuot include cheese blintzes and cheesecake. One reason this custom may have arisen could be because the words of the Torah are said to be like chalav u'dvash, like milk and honey. Another explanation may be that after the Jews received the Torah, they learned that the meat they had been eating until then had not been kosher, so they ate dairy products instead.