When is Shavuot celebrated?
2014 Sunset, June 3 – nightfall, June 5
2015 Sunset, May 23 – nightfall, May 25
2016 Sunset, June 11 – nightfall, June 13
Tamar Genger MA, RD
שָׁבוּעוֹת (Shavuot), known as the Feast of Weeks in English and as Πεντηκοστή (Pentecost) in Ancient Greek, is a Jewish holiday that occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan.
Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. The holiday marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, making the date directly linked to that of Passover. The word Shavuot means weeks, and the festival of Shavuot marks the completion of the seven-week counting period from Passover.
In the Torah
In the Bible, Shavuot is known under other names. The three main ones are:
FESTIVAL OF WEEKS (Hebrew: חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot)
כב וְחַג שָׁבֻעֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, בִּכּוּרֵי קְצִיר חִטִּים; וְחַג, הָאָסִיף–תְּקוּפַת, הַשָּׁנָה.
“And you will celebrate your Festival of Weeks with the first ripe fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22
FESTIVAL OF HARVEST (Hebrew: חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir)
טז וְחַג הַקָּצִיר בִּכּוּרֵי מַעֲשֶׂיךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע בַּשָּׂדֶה; וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה, בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת-מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה.
Also, you are to observe the Festival of Harvest of the first ripe fruits of your labors, of what you sow in the field; and the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the results of your labors. – Exodus 23:16
DAY OF THE FIRST (RIPE) FRUITS (Hebrew יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim)
כו וּבְיוֹם הַבִּכּוּרִים, בְּהַקְרִיבְכֶם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַיהוָה–בְּשָׁבֻעֹתֵיכֶם: מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ.
“‘On the day of the first ripe fruits, when you present a new grain offering to Jehovah, you should hold a holy convention in your feast of weeks. You must not do any hard work – Numbers 28:26.
In the Talmud
The Talmud refers to Shavuot as עצרת (literally meaning “refraining” or “holding back”). This refers to the prohibition against hard work on this holiday and to the conclusion of the holiday and season of Passover. Because Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Greek Jews gave it the name “Pentecost” (πεντηκοστή, “fiftieth day”) (Do not confuse with the Christian observance of Pentecost).
Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. In ancient times, at the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.
Shavuot has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than traditional festival observances of meals and merriment; and the observances of special prayer services and no working. However, it is characterized by the following מִנְהָגִים (customs).
1. אקדמות – Akdamut, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services
2. חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese
3. רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services (outside Israel: on the second day)
4. ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery
5. תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.
Akdamut (Aramaic: אקדמות) is a poem extolling the greatness of God, the Torah and Israel that is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. The poem is written in a double acrostic pattern according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. Sephardim do not read Akdamut, but before the evening service they sing a poem called Azharot which sets out the 613 Biblical commandments. The positive commandments are recited on the first day and the negative commandments on the second day. The liturgical poem of Yatziv Pitgam (Aramaic: יציב פתגם) is recited by some synagogues in the Diaspora on the second day of Shavuot.
Dairy foods such as cheesecake, cheese blintzes, cheese kreplach, cheese sambusak, kelsonnes, atayef, kahee, a seven-layer cake called siete cielos (Spanish for seven heavens) are traditionally consumed on the Shavuot holiday. Yemenite Jews do not eat dairy foods on Shavuot. In keeping with the observance of other Yom Tovs, there is both a night meal and a day meal on Shavuot. Meat is usually served at night and dairy is served either for the day meal or for a morning kiddush.
The Book of Ruth (מְגִלַּת רוּת)
The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because, according to tradition
- King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot.
- Shavuot is harvest time [Exodus 23:16], and the events of Book of Ruth occur at harvest time
- Ruth was a convert, and all Jews also entered the covenant on Shavuot, when the Torah was given
- The central theme of the book is loving-kindness, and the Torah is about loving-kindness
- Ruth was allowed to marry Boaz on the basis of the Oral Law’s interpretation of Deut. 23:4 (ד לֹא-יָבֹא עַמּוֹנִי וּמוֹאָבִי, בִּקְהַל יְהוָה: גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׂירִי, לֹא-יָבֹא לָהֶם בִּקְהַל יְהוָה עַד-עוֹלָם. – No Am′mon·ite or Mo′ab·ite may come into the congregation of Jehovah) pointing to the unity of the Written and Oral Torahs.
According to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit. Greenery also figures in the story of the baby Moses being found among the bulrushes in a watertight cradle when he was three months old. For these reasons, many Jewish families traditionally decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot.
All-night Torah study
The practice of staying up all night to study Torah is known as תקון ליל שבועות (Tikkun Leil Shavuot). The custom of all-night Torah study goes back to 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro invited Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and other Kabbalistic colleagues to hold Shavuot-night study vigils for which they prepared for three days in advance. Although Talmud, Mishnah, and Torah are at the top the list, any subject may be studied on Shavuot night. People may learn alone or with a study partner, or attend late-night lectures and study groups. Both men and women participate in this tradition.
In Jerusalem, tens of thousands of people finish off the nighttime study session by walking to the Western Wall before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan. This practice began in 1967 and since then, over 200,000 Jews came to pray at the site.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
The Tikkun Leil Shavuot (חג שבועות ליל תיקון) consists of excerpts from the beginning and end of each of the 24 books of Tanakh (with the exceptions of the account of the days of creation, The Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Shema are all read in full) and the 63 books of Mishnah. This is followed by the reading of Sefer Yetzirah, the 613 commandments as enumerated by Maimonides, and excerpts from the Zohar, with opening and concluding prayers. The whole reading is divided into thirteen parts printed in a special book, and is widely used in Eastern Sephardic, some German and Hasidic communities. There are similar books for the vigils before the seventh day of Pesach and Hosha’ana Rabbah.Spanish and Portuguese Jews do not observe this custom.