By Hershel Allerhand with thanks to Mary Ann Easley for typing and Liz Coffin for editing.
This year, the holiday of Shavuot will be celebrated on Friday, May 26th and Saturday, May 27th. In common with other two pilgrimage holidays (Passover and later Sukkot), Shavuot commemorates both an historical and agricultural event. The historical event is our acceptance of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and the agricultural event is the late spring-early summer wheat harvest. Shavuot, however, differs from the other two pilgrimage holidays in that the Torah does not assign it a specific date, while Passover and Sukkot fall on a given day of a specific month. Nor does Shavuot have a signifying act such as eating matzo or building a sukkah. We count forty-nine days from the second day of Passover and celebrate Shavuot on the fiftieth day. (The obligation to count is both communal and individual; each day is emphasized and there are customs and rules pertaining to this period (Leviticus 23:15-16 and 21). Our sages, therefore, regard Shavuot as the culmination of Passover. We were liberated on Passover in order to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai fifty days later. “When you take the people out of Egypt they will worship God on the mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)
Shavuot has no signifying act because observing and internalizing the Torah is the work of a lifetime. In the prayers for the holiday Shavuot is referred to as “the time of the giving of our Torah.”
In the synagogue, the portion of the Torah which is chanted on Shavuot contains the Ten Commandments. When the Commandments are chanted, the congregation rises to its feet as if standing at Mount Sinai. An especially sanctified cantillation is used. Regarding these Commandments, our sages stress that they belong together as a single unit. There is no difference between the duties owed to God, such as Sabbath observance, and those owed to our fellow man, such as “thou shall not kill.” Without faith in God there can be no morality. When human beings write their own laws of morality, and legislate those laws, anything can be rationalized (paraphrasing Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik).
To show their eagerness to receive the Torah, some congregants study Torah with their rabbi through the night until dawn before the first day of Shavuot; morning prayers are recited at sunrise. The bulk of the congregation prays later in the morning; if the rabbi shows up, his sermon is very short.
It is customary to have dairy food for the main Shavuot meal. One reason given for this custom is that abstaining from eating meat requires the self-control needed to observe the Torah. (Our sages say that this control can be gained by “laboring in the Torah.”)
The synagogue is decorated with flowers, vines, and greenery emphasizing the beauty of the season. The Book of Ruth is chanted in the synagogue. This beautiful and simple story, which takes place during the early harvest, tells of a Moabite proselyte accepting the God of Israel (as we did at Mount Sinai) and becomes the great-grandmother of King David. There is a beautiful midrash which states that all Jewish souls, past and future, were present at Mount Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments.