By Herschel Allerhand, typed by Mary Ann Easley, edited by Elizabeth Coffin
This year, the holiday of Shavuot falls on June 5th. Shavuot is the second of the pilgrimage holidays (falling between Passover and Succot). Each one of these holidays has three layers of religious experience. For Shavuot, the first layer is an agricultural event marking the late spring-summer wheat harvest; the second layer is historical and commemorates hearing the Ten Commandments and the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The third layer is theological; God’s appearance at Mount Sinai is the basis for our belief that creation is not a random accident and that the loving creator gave us the Torah as a “tree of life.”
Shavuot differs from the other pilgrimage holidays in two ways: it has no fixed date in the calendar (Passover and Succot fall on a given day of a specific month), and it has no signifying act such as eating matza or building and using a succah.
Shavuot is celebrated on the fiftieth day from the second day of Passover. The intervening forty-nine days are counted aloud in a verbal formula which emphasizes the importance of each day. The obligation to count is personal as well as communal (Leviticus 23:15-16 and 21).
Due to the manner in which this holiday is fixed day by day into the calendar, our sages regarded Shavuot as the culmination of Passover. We were liberated on Passover for the purpose of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. God told Moses, “… this is the sign that I have sent you when you take the people out of Egypt they will worship God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12).
Of course, the ‘acceptance of the Torah is the work of a lifetime, therefore there is no one signifying act for Shavuot. Our sages recognized the difficulty of living a life of Torah observance; “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” (Pirkei Avot, Wisdom of the Fathers 2:21).
Customs and Regulations
To emphasize their eagerness to accept the Torah, some congregants study with the Rabbi throughout the night before Shavuot day.
Morning prayers are said at dawn and the congregants walk home to sleep. The rest of the congregation pray later in the morning while the Rabbi may or may not make an appearance. The Passover Haggadah describes a similar incident when a number of prominent rabbis spent Passover eve debating and studying with such fervor that they lost track of time and had to be reminded by their students that it was time for morning prayers.
The portion of the Torah that is read on Shavuot contains the Ten Commandments. When the reader reaches this section in the scroll, he changes the cantillation – the trope – and the congregation rises, standing as a group to hear the Commandments. This special trope is an attempt to recreate the emotions felt at the foot of Mt. Sinai. (There is a midrash that states all the souls that accept the Torah were present at Mt. Sinai.)
The Book of Ruth is also read on Shavuot. This “beautiful and simple story of a Moabite proselyte who became the great-grandmother of King David takes place during the wheat harvest. This early summer harvest with its own rules is an integral part of the story.
It is customary to have dairy foods for the main Shavuot meal. One reason for abstaining from eating meat is to exhibit the self-control that can be gained from ‘laboring in the Torah.’
The synagogue is decorated with flowers, vines and greenery emphasizing the beauty of the season.