Celebrating Shavuot in Israel

Children of dairy farmers and farmers, seen with fruit baskets and baskets filled with dairy products, during a celebration for the Jewish harvest holiday of Shavuot, at the President's residence in Jerusalem. June 02, 2014. (Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israelis are making preparations to celebrate Shavuot, the last of the commanded biblical spring feasts, beginning on Tuesday evening and continuing through to the following evening.

Based on instructions found in four of the five books of Moses and an observation in 2 Chronicles 8, this feast is also mentioned in the New Testament books of John and Acts. With deep meaning for Jews and non-Jews, believers and non-believers alike, Shavuot is celebrated in Israel and around the world with varying rituals, customs, symbolisms and traditions.

Both history and rabbinic custom contribute to the way Shavuot is celebrated, which makes for an unusual, interesting and enjoyable holiday — especially for those who like cheesecake!

Tradition stipulates that meat should not be eaten on Shavuot as a reminder that after Moses was given the laws on the mountain in Sinai, it took time for them to learn how to prepare meat in the new accepted way. Thus it became customary to eat and celebrate dairy products on Shavuot. Even though there is no biblical or historical foundation for this notion, the tradition has stuck. It is customary for the kibbutzim to host agricultural festivals and there are cheese-making workshops advertised on goat farms and dairies around the country during Shavuot.

It is also tradition to read the book of Ruth for Shavuot.

Even though historical and biblical accounts do not link any significant occasion with this one-day feast in Israel (two days in the diaspora), rabbinic tradition dictates that Shavuot was when the revelation of Torah was given to Moses. In God’s biblical calendar, Shavuot is the second of the commanded ascension harvest feasts. This meant a pilgrimage up to Jerusalem to make an offering at the Temple. Shavuot is directly linked to Passover, the Feast of Unleavened bread and the Day of First Fruits — the first barley harvest.

The name “Shavuot” means weeks. It is even called the Feast of Weeks and is also referred to as the Feast of Harvest as well as the Feast of Ingathering. God instructed the Israelites that this was to be an agricultural celebration. From the Day of Firstfruits, which happens seven weeks prior at the barley harvest, a grain of wheat (omer) is counted every day to mark off 50 days to the wheat harvest. This is where the familiar New Testament Greek name for the Shavuot harvest holiday comes from. It is the ordinal number Pentecost, meaning fiftieth — directly related to the counting of the omer.

In synagogues and yeshivas, special liturgies and readings are observed in the days of counting the wheat grain. Those who follow the tradition that Shavuot is about the giving of the Torah use this opportunity to study and pray. An urban myth says that when God gave the Torah to Moses, the Israelites overslept. To rectify this, on this holiday, some fervent adherents stay awake on an all-night vigil to study the books of Moses. In addition, thousands gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as well as on the beaches to pray. At sunrise, it is traditional to chant together the Shma Yisrael (Hear, Oh Israel) from Deuteronomy 6:4.

In biblical times and since the exiled Jewish people started to return to the land, Shavuot’s focus has been about celebrating agricultural provision from God. As the society in general shifted away from agriculture, the emphasis became less specific to the commanded grain harvests and began to incorporate fruit and other products too. In the early years of modern-day Israel, Shavuot became a way to celebrate the development, growth and the bounty of the land of milk and honey.

As a nod to the biblical command to go up to Jerusalem, the president of Israel is presented with an assortment of fruit that has been grown and harvested in Israel. Children around the country dress in white and take baskets of fruit to school to present as gifts to their teachers and each other.

After Shavuot, a long, hot summer ensues before the third of God’s commanded ascension feasts, the Feast of Tabernacles — the Grape harvest — is commemorated, usually in September or October.