Shavuot


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Shavuot

(shəvo͝o`ət) [Heb.,=weeks], Jewish feast celebrated on the 6th of the month of Sivan (usually some time in May) in Israel and on the sixth and seventh days in the Diaspora. Originally an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the winter grain harvest (which began at Passover), Shavuot later commemorated the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. See PentecostPentecost
[Gr.,=fiftieth], important Jewish and Christian feast. The Jewish feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, arose as the celebration of the closing of the spring grain harvest, which began formally in Passover 50
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Bibliography

See H. Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (1938, repr. 1970).

Shavuot

Atzeret, Day of First Fruits, Feast of Weeks, Hag Hakatzir,
Harvest Feast, Pentecost, Yom Habikkurim

Shavout is a Jewish holiday that takes place seven weeks after Passover. According to the Jewish calendar the festival falls on the sixth day of the month of Sivan. Its date in the civil, or Gregorian, calendar moves around from year to year due to differences in the two timereckoning systems (for more on the Gregorian and Jewish calendar sys- tems, see Easter, Date of). The word Shavuot means "weeks." This name comes from the Hebrew Bible, which refers to the observance as the "Feast of Weeks." In biblical times the holiday celebrated the spring harvest. Hebrew scripture also calls the festival Hag Hakatzir, or "Harvest Feast" (Exodus 23:16). In later times the holiday also came to commemorate God's giving of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to the Jewish people. Jews who live in Israel and Reform Jews outside Israel celebrate the festival for one day only. Orthodox and Conservative Jews celebrate Shavuot for two whole days.

Shavuot in Ancient Times

In biblical times Shavuot served as an occasion to thank God for the spring crops. In fact, it coincided with the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. On Shavuot worshipers gave the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem two loaves of bread, made from their finest spring wheat, to offer to God in a ritual of thanksgiving. People also expressed gratitude for the bounty of the earth by offering God the first fruits of the harvest. Animal sacrifices were also required. Thus the festival acquired another name, Yom Habikkurim or "Day of First Fruits."

Shavuot was one of three Jewish agricultural festivals that required the faithful to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the holiday could no longer be honored in the same way. So the rabbis, Jewish clergymen, turned to Jewish scripture and, after years of study, gleaned from it another interpretation of the festival. They realized that the ancient Israelites arrived at Sinai seven weeks after escaping from Egypt. Once there Moses, the Jewish leader, climbed Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God. He brought these down from the mountain and the Jewish people accepted them wholeheartedly in return for God's special care and protection. Afterwards God gave Moses other teachings contained in the Torah. Since the ancient Jewish people had already established the Passover festival in commemoration of their ancestors' escape from Egypt, it made sense that any festival occurring seven weeks later must commemorate the giving of the Torah. This interpretation of the holiday prevailed by the third century. It gave rise to yet another name for the festival. In the diverse body of Jewish writings known as the Talmud, Shavuot is sometimes called Atzeret, or "conclusion," since it completes the story commemorated in the Passover festival.

Counting the Omer

Shavuot falls seven weeks, or fifty days, after Passover. Thus some people referred to the festival as Pentecost, a name which comes from the Greek word meaning "fiftieth." On the sixteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan - the second day of Passover - Jewish priests ceremonially offered sheaves of barley, called omer, to God by waving them around in the Temple. Some understood this ritual to be a prayer for the protection of the barley harvest. Since biblical times Jews have observed the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot by formally counting them off. These forty-nine days of counting acquired their own name, Sefirat Haomer or "Counting the Omer." Observant Jews still carry out this practice in the form of a blessing recited every evening. In ancient times the forty-nine days between the first day of Passover and Shavuot coincided with the spring harvest. In searching for the deeper meaning of the forty-nine-day observance, some commentators also point out that the period comprised seven weeks of seven days. The number seven has special significance in Jewish spirituality since Hebrew scripture states that God created the world in seven days and instituted the Sabbath on the seventh day, commanding the Jewish people to observe it as a holy day of rest (for more on the Christian significance of the Sabbath, see Sunday). In biblical writings the number seven often symbolizes completeness.

Many contemporary celebrations place more emphasis on Shavuot than on Counting the Omer. Nevertheless, some scholars believe that in ancient times the entire fifty days of Sefirat Haomer and Shavuot were thought to be holy.

Contemporary Religious Observance

Contemporary religious services feature a reading of that portion of the Torah that describes the encounter between God, Moses, and the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai. Many congregations stand when the Ten Commandments are read aloud, in a gesture that reenacts the scene at Mount Sinai and signifies their own acceptance of God's commands. In Israel religious services also include a reading of the Book of Ruth. This story tells how Ruth, a young Moabite woman, left her family and her native country after her husband's death. Ruth casts her lot with that of her Jewish mother-in-law, returning with the older woman to the Jewish homeland. Once there Ruth embraces the Jewish religion and way of life, marries a well-to-do Jewish man, and has children. This story highlights the Shavuot theme of commitment to God's teachings. Much of the story's action takes place during the spring harvest season, which may provide another reason for its association with Shavuot. Finally, Ruth was the grandmother of the Jewish hero King David, who, according to tradition, was born and died on Shavuot. Jewish communities outside of Israel also associate the Book of Ruth with Shavuot, but their synagogues generally reserve this reading for the second day of the festival.

Folk Customs

Some of the folk customs associated with Shavuot recognize its ancient role as a harvest festival. For example, homes and synagogues may be decorated with flowers and greenery, evoking spring's bounty. Other customs pay tribute to the holiday's religious significance. One such custom calls for the eating of dairy foods on Shavuot. Over the years Jewish commentators have proposed many explanations for this custom. Some say that dairy foods contain a natural sweetness which calls to mind the sweetness of the Torah. It has also been said that the custom derives from a line in the Song of Songs, which says, "honey and milk are on your tongue." Some Jewish thinkers interpret this line as a reference to the Torah. Others say that when the Israelites received the Torah, they were like newborn babes in their relationship with God. Therefore Jews eat dairy products on Shavuot in remembrance of this period of spiritual infancy. Still another explanation for the custom suggests that when the Israelites returned from Mount Sinai, they were too tired to cook a meat meal, so they ate cold dairy foods instead. Another twist on this tale argues that the Israelites had just received the kosher dietary laws, but hadn't time to prepare the kosher cooking utensils required by these laws, and so had to make a meal of cold dairy products.

Shavuot has become a holiday that symbolizes the importance of Torah study and Jewish education. Some holiday customs reflect this theme. In France, Germany, and parts of eastern Europe parents brought young children to Hebrew school for the first time on Shavuot. The teachers gave the youngsters slates marked with the Hebrew alphabet and covered with honey and sweets. Thus the children came to know the sweetness of Torah study. In past times certain pious Jews used to spend the entire night in Torah study. Today some synagogues offer a modified version of this custom by organizing Torah and Talmud study sessions on the evening of Shavuot. Shavuot has also become a recognized occasion for ceremonies surrounding Jewish education. Hebrew school graduation exercises and confirmation ceremonies, whereby Jewish teens affirm their willingness to become adult members of the Jewish community, often take place on Shavuot.

Further Reading

Fellner, Judith B. In the Jewish Tradition. New York: Smithmark, 1995. Goodman, Philip. The Shavuot Anthology. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Klagsbrun, Francine. Jewish Days. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996. Seidman, Hillel. The Glory of the Jewish Holidays. New York: Shengold, 1968. "Seven." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Strassfeld, Michael. The Jewish Holidays. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986. Tyson, Joseph B. "Pentecost." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Weber, Vicki L., ed. The Rhythm of Jewish Time. West Orange, NJ: Behrman, 1999.

Web Site

For more on the customs and significance of Shavuot, see the following website, sponsored by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America:

Shavuot (Feast of Weeks)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: Between May 16 and June 13; sixth day of Sivan
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Bikkurim, Milk and Honey, Roses
Related Holidays: Lag Ba-Omer, Passover, Sukkot

ORIGINS

Shavuot is one of the holidays of the Jewish faith, one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Obedience to the law is central to Judaism, but there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

Shavuot-which means "weeks" in Hebrew-originated as an agricultural festival that took its name from the seven weeks between Pesach (or PASSOVER), when the first sheaf of barley was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Because the Jews had no written calendar, the exact date of Shavuot would be determined by counting seven weeks from the second day of PASSOVER, with the holiday taking place on the fiftieth day. When a fixed calendar was later adopted, the sixth of Sivan was designated as the date of the harvest festival.

Every housewife would grind some fresh flour from the new grain and bake cakes and loaves of bread for the family feast. At the Temple in Jerusalem, there was a ceremonial sacrifice of two loaves baked from the new wheat crop. Pilgrims would come from all parts of the country to participate in the harvest ceremonies at the Temple, often bringing an offering of wheat as well as grapes, figs, and pomegranates (see BIKKURIM ). Sometimes families would gather in each farming village and walk to Jerusalem together, forming a long column as they approached the temple. At the front of these processions there would be an ox whose horns were painted gold and decorated with olive branches. Behind the ox there would be musicians playing tambourines, flutes, and other instruments. They would bring their offerings to the Temple, where the priests would bless them.

After the Second Temple was destroyed, the Jews no longer had a place to perform this annual ritual. The rabbis looked for a way to preserve the holiday and give it new meaning. In the middle of the second century, they designated Shavuot as the anniversary of the day on which the Ten Commandments were given to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The agricultural and spiritual aspects of the festival formed a meaningful parallel: Just as Shavuot marked the end of seven weeks' collaboration between God and man in gathering the harvest, it also celebrated the end of a spiritual harvest, which began with the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt and reached its climax with the Covenant (or contract) between God and the people of Israel that was made on Mount Sinai.

Many Shavuot customs are related to the Torah, or Jewish Bible, the contents of which were also revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. On the eve of the holiday, many pious Jews wash in the mikvah or ritual bath and put on new clothes so that they will be clean when they receive the Torah. They dedicate the evening to studying portions of the Torah and the Talmud, a collection of writings that constitute Jewish civil and religious law. The Book of Ruth is a popular selection to read on Shavuot because it manages to combine both the holiday's agricultural and religious roots. It tells the story of a pagan woman who was converted to Judaism, but the events take place against the background of the barley harvest.

Shavuot's agricultural roots have not been entirely forgotten. Houses and synagogues are decorated with flowers (see ROSES ) and greenery; in Israel, children fill baskets with vegetables and fruits from their garden and carry them to school, where they are donated to charity. Shavuot

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Bikkurim

The Mishnah or first part of the Talmud describes how the bikkurim or first fruits used in the celebration of Shavuot are selected: "When a man comes down to his field and sees a ripe fig, or a ripe cluster of grapes, or a ripe pomegranate, he ties each with a red thread, saying, 'These are bikkurim.'"

In modern Israel, many kibbutzim (community settlements) and other agricultural communities have revived the bikkurim ceremony. Fresh produce is brought to a designated place by tractors, carts, and wheelbarrows that have been decorated with flowers and greenery. There is singing, folk dancing to the music of ancient instruments, and poetry reading. Sometimes there are pageants that re-create the traditional pilgrimage and ceremony at the Temple of Jerusalem.

One of the most colorful bikkurim ceremonies is held in Haifa, where Jews from the Sharon, Emek, and Jordan valleys gather to offer their first fruits to the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet). There is a procession of young people carrying decorated baskets filled with ripe fruits and vegetables, sheaves of fresh-cut barley and wheat, jugs of honey (see MILK AND HONEY ), and young fowl or lambs. After handing over the first fruits to the Keren Kayemet, everyone takes a seat in the open-air theater to enjoy the pageant known as Hatene or "The Basket," which is a reenactment of ancient bikkurim ceremonies. In the United States, an impressive bikkurim festival is held annually in one of the city parks of Chicago.

Milk and Honey

Cheese and dairy dishes are often served at Shavuot because, according to legend, the Israelites were too exhausted after witnessing the revelation on Mount Sinai to slaughter an animal and cook its meat. It is also said that when they returned to their tents after spending all day at Mount Sinai and discovered that their milk had gone sour, they turned it into cheese. Modern Jews eat cheese blintzes (pancakes filled with cottage cheese), ice cream, and cheese-filled kreplach (dumplings). Any food made from milk is considered symbolic, for milk plays the same role in physical growth that the Torah plays in moral and spiritual growth.

Honey, usually in the form of honey cakes, is also eaten on Shavuot. According to Jewish scholars, this is because the Torah is as sweet as honey and as nourishing as milk to those who study and live by its teachings.

Roses

Flowers and greenery are used to decorate homes and synagogues at Shavuot for two reasons. Like SUKKOT, it originated as a celebration of the harvest. The flowers and green branches are symbols of the farming life that the Jewish people led in ancient times. It is also said that Mount Sinai was unusually green on the day that Moses received the Ten Commandments. According to one version of the events of that day, the mountain was actually covered in roses. The custom of decorating with roses, either fresh or cut out of paper, was so prevalent at one time that the Persian Jews referred to Shavuot as the Feast of the Flowers, while Italian Jews called it the Feast of the Roses.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Edidin, Ben. Jewish Holidays and Festivals. 1940. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Renberg, Dalia Hardof. The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays. New York: Adama Books, 1985. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.

WEB SITE

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America www.ou.org/chagim/shavuot Shavuot

Shavuot (Shabuoth)

Between May 16 and June 13; Sivan 6-7
Shavuot ("weeks") is the second of the three Pilgrim Festivals ( see also Passover and Sukkot). It follows Passover by 50 days and is also known in English as Pentecost from the Greek word meaning "fiftieth" (like the Christian Pentecost, which comes 50 days after Easter). It is also called the Feast of Weeks or Feast of the Harvest, because it originally marked the end of the seven weeks of the Passover barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. At one time, all adult male Jews were expected to bring their first omer, or "sheaf," of barley to the Temple in Jerusalem as a thanksgiving offering. Today dairy dishes are associated with Shavuot, particularly cheese blintzes.
After the period of Jewish slavery in Egypt, Shavuot took on a new meaning: it celebrated Moses' return from the top of Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, the most fundamental laws of the Jewish faith, and is therefore also known as the Festival of the Giving of the Law . Orthodox and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora celebrate two days of Shavuot as full holidays, while Reform Jews and those living in Israel observe only the first day.
See also Lag ba-Omer
CONTACTS:
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
11 Broadway
New York, NY 10004
212-563-4000; fax: 212-564-9058
www.ou.org
SOURCES:
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BkFest-1937, p. 208
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 70
BkHolWrld-1986, May 25
DaysCustFaith-1957, pp. 137, 159, 161
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 155, 390, 564, 678
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 119
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 243
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 382
HolSymbols-2009, p. 816
OxYear-1999, p. 728
RelHolCal-2004, p. 52
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