Feast of Weeks

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Related to Feast of Weeks: Feast of Booths, Pentecost

Weeks, Feast of:

see ShavuotShavuot
[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),
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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


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



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.


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.


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.


Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America www.ou.org/chagim/shavuot Shavuot
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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