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Shavuot Questions and Answers

What?

The holiday of Shavuot is the second of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Regalim: Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot). It has a twofold purpose: agricultural (Bible) and historical (Talmud).

  • As an agricultural holiday, it commemorates the end of the counting of the Omer. Its agricultural significance is stated in the Torah: “And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even the first fruits of the wheat harvest.” (Exodus 34:22); also, “And the feast of the harvest, the first fruits of your labors, which you show in the field” (Exodus 23:16)
  • Two names are given to this festival: Hag Haqatsir (harvest festival) because of its agricultural component, and Hag Hashavu’ot which indicates only its dates, i.e. that it occurs after counting seven weeks. “You shall count off seven weeks…Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:10-12).
  • As a historical commemoration: According to rabbinic interpretation, the ten commandments were given on the 6th of Sivan. (B. Shabbat 86b-88a) Shavuot was thus considered by the sages as z’man mattan toratenu (season of the of giving of our Torah).
  • Other names for Shavuot are Yom haBikkurim (Day of First Fruits) and Atzeret (Concluding Festival)

When?

The festival of Shavuot occurs on the 6th and 7th of Sivan, seven weeks after Passover at the completion of the counting of the omer.

What is the counting of the omer, and its relationship to Shavuot?

Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count 50 days until Shavuot. “From the day after you bring the sheaf (omer) of wave offering [the second day of Pesah], you shall keep count until seven full weeks have elapsed: you shall count fifty days, until the day after the seventh week” (Leviticus 23:15-16). Hence the name of the holiday, Shavuot (Weeks).

What are the special observances for Shavuot?

Tikkun Leil Shavuot: It is an ancient custom for Jews to stay up the first night and study Torah. In Eastern Europe this tradition was observed by studying a specific text, known as tikkun leil shavuot, containing the first and last verses of each sedrah (Torah), the first and last passages of each tractate of the Mishnah, and excerpts from the Zohar.

A legendary explanation for this practice is that Israel slept so soundly the night before the Torah was given that they had to be awakened with thunder and lightening. We, on the contrary, are already awake, studying. (Shir haShirim Rabbah).

A more practical reason is that we study Torah to celebrate the anniversary of its revelation.

The Book of Ruth: The book of Ruth is read on the second day. This custom is first mentioned in Maseket Soferim (14:16), and the first chapter of Midrash Ruth deals with the giving of the Torah – evidence that this connection was already made in the time of the formulation of the compilation of midrash (early centuries of the first millennium, c.e.).

There are other explanations for this practice:

  • It is important to include readings from all three divisions of Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim) in the liturgy to show their divine origin. The book of Ruth in the Talmud (B. BabaBatra 14b) is considered the first book in the Ketuvim (Writings).
  • The book of Ruth ends with the genealogy of David whose forebear was Ruth. Legend maintains that David died on Shavuot (P. Hag. 2:3, Ruth Rabbah 3:2)
  • There are a number of other explanations for this practice: see the Encyclopedia Judaica (Shavuot) and Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice.

Eating Dairy: There are many explanations for the custom of eating dairy dishes on Shavuot. One derives from the verse “honey and milk shall be under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), suggesting that words of Torah are as pleasant to our ears and hearts as milk and honey are to our tongues (Kol Bo 58).

Another is that the ten commandments encompass all 613 commandments. Thus, when the Jews returned to their tents after receiving the Torah they were bound by the Torah’s dietary laws. Therefore they could not eat meat since they first had to prepare a proper slaughtering knife. All this made it necessary for them to eat dairy rather than meat at the time. As a commemoration we eat only dairy on Shavuot. (Mishnah Berurah 494:12)

Decorating the synagogue with flowers and foliage: This is a reminder that Shavuot is an agricultural festival.

Some Classical Texts Related to Shavuot

Bikkurim 1.1-3

What are the first fruits? When are they brought [to the Temple]?

There are some who bring bikkurim and recite {the declaration, Deuteronomy 26.5-10}; others who may only bring them, but do not make recital; and some there are who may not even bring them at all…

For what reason may he not bring them? Because it is said, The choice first fruits of your soil (Exodus 2-3:19), meaning that you may not bring them unless all the produce {comes} from thy land. Tenants, lessees, or occupiers of confiscated property or a robber may not bring them or the same reason, because it says, first fruits of your soil.

Bikkurim are brought only from seven kinds {for which Palestine was renowned, namely, wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and date honey} but none {may be brought} from dates grown on hills, or from valley fruits {fruits grown in valleys {except dates} were not of the choice kind} or from olives that are not of the choice kind.

Bikkurim are not to be brought before Shavuot, and they were not accepted because of what is written in the Torah: And the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field (Exodus 23:16).

Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 41

Why were the women asked first whether they wish to receive the Torah? 

On the eve of Sabbath the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, arranged with the men apart and the women apart. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Go, speak to the daughters of Israel, [asking them] whether they wish to receive the Torah.” Why were the women asked [first]? Because the way of men is to follow the opinion of women, as it is said, Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob (Exodus 19.3); these are the women. And declare to the children of Israel (ibid.); these are the men. They all replied as with one mouth, and they said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do and obey (ibid. 24.7)

Pesikta Rabbati 20.13

When was the Torah given? Why during Sivan and not other months?

Why was the Torah given during Sivan and not in Nissan or during any one of the other months? What parable applies as an answer to this question? That of a king who was arranging the festivities for his daughter’s wedding. And a man, one of the royal dignitaries, said, “It would be seemly for the princess, after she is seated in the palanquin, to have her ride on an elephant and so raise her among all the nobles of the Kingdom.” Another answered and said, “An elephant sounds high, but is without splendor. A horse, however, is beautiful—it has splendor as well as beauty. And since the princess is lovely, it would be more seemly to have her mound a horse and thus show her liveliness among all the notables of the kingdom.”

Then a man spoke up and said, “An elephant stands high, and a horse is comely; but neither has a mouth to speak with, hands to clap together, or feet to dance with. Hence it is fitting for me to extol the princess, for I have a mouth to speak with, hands to clap together, and feet to dance with; and so I would have her mount on my shoulders to display her loveliness.” Even so the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not give the Torah in Nisan nor in Iyar, because the sign of Nisan in the Zodiac is a lamb, and the sign of Iyar is an ox, and it is not fitting for them to extol and praise the Torah. Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah in Sivan, because the sign of Sivan is twins, and the twins are human, and being a human have mouths to speak with, and hands to clap together, and feet to dance with.

Targum Sheni (From Philip Goodman, A Shavuot Anthology)

A discontinued Shavuot custom…

A commentary on the book of Esther as well as a number of other midrashim narrates that when Haman accused the Jews of Persia, “whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the King’s laws” (Esther 3:8), he said: “in the month of Sivan they keep a feast of two days, in which they go into their synagogues…and call it the day of convocation. Then they go up to the roof of the house of their God and throw down pomegranates and apples, and then collect them and say: ‘Like as we gather these pomegranates and apples, so may their sons be gathered out from among us’. They also say: ‘This is the day in which the Law was given to our fathers on Mount Sinai.’”

The throwing of fruit from the roof of the synagogue was a custom in Babylonia and Persia and their gathering a symbolic act to express the hope of the ingathering of the scattered Jewish exiles from among the nations. This Shavuot custom is no longer observed; in the course of generations, it was transferred to Simhat Torah, when apples and nuts are tossed to the congregants.

Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 2:33

How was Moses experience of the revelation at Sinai different from other Israelites?

It is clear to me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moses alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments; Moses then went down to the foot of the mountain and told his fellowmen what he had heard. Compare “I stood between the Lord and you at that time to convey the Lord’s words to you” (Deuteronomy 5.5). Again, “As Moses spoke the words “In order that the people hear when I speak with you” (ibid. 9) show that God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers in the passage “When you heard the voice” (Deuteronomy 5.20); again it is stated, “You heard the sound of words” (ibid. 4.12), and it is not said, “You heard words”; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the sound is meant.

There is, however, an opinion of our Sages frequently expressed in the midrashim, and found also in the Talmud, to this effect. The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His unity can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone. But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect.

Notwithstanding all that has been said by our Sages on this subject we infer from Scripture as well as from the words of our Sages that the Israelites heard on that occasion a certain sound which Moses understood to proclaim the first two commandments, and through Moses all other Israelites learnt them when he in intelligible sounds repeated them to the people. Our Sages mention this view, and support it by the verse, “God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this” (Psalms 62:12). They state distinctly in the beginning of Midrash Hazita, that the Israelites did not hear any other command directly from God…

Note it, and remember it, for it is impossible for any person to expound the revelation of Mount Sinai more fully than our Sages have done, since it is one of the secrets of the lat. It is very difficult to have a true conception of the events, for there has never been before, nor will there ever be again, anything like it.