Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, recounts how, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel proceeded to Mount Sinai in the desert. Moses ascended the mountain to meet God, who gave him the Ten Commandments, which were written on two tablets to be delivered to the Children of Israel.
According to the Torah, it took precisely 49 days, or seven weeks, for the ancient Israelites to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai. The Torah commands: “And you shall proclaim that day (the 50th day) to be a holy convocation!” (Leviticus 23:21). The name Shavuot, “Weeks,” symbolizes the completion of this seven-week journey. The rabbis tightened this connection by associating Shavuot with Moses’ receiving the Torah from God atop Mount Sinai. Today we count the days, beginning on the second night of Passover until the 49th day; this is called “Counting the Omer.”
Shavuot is one of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested. In the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, the ancient Israelites brought their first fruits to the Temple to offer to God on this festival. Shavuot is known by several names: Chag HaShavuot (the Festival of Weeks), Chag HaBikkurim (the Feast of the First Fruits), Chag HaKatzir (the Festival of Reaping), and Z’man Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).
Some of the customs associated with Shavuot are decorating one’s table at home, and the bimah (the raised platform from which the service is led) in the synagogue with fresh flowers and fruit, eating dairy foods, and holding a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which is an all-night or a late-night Torah study. We eat dairy foods because according to the midrash (rabbinic legends that explain some traditions), prior to receiving Torah, we didn’t have the rules about what animals we could and couldn’t eat and how to prepare them. Now that we had the Torah, we didn’t have time to learn the rules, so it was easiest to just eat dairy. Another midrash tells the story that the Children of Israel fell asleep at the foot of Mount Sinai and overslept the morning the Moses was to descend with the tablets. He came down from the mountain and they were all asleep; he had to wake them up to give them the Ten Commandments. In order to make sure we don’t sleep through the Revelation again, we stay up all night studying Torah on Shavuot Eve so we are already awake and ready to receive Torah in the morning! Learn more about Shavuot on the URJ website.