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Holidays: Shavuot

25th–26th May

Shavuot, the Feast of the Weeks, is the Jewish holiday celebrating the harvest season in Israel. Shavuot, which means “weeks”, refers to the timing of the festival which is held exactly 7 weeks after Passover. Shavuot is known also as Yom Habikkurim, or “the Day of the First Fruits”, because it is the time the farmers of Israel would bring their first harvest to Jerusalem as a token of thanksgiving.

Shavuot also commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

Celebrating the Day of the First Fruits

The farmers of Israel would begin their spring harvests with the barley crop at Passover. The harvest continued for seven weeks as the other crops and fruits began to ripen. As each fruit ripened, the first of each type would not be eaten but instead the farmer would tie a ribbon around the the branch. This ribbon signified that these fruits were Bikkurim, or the first fruits.

At Shavuot the farmers would gather the Bikkurim into baskets and bring them to the city of Jerusalem where they would be eaten in the holy city. The farmers living close to Jerusalem would bring fresh fruits, while those who had to travel a long distance carried dried raisins and figs. This joyful occasion was celebrated with the music of fifes, timbres, and drums. As the pilgrims approached the city walls they were greeted by the inhabitants of the city. Sometimes the King himself would join the procession to the Temple Mount. The Bikkurim ritual is no longer practiced in present day Israel.

Many of the traditions and customs of Shavuot have evolved from the legends and stories describing the experiences of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. According to tradition the Israelites actually overslept on the morning of G-d’s visit. To compensate for this negligence, Jews hold a vigil on the eve of Shavuot. They stay awake from dusk to dawn, keeping themselves busy with the readings of the Torah and the Talmud. A digest of readings has evolved called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the “Restoration of Shavuot Eve,” which includes selections from the Torah, the Prophets, the Talmud, and the Zohar.

Another Shavuot custom is the eating of dairy foods. One explanation states that this comes from a passage in the Torah which reads:

“And He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Another explanation comes from a legend stating that before the visit from G-d the Jews did not keep kosher or follow the Kashrut (dietary) laws. It was on this first Shavuot that they found out that their utensils were nonkosher and thus unfit for use. So finding themselves without kosher meats or utensils the Israelites were forced to eat only dairy foods. Today Jews celebrate Shavuot by eating blintzes, cheesecake, and other dairy dishes.

Another legend tells the story of the Israelites finding Mount Sinai blooming and lush with greenery and flowers. From this legend grew the custom to decorate the Jewish home and synagogue with tree branches and flowers. Some temples decorate the Torah scrolls with wreaths of roses.

Shavuot is also known as Zeman Matan Toratenu, the Season of the Giving of Our Law, which commemorates the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

After Moses and the Israelites fled the slavery of Egypt, they wandered the desert. G-d provided the travelers with food to eat (manna) and water to drink. After long months Moses brought his followers to the foot of a mountain called Sinai. Though the desert was dry and bare, the mountain was lush and green, covered with grass, flowers and trees. Moses and the Israelites set up camp at the base of the mountain.

On the third day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, Moses was commanded by G-d to prepare the Jewish people for G-d’s decent and visit. The Israelites washed and purified their clothes and their bodies. Three days later, on the sixth day of Sivan, the people were awaken by thunder and lightning. Thick, dark clouds hung over the mountain. The sounds of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, were heard echoing across the desert. The earth began to tremble and shake.

Then the Israelites heard a voice, G-d’s voice, as he spoke to them from out of the clouds.

And G-d gave them his Ten Commandments*

* (Please note: Because Shavuot is a Jewish celebration we are presenting the Jewish interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Different religions have different versions of the commandments)

“I am the Lord your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

“You shall have no other gods but me.”

“You shall not take the name of your Lord in vain.”

“You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.”

“Honor your father and mother.”

“You shall not murder.”

“You shall not commit adultery.”

“You shall not steal.”

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his bull, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.”

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