Shavuot Customs and Rituals
In modern times, Jews can no longer bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem, and thus there are no particular mitzvot, or commandments, associated with Shavuot. There are, however, several rituals that are traditional components of celebrating the holiday.
Many people stay up all night studying Torah. This custom evolved from the story that says that when the Israelites were at Sinai, they overslept and had to be awakened by Moses. As a result, many modern Jews stay up all night to study and celebrate receiving the Torah. These events, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which literally means “Rectification for Shavuot Night,” are understood as the custom of studying with a community in order to re-experience standing at Mount Sinai, where the Jewish people received the Torah. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot was developed by 16th century mystics in Safed, who believed that by studying on Shavuot, they were symbolically preparing Israel to enter into a sacred relationship with God. Modern interpretations and versions of this practice include study on a wide range of topics.
For early Zionists, who deemphasized the religious elements of Judaism to focus on its cultural aspects, the obvious direction for Shavuot in Israel was the restoration of its biblical format. For years, First Fruits Festivals were held on kibbutzim, featuring elaborate pageants and parades, displays of fruits, tractors and babies, and joyous singing and dancing. Urban dwellers also marked the holiday with first-fruit pageants and celebrations of second-graders receiving their first Bible text. Tikkun Leil Shavuot, however, was largely observed solely by Orthodox Jews.
Over time, the divide has blurred, and in recent years, Tikkunim have become extremely popular for all Israeli Jews. In Jerusalem, one can spend the whole night wandering from tikkun to tikkun, which are held in homes, synagogues, community centers, and educational institutions of every religious and ideological flavor. Most of these gatherings use the name, but ignore the traditional format. They simply are evenings of study for the sake of study and fellowship, and the various themes and topics they address are endless.
It also is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot because Jewish tradition compares the words of Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey. Blintzes and cheesecake are among the popular foods to make and enjoy for the holiday.
In the Congregation
Traditionally, the Book of Ruth, part of the section of the Bible known as Writings, is read during services on Shavuot. Ruth is a young Moabite woman who married an Israelite man. When her husband died, she followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel and adopted the Jewish faith and people as her own. To feed herself and Naomi, she gleaned in the field of Boaz, a rich man. Boaz is taken with her, and eventually they marry. Among their descendents is the famed King David who built the first Temple.
The theme of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism is central to this story. In Ruth 1:16–17, she states: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following after you. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” Ruth is often considered to be the archetype of all who “choose” or convert to Judaism—accepting the Torah, just as Jews accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai—and this passage traditionally has been understood as her conversion statement.
The ceremony of Confirmation—for high school students who have continued their studies and Jewish involvement beyond b’nei mitzvah—often is held on or near Shavuot. Just as the Jewish people accepted the Torah on Shavuot, so do confirmands reaffirm their commitment to the covenant and adult Jewish life.
It is customary to decorate ones home with greens and fresh flowers on Shavuot as a reminder of the spring harvest and the ancient ritual of bringing the first fruits to the Temple. Many Jews prepare and eat dairy foods—often cheesecake or blintzes—on Shavuot as a reminder of the sweetness of Torah. Often families gather together on the holiday to enjoy a meal that features such dishes.
Shavuot: Preparing for the Holiday
The Bible teaches that the Israelites had three days to prepare to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. To ready themselves for the momentous occasion, they were instructed to wash their clothes and to stay ritually pure. By recalling those three days, Jews today can use the three days before Shavuot to prepare personally, as a family, and as a community to re-experience this life-changing event.