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What is Shavuot?

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  • Written By: Allison R. Stroud
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Shavuot is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. It is translated as "weeks" and is celebrated seven weeks after Passover; also, it celebrates the end of the wheat harvest in Israel. Pronounced "Sha-voo-ot," this holiday falls on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which usually falls around late May. It is often celebrated between Memorial Day and Independence Day, and lasts for one or two days. Other names for Shavuot include Hag HaKatzir, which means "The Harvest Holiday," and Hag HaBikurim, meaning "The Holiday of First Fruits."

On the first night of the Shavuot, Jews observe the tradition of all-night study of the Ten Commandments and preparation for receiving the commandments the next morning. This vigil is to replicate the circumstances where Jews originally received the commandments.

According to tradition, the Israelites overslept on the day God gave the commandments and it was necessary for God to awaken them. To compensate for this, Jews have adopted the custom of remaining awake for the entire night preceding the receiving of the commandments. During this sundown to sunrise vigil, Jews devote themselves to the study of the commandments and the Talmud. This night of learning is referred to as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which means "an act of self-perfection on the night of Shavuot." On the actual day, worshippers gather in the synagogue to hear the reading of the commandments.

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The custom of reading Megalit Rut, or the Book of Ruth in English, also takes place on the second day of the holiday. Generally, the book of Ruth tells of a Jewish woman, Naomi, and her non-Jewish daughter-in-law, Ruth. Naomi had such a positive influence on Ruth that when Ruth’s husband died, Ruth decided to convert to Judaism. The conversion of Ruth symbolizes the Jewish people’s acceptance of the commandments. It also holds significance because the Book of Ruth takes place during the harvest season.

Another Shavuot tradition is the eating of dairy foods. One explanation for this ritual is the connection to Israel, which is described as the "Land of Milk and Honey." Another Hebrew legend states that before the commandments were given to the Israelites, the Jews did not keep kosher or follow the Kashrut — dietary laws. When they received the commandments, they were also given instruction on how to slaughter and prepare meat for eating.

After having received these instructions, they found themselves without kosher utensils or meats, as their cooking utensils were considered unclean. As a result, they chose to consume dairy products, which required no advance preparation. It is customary for Jews to eat cheesecake and cheese blintzes to commemorate the receiving of the commandments.

During the holiday, many Jews decorate the home and the synagogue with branches and greenery. This symbolizes the lush flora of Mount Sinai on the day of the first Shavuot. The holiday is also associated with the harvest of wheat and fruits, and marks the tradition of bringing the first harvest to the temple as a show of thanksgiving.

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