Shavuot: the minor holiday with major importance

Shavuot is a two-day holiday celebrated seven weeks or fifty days after Pesach, on the 6th day of Sivan (starting on the evening of May 28). Originally an agricultural festival celebrating the spring barley harvest and the start of the summer wheat harvest, it goes by a number of names: Chag HaShavuot (The Feast of Weeks); Chag HaKatzir (The Harvest Festival); and Chag HaBikurim (The Feast of First Fruits). It is one of the three biblically based pilgrimage holidays (shalosh regalim) when Jews went to Jerusalem with their first fruits to the Temple.

Das Wochen-oder Pfingst- Fest, Pentacost-Shavuot
From the collection of the National Library of Israel

Shavuot also commemorates the giving the Torah (Matan Tora) to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The holiday celebrates the “giving” of the Torah not the “receiving” of it. The sages pointed out that Jews are constantly “receiving” the Torah but this was the first time they were “given” it, thus making the holiday special.

Several customs are associated with Shavuot. They are interconnected reminders of ancient history and legend. In brief, Shavuot is celebrated by staying up all night learning Torah, by going to synagogue to hear the Ten Commandments and read the Book of Ruth, and by having festive meals of dairy foods.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Men traditionally stay up and learn Torah on the night of Shavuot. This custom shows gratitude for the giving of the Torah and is a celebration of Jewish learning. The tradition was started by 16th-century mystics in Safed. Perhaps it is traced to when the Israelites at Sinai overslept and had to be woken up by Moses. In Judeo-Spanish, this custom is called velado, to guard or watch.

The piyyut (hymn) “Adon Imnani,” recited during morning prayers on the first day of Shavuot.
From the Worms Mahzor, manuscript on parchment, 1272, the National Library collections.

A few special readings, piyyutim (hymns), and the Ten Commandments traditional at Shavuot are recited. Ashkenazim recite the Akdamut (introduction, Aramaic), an eleventh century liturgical poem praising God and the Torah. Sephardim chant the Azharot (solemn assembly), a rhymed listing of the 613 commandments, composed by the medieval scholar and poet, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. Outside of Israel, the positive commandments of the Azharot are read with the first half of the Book of Ruth, on the first day of Shavuot. The negative commandments and the second half of the Book of Ruth are read on the second day. Judeo-Spanish-speaking Jews also added a unique song known as La Ketubah de la Ley, representing the symbolic marriage between the Jewish people and the Torah (

The Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israelite. When she was widowed, she joined her mother-in-law, Naomi, and went to Israel; she also adopted the Jewish faith. Ruth worked in Boaz’s fields and eventually married him. Their most famous descendant was King David. The significance of Ruth is for choosing to become Jewish and accepting the Torah, as the ancient Israelites did at Mount Sinai. The death anniversary of King David is traditionally observed on Shavuot.

King David, Ethiopian Jewish Embroidery, NACOEJ

Greens and fresh flowers and papercuts. Traditionally the synagogue and home are decorated with greens and fresh flowers, as a reminder of the spring harvest and bringing the first fruits to the Temple. They also recall that when the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai the barren desert bloomed with flowers.

Papercutting probably spread from ancient China to Eastern and Central Europe and other points. Papercuts became an important Jewish folk art in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities during the 17th to 19th centuries. They were used a number of ways including as holiday decorations for Shavuot. In some communities in Eastern Europe, papercuts, called shevuoslakh (or shavuosl) and royzalakh (or raizelach), or little Shavuots and little roses, decorated synagogue windows.They served many spiritual and ritual purposes following the Jewish tradition, hiddur mitzvah (the beautification of a commandment), which led to the practice of adding decorative elements to ritual objects.

Eileen Brautman

For Ashkenazi Jews, the link between papercutting and Shavuot probably stems from a practice of decorating homes and synagogues with greenery. Paper decorations took the place of expensive cut flowers in the shtetl. In the eighteenth century, the Vilna Gaon forbade the use of greenery as it was too close to Christian practice.

During the first half of the 20th century this tradition nearly disappeared when many of its practitioners perished in the Holocaust. However, during the last forty years the art of paper cutting has been revived. If you’d like to try your hand, go to, Thanks to Havurah Shalom (

Water-festival. In many Jewish communities, a custom to splash water on people returning home from the synagogue was practiced. Perhaps this tradition originated because the Torah is often compared to water, both are vital to life. In Morocco, it is called adramami; anyone who had water poured on him would fall ill for the next year. Interestingly, in many places in Eastern Europe, water sprinkling is practiced by Christians on the Monday following Easter (see April 12 post).

This post is pretty long, next I’ll write about food traditions – stay tuned!


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