Interesting and Unusual Shavuot Facts
Shavuot has several different names in the Bible. In Exodus 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16:10 it
is referred to as Chag ha-Shavuot, “Feast of Weeks,” one of the harvest festivals on which pilgrims
brought offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. In Numbers 28:26 it is called Yom ha-Bikkurim or
“Day of the First Fruits”; Shavuot was a celebration of the harvest of the first fruits of late spring,
and dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, and olives, in addition to wheat and barley, were brought
to the Temple by worshipers. In Exodus 23:16 Shavuot is called Chag ha-Katzir, meaning the
“Harvest Feast”; Shavuot occurred at the beginning of the wheat harvest, while the barley harvest was
commemorated at Passover; in biblical Israel the month of Sivan
signaled the end of spring and the beginning of summer. The wheat-harvest aspect of Shavuot
was observed by bringing to the Temple an offering of bread loaves baked from the new grain
harvest. The pilgrims who came to Jerusalem would gather and celebrate the festival joyously. In modern
times this agricultural event is celebrated in Israel’s kibbutzim with dancing and singing.
The commandment to celebrate this holiday is found in Leviticus 23:15-21.
In the Talmud Shavuot is known as “Atzeret,” “a festive assembly” of all the people. We know this word
from another holiday, Shemimi Atzeret (see Num. 29:35), where its meaning seems to be “remain with Me [God]
for another day.” This implies that “atzeret” represents a completion or a final part of a festival; thus
Shavuot could be seen as the conclusion of the festival of Pesach just as Shemini Atzeret is the conclusion
of the festival of Sukkot.
Unlike other holidays, Shavuot does not begin at sundown. Since the mitzvah to count the
Omer is to count a full 49 days, Shavuot does not officially begin until three stars are visible in
the night sky—well after sundown. The Shavuot kiddush is not recited till certain nightfall.
Also unlike the other holidays mentioned in the Bible, Shavuot is not given a specific date for
its celebration. Before the calendar became mathematically determined, the beginning of each
month was established by observation, making the length of the months somewhat variable.
Since there are two new moons between Passover and Shavuot, this variability could result in
Shavuot falling on either the 5th or 6th of Sivan.
The Torah states the following about Shavuot’s observance: Shiv’ah shavu’ot tispor-lach
mehachel chermesh bakamah tachel lispor shiv’ah shavu’ot, “Then count seven weeks for
yourself—from the time that you first put the sickle to the standing grain, you must count seven
weeks” (Deut. 16:9). But this statement is not terribly useful in setting the date; it’s
ambiguous at best. When exactly do you start to count? Leviticus 23:15 attempts to define the start of
counting by stating, Usfartem lachem mimochorat hashabbat miyom havi’achem et-omer hatnufah sheva
shabbatot tmimot tihyeynah, “You shall count for yourself from the full day following the
holiday when you brought the omer as a wave offering [this is Pesach], seven complete weeks
they shall be.” Here “shabbat” is translated into its root meaning, “complete” or “perfect,” but it
could also mean “Shabbat” itself, so the observance of Shavuot could have actually been based
upon counting Shabbatot and not weeks!
The Sadducees understood the term “shabbat” in these verses as a proper noun, i.e., that
"shabbat" only referred to Saturday, the seventh day, so for them, the day of the
first fruits of the grain harvest always fell on the day following a Shabbat, meaning Shavuot would also
only fall on a Sunday. The Pharisees, however, properly interpreted “shabbat” as meaning a "time
of rest" (c.f. Lev. 25:4 where the entire sabbatical year, shemitah, is called a
shabbat), and for them the "time of rest" referred to the previously mentioned festival of
Pesach (b. Menachot 95b). Under their view, Shavuot always fell on the 6th of Sivan, the
50th day after the first day of Pesach. During rabbinic times, the Pharisees’ view became the
In biblical times, Shavuot was a major holiday: one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage, or
“walking,” holidays (along with Sukkot and Pesach). This holiday has completely changed in character from its
biblical purpose and description, more so than any other holiday: the Bible describes Shavuot as being an
agricultural holiday whose purpose was for the people to visit the Temple bringing the first of the
season’s crops. Agriculture was the basis of the economy, so tithes of agricultural produce were
central to the religious observance. No description exists of how Shavuot was observed before
the Babylonian exile, but a description does exist in the Mishnah of how Jews
celebrated it in the days of the Second Temple.
“Those who lived near [Jerusalem]
brought fresh figs and grapes, but those from a distance brought dried
figs and raisins [fresh fruit would spoil during a long trip]. An ox with horns bedecked with gold and with an
olive-branch crown on its head led the way. The flute was played before them until they were nigh to
Jerusalem; and when they arrived close to Jerusalem they sent messengers in advance, and ornamentally arrayed
their bikkurim [first fruits]. The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] went out to
meet them. According to the rank of the entrants used they to go forth. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem
would stand up before them and greet them, ‘Brethren, men of such and such a place, we are delighted to
welcome you….’” —b. Bikkurim 3
After the destruction of the Temple, the observance of Shavuot—marked by bringing the first
fruits of the harvest to the Temple—was no longer possible, so the Rabbis sought to give the
holiday a new purpose. Shavuot was the only holiday that the Bible did not associate with any
historical or profound religious experience. The Rabbis, in seeking a historical basis for the
holiday, noted how the Torah linked Pesach, the Omer counting, and Mount Sinai. Based on
Exodus 19:1, which reads, “In the third month after the children of Israel had gone forth out of
the land of Egypt, on the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” and using some
creative calculations, the sages linked Shavuot to Pesach, and thus Shavuot became the
anniversary of the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. For the authors of the Babylonian Talmud
(Pesachim 68b), Shavuot became Z’man Matan Torateinu, “The Season of the Giving of Our
Unlike all of the other holidays, there are no special mitzvot associated with Shavuot other than
the bringing of the two bread loaves, symbolizing the first fruits of the wheat harvest.
The Rabbis did not write a Talmud tractate for Shavuot as they did for all the other holidays,
such as Pesachim for Pesach, Succah for Sukkot, Yoma for Yom Kippur, and others.
At Shavuot it is customary to decorate the synagogue with greenery. Tradition maintains that Mount Sinai,
despite being in the wilderness of the Sinai desert, was verdant, which is implied by the verse in
Exodus 34:3, “...neither let the flocks nor herds graze.” Then the mountain miraculously flowered and
bloomed in honor of the giving of the Law. Another tradition specifically links roses with the giving of
the Law; Esther 8:14 states “And the decree [or law] was proclaimed in Shushan.” This verse was reinterpreted
to infer that the Law was given with a rose, or shoshan in Hebrew. The custom of decorating synagogues
with greenery, including flowers, on Shavuot is mentioned in many halakhic works and possibly dates at least to
the time of the second Temple. According to the Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:3), oxen leading the
processions bringing the first fruits to the Temple wore wreaths of olive branches entwined on
their horns. Because of this tradition, Shavuot is known to Persian Jews as the “Feast of the
Flowers,” and to Italian Jews as the “Feast of the Roses.”
All Jewish holidays are intimately associated with food, and Shavuot is no exception. Eating
dairy foods is customary on this holiday—cheese blintzes, cheese kreplach, and cheesecake are
popular. Where did this food association come from? It’s a long shot, but one possibility can be
found in the term har gavnunim, “many-peaked mountain,” found in Psalm 68:16. The Hebrew
word gevinah means “cheese,” so some commentators immediately linked Mount Sinai to cheese
(Shemot Rabbah 2:4), and the association stuck. Another possible source is the idea that the
Israelites who received the Torah at Sinai were like little babies, being introduced to the Torah’s
wonders for the first time. Just as the first food of newborns is milk, legend has it that Jews, in
commemorating the Law-giving at Sinai, should eat only dairy foods. Yet another explanation for
Shavuot’s dairy custom arose from allusion to the verse in the Song of Songs (4:11) that
“knowledge of the Torah is like milk and honey under the tongue.” This verse also gave rise to
the custom of serving at each meal two challot that are sweet and baked with honey. There are
yet other explanations, but one truly interesting one may be characterized as a “kashrut
malfunction.” Before the giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel did not follow the laws of
kashrut—those laws were unknown. Then on the day of the Law-giving, the first Shavuot, they
learned that their utensils were not kosher and thus unfit for use. Since they found themselves
without kosher meats or utensils to prepare kosher meats, the Israelites were forced to eat
only uncooked dairy foods, since it’s much simpler to kasher utensils that have only been used
with foods that haven’t been cooked (Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah 494:12–14).
Yemenite Jews, however, believe otherwise. In their tradition,
Abraham knew and followed all 613 mitzvot, and transmitted this knowledge to his children. The
Yemenites believe that the Jews of the exodus did have kosher meats and utensils, so the custom of
eating dairy on Shavuot never became adopted.
Apart from these fanciful reasons for the custom of eating dairy foods, there is one compelling one
that might account for this custom. Spring festivals of many ancient societies were based upon dairy
products, since the spring was the time for the birth of many agricultural animals such as cattle and
goats which were the principal sources of milk products like cheese, curds, and yogurt. These spring
festivals were common elements of the societies of the ancient middle east, including those of Canaan.
According to Theodor Gaster, the prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother's milk found in the
Torah is twice linked with the commandment of the Shavuot first-fruits sacrifice (Theodor Gaster,
Thespis: Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East, Anchor Books, 1961). It's possible that
such a ritual was practiced by the Canaanites, and its rejection by the Israelites led to their eating
only dairy foods at the first-fruits festival.
Jewish tradition maintains that God chose to give the Torah to Israel in the wilderness rather
than in the Land of Israel. Why? According to a midrash in Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael
The Torah was given in public,
openly in a free place. For had the Torah been given in the land of Israel,
the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world: “You have no share in it.” But now that it was
given in the wilderness publicly and openly in a place that is free to all, everyone wishing to accept it could
come and accept it (Midrash on Ex. 19:2). Why was the Torah not given in the Land of Israel? In order
that the nations of the world should not have the excuse for saying, “Because it was given in Israel’s land,
therefore we have not accepted it.” Another reason: to avoid dissension among the tribes. Else one might
have said, “In my territory the Torah was given.” And the other might have said, “In my territory the Torah
was given.” Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no
one. was to demonstrate that the Torah was intended for the whole world, not just the Jews, since the
wilderness was not owned by any one nation (Midrash on Ex. 20:2).
Tradition maintains that King David was born and died on Shavuot. In the Book of Ruth, which is read on this
holiday, we learn that Ruth was an ancestor of David. Also, Ruth, as a convert to Judaism, accepted the Law
of the Torah voluntarily, just as the Children of Israel did at Mount Sinai. Thus there is a link between the
spring harvest, which is the major theme of the Book of Ruth, the Giving of the Law, and Shavuot.
Exodus states that when Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the Torah the
second time, his face shone. The word used in the Torah to describe this is koran, from the
Hebrew root keren, meaning “to shine.” Another meaning for keren is “horn,” which is how early
Christian translations of the Bible rendered the term. This is why, when Michaelangelo made his sculpture
of Moses, he showed Moses with horns on his forehead.
In a charming custom of pre-modern European Jewish communities, teaching Torah to
children began on Shavuot. The children were taken to the synagogue at daybreak, where they
were taught to recognize the letters of a Hebrew verse written on a slate, a verse they had been
taught to say as soon as they could speak. One such verse was, “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe,”
“Moses commanded us the Torah.” The teacher would name each letter and the child would
repeat the letter. As the child mastered each letter, it was marked with a drop of honey, which the
child then licked off.
The Sephardim practice an unusual ritual for Shavuot. After the ark is first opened on Shavuot
morning, congregants read a ketubah (marriage contract) between God, the groom, and Israel, the
bride. In the text of the ketubah God invites the bride to His palace and promises to bind Himself
to her forever. The bride replies, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” “We will do and we will listen.” These
are the identical words that were said at Mount Sinai by the Children of Israel. And the groom’s
gift to the bride is given—the Torah and the oral law.
According to a Jewish legend, at exactly midnight on Shavuot, the heavens open for an instant
and God will respond favorably to any prayer that is spoken then. According to one
commentator, it’s likely that this story was told to keep children—not to mention sleepy
adults—awake and alert during the night’s study session. The origin of the midnight time for
prayer and study lies in Psalm 119:62: “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee.” This
psalm is attributed to David, who, according to the Talmud (b. Sukkah 29b), was a notorious
insomniac, being satisfied with only “sixty breaths of sleep.”
In the Zohar, Judaism’s major mystical work, there is a passage that praises those who stay
awake all night in anticipation of receiving the Torah. Why did this custom arise in the first place?
A midrash relates that God revealed the Law at Mount Sinai at noon, but the Children of Israel had
overslept and Moses had to rouse them. This gave rise to the custom of staying awake all night as a way
of atoning for their failure to be awake and alert when God appeared. The Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed), a
major figure in Jewish mysticism, emphasized the importance of prayer and meditation late at
night. The custom of saying the tikkun chatzot, “midnight service” had existed for many centuries;
the custom had grown out of talmudic practice. By the time of the Ari, the prayer sessions had become divided
into two parts: tikkun Rachel, said at night and tikkun Leah, said early in the morning
(yes, both prayers were named after Jacob’s wives). Prayer at these times was said to connect the individual
with the daily creations of light and darkness.
Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh, is credited being one of the creators, in Salonica in 1533, of
the all-night study session on the eve of Shavuot, called tikkun leil Shavuot (“service for Shavuot
night”). Karo moved to Safed in 1536 and introduced the tikkun leil Shavuot to the kabbalists of the town.
Fortunately, coffee had been introduced in Safed several years earlier, in 1528. It appears that the availability of
coffee greatly facilitated all-night study; people who had participated in tikkun Rachel and tikkun Leah
could now spend the entire night in study. Elliott Horowitz (Department of Jewish History, Bar-Ilan
University) provides us with a fascinating reconstruction about the development of late-night and
all-night rituals as opposed to early morning rituals in 17th–18th century Jewish
mystical circles. Coffee arrived in Venice in 1615. The first public coffee house opened there in 1640. In 1655,
for the first time, Italian Jews accepted the tikkun leil Shavuot ritual. Horowitz notes that during
the next thirty years no less than five editions of tikkun leil Shavuot texts were published in Venice.
Similar events occurred in other areas of Europe coinciding with the rise of coffeehouses. In
Worms, the Jewish community was charged with supplying coffee specifically for Shavuot night.
It seems that coffee thus facilitated greater participation in a ritual that demanded wakefulness
through the night. [Horowitz, Elliott, “Coffee, Coffeehouses and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry,”
Association for Jewish Studies Review 14:1 (Spring 1989) 17-46]
Shavuot never begins on Shabbat, but the second day of the holiday can fall on Shabbat (in the
diaspora). This leads to two interesting facts: first, the haftarah for the second day, taken from the
third chapter of Habakkuk, is never read in Israel, and it is the least frequent haftarah read on Shabbat,
since Shavuot II seldom falls on Shabbat. Also, the Torah reading on Shavuot II Shabbat is taken from
Deuteronomy 14–16, but in Israel the normal parashah is read, since Shavuot is only one day
there. (Reform congregations also only celebrate one day of Shavuot.) This means that the Torah readings
in Israel and the diaspora will be out of step until the next double portion is
reached, which happens with Chukkat-Balak. (Shavuot II is not the only diaspora holiday
that can cause the readings to get out of sync—it also happens in years when the eighth day of
Pesach falls on Shabbat, and the same solution is employed, but using a different double portion.)
Reform Jews of North America handle the problem of getting their Torah readings out of step with other
denominations in the diaspora by splitting Naso into two parts. Since it's a long parashah, it's
easily divided into two. Doing this puts the North American Reform community back into step with the
rest of the diaspora by the week following Shavuot, while European liberal communities continue to follow the
same Torah-reading schedule as Israel.
According to the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2, Bamidbar Rabbah 1, and Shir
Hashirim Rabbah 8), Mount Sinai has eight names, as follows:
- Har Sinai: from the word sineh, “bush,” referring to the burning bush. Also, Sinai is
related to the word sinah, “hatred” or “rejection.” God rejected the angels by giving the Torah to human
beings instead of to the angels.
- Har ha-Elohim: “God’s Mountain,” because the Torah was revealed there to the Jewish people.
- Beit Imi: “My Mother’s House.” By accepting the Torah, the Jews were born as a nation.
- Har Choreb: from the word cherev, “sword.” The Torah empowers special Torah courts, called
sanhedrin, with authority to try capital cases.
- Har Chemed: “Desirable Mountain.” God chose Mount Sinai as the place from which to give
the most desirable of His treasures, the Torah.
- Har Bashan: from the word shen, “tooth.” Sustenance and blessing come to the world in the
merit of Torah study and observance. Just as teeth prepare the food for digestion, so too the
Torah brings nourishment to the world.
- Har Gavnonim: from the word gevina, “cheese.” Cheese is a metaphor for purity, probably
because it’s made from pure white milk.
- Har Moriah: “Mountain of Teaching,” where God taught Moses the Torah.