Shavu'ot, the Festival of Weeks, is the second of the three major festivals
with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Passover
and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits
were harvested and brought to the Temple, and is known as Hag ha-Bikkurim
(the Festival of the First Fruits). Historically, it celebrates the giving of the
Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the
Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).
The period from Passover to Shavu'ot is a time of great anticipation. Jews
count each of the days from the second day of Passover to the day before
Shavu'ot, 49 days or 7 full weeks, hence the name of the festival. See The
Counting of the Omer. Shavu'ot is also sometimes known as Pentecost,
because it falls on the 50th day. Jews consider this counting a reminder of the
important connection between Passover and Shavu'ot: Passover delivered the
Jews physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavu'ot
redeemed them spiritually from bondage to idolatry and immorality.
It is noteworthy that the holiday is called the time of the giving of the Torah,
rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah. The sages point out that
Jews are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah that they receive it
every day, but it was first given at this time. Thus it is the giving, not the
receiving, that makes this holiday significant.
Shavu'ot is not tied to a particular calendar date, but to a counting from
Passover. Because the length of the months used to be variable, determined
by observation (see Jewish Calendar), and there are two new moons between
Passover and Shavu'ot, Shavu'ot could occur on the 5th or 6th of Sivan.
However, now that Jews have a mathematically determined calendar, and the
months between Passover and Shavu'ot do not change length on the
mathematical calendar, Shavu'ot is always on the 6th of Sivan (the 6th and
7th outside of Israel. See Extra Day of Holidays.) Work is not permitted
during Shavu'ot. It is customary for Jews to stay up the entire first night of
Shavu'ot and study Torah, and then pray as early as possible in the morning.
It is customary for Jews to eat a dairy meal at least once during Shavu'ot.
There are varying opinions as to why this is done. Some say it is a reminder
of the promise regarding the land of Israel, a land flowing with "milk and
honey." According to another view, it is because their ancestors had just
received the Torah (with the dietary laws therein), and did not have both meat
and dairy dishes available. The book of Ruth is read at this time. Again,
there are varying reasons given for this custom, and none seems to be