Shavuot: What is it?

I love Shavuot. It is one of the three pilgrimage holidays when Jews in ancient times traveled to Jerusalem to offer a special sacrifice at the Temple. If you read Arthur Waskow’s Seasons of our Joy, you’ll learn about the activities that took place in the ancient Temple. It was magnificent and makes you want to step back in time. At the very least you should make delicious homemade bread and plates of blintzes for yourself and your family. Serve with spring fruits like strawberries. Yum!

The word, Shavuot, means Weeks and the Torah tells us to start counting seven weeks from the second night of Passover. At the end of the counting we arrive at 50 days since Passover and the holiday, Shavuot.

The holiday is originally an agricultural one. The period from Passover to Shavuot is the growing time of the first grain crops in Israel. Jews were to be bringing sheaves of grain for sacrifices during this time and at the end to bring loaves of bread made from this early harvest.

In modern times the holiday received new interpretations because after the Temple was destroyed there could be no more sacrifices. After much calculation, the rabbis determined that this date is the day that we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai from God. Today we observe the holiday by studying all night in commemoration of receiving the Torah.

The home observance of Shavuot is eating dairy foods. The two common reasons given for eating dairy are:

  1. When the Hebrews received the Laws they learned about the dietary rules of kashrut. None of their meat had be slaughtered in a kosher manner so they ate dairy food until they could properly prepare meat.
  2. Eating dairy hearkens back to the phrase referring to Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”


On a practical level we can remember that we are talking about an agricultural community. In the spring animals mate and give birth. All the sheep and goats were nursing their young. There was little food growing so early in the spring but lots and lots of milk.

Here’s a good place to explore this topic.