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What is Shavuot? It’s the day the Israelites got the Torah. To celebrate, we eat cheese and dairy-related products. And stay up all night to study.
When is Shavuot? Shavuot 2023 begins at sundown Thursday, May 25, ending on Saturday, May 27.
What’s it all about? As you may recall, the Israelites left Egypt in a bit of a hurry, and therefore it took some weeks until they were ready to attend to the business of receiving the word of God and become the official Chosen People. How many weeks? Seven, the Hebrew word for which, sheva, shares a root with the word Shavuot, which means weeks. To mark the occasion of having received the divine laws, we do what Jewish mothers everywhere would have us do year-round: study all night long.
Together with Passover and Sukkot, the holiday is also one of the Three Pilgrimages (or shalosh regalim, if you want to rock the Hebrew), annual occasions for the ancient Israelites to bring their harvest and livestock over to the Temple in Jerusalem for festivities and ritualistic slaughter. And while the pilgrimage part was abandoned—you know, exile and all—we still mark these three major holidays with special recitations of the joyous Hallel prayer.
What do we eat? Delicious dairy products. Cheesecakes are big. If your ancestors hail from the Tri-State area—Poland, Russia, Ukraine—so are blintzes.
The rational explanation for this particular culinary choice is that the Torah was given on the Sabbath, and as no animals could be slaughtered to celebrate the happy occasion, the Israelites likely shrugged their shoulders and collectively agreed to nosh on some brie. More mystical Jews believe that the numbers speak for themselves: Dairy in Hebrew is chalav, and if you sum up the numerical value of the three Hebrew letters that make up that word you get 40. Which is a number you’d remember if you had to wander in the desert for as many years.
Any dos and don’ts? First up, be happy. Why? It says so in Deuteronomy: “And you shall rejoice in your festival … and you shall only be happy.” Done rejoicing? Get ready for Yom Tov, which is a kind of Holiday Lite: You’re not allowed to work, use electrical appliances, handle money, or do any of the other stuff you can’t do on the Sabbath, but you are allowed to cook and bake, provided you use a pre-existing flame for lighting your fire and avoid that Kitchenaid. You can also carry stuff in public, another Sabbath no-no.
But Shavuot is less about the nays and more about the yays. Because we have to be happy, we’re obligated to prepare obscene amounts of food and invite the less fortunate to partake. Men are also expected to buy new clothes or jewelry for their wives, candy or toys for the wee ones, and flowers for the home, as Shavuot, celebrated in the spring, is also known as the Festival of Harvest.
Anything good to read? You bet. Traditionally, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. It’s like the Desperate Housewives of Canaan—Dead husbands! Levirate marriages! Sexy harvest scenes!—whose heroine is a Moabite who converts to Judaism and becomes the great-great-grandmother of King David (symbolism alert: Just as the Israelites accept the Torah and become Jews, Ruth embraces the Torah and becomes a Jew herself). King David, by the way, is said to have been born and died on Shavuot, which makes the book apropos, as do said harvest scenes.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of all-night learning. We weren’t kidding about that: It’s called a tikkun, Hebrew for correction, and tradition has it that since the Jews didn’t rise early enough to receive the Torah in Sinai—some accounts have God himself nudging them from their sleep, in what must have been the most terrifying wake-up call ever—they have resolved to stay up all night and study the Torah, commemorate the day it was given, and make up for the drowsiness of their ancestors. While religious Jews still adhere to Torah study, many less observant ones choose to spend the night studying anything from Jewish history, poetry, and art to contemporary Israeli television shows.