Shavuot (or Shavuos, in Ashkenazi usage; Hebrew: שבועות, lit. "Weeks") is a Jewish holiday that occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (late May or early June). Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire Israelite nation assembled at Mount Sinai, although the association between the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) and Shavuot is not explicit in the Biblical text. The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer.
The date of Shavuot is directly linked to that of Passover. The Torah mandates the seven-week Counting of the Omer, beginning on the second day of Passover and immediately followed by Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks is understood to express anticipation and desire for the Giving of the Torah. On Passover, the Jewish people were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.
In the Bible, Shavuot is called the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot, Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10); Festival of Reaping (Hebrew: חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir, Exodus 23:16), and Day of the First Fruits (Hebrew יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim, Numbers 28:26). The Mishnah and Talmud refer to Shavuot as Atzeret (Hebrew: עצרת, a solemn assembly), as it provides closure for the festival activities during and following the holiday of Passover. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Greeks gave it the name Pentecost (πεντηκοστή, "fiftieth day").
Besides its significance as the day on which the Torah was revealed by God to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai (which includes the Ten Commandments), Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24; Deut. 16:9-11; Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest, just as the eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles) was the concluding festival of the fruit season . During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.
Shavuot was also the first day on which individuals could bring the Bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem (Mishnah Bikkurim 1:3). The Bikkurim were brought from the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8). In the largely agrarian society of ancient Israel, Jewish farmers would tie a reed around the first ripening fruits from each of these species in their fields. At the time of harvest, the fruits identified by the reed would be cut and placed in baskets woven of gold and silver. The baskets would then be loaded on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who were led in a grand procession to Jerusalem. As the farmer and his entourage passed through cities and towns, they would be accompanied by music and parades.
At the Temple, each farmer would present his Bikkurim to a kohen in a ceremony that followed the text of Deut. 26:1-10. This text begins by stating, "An Aramean tried to destroy my father," referring to Laban's efforts to weaken Jacob and rob him of his progeny (Rashi on Deut. 26:5)—or by an alternate translation, the text states "My father was a wandering Aramean," referring to the fact that Jacob was a penniless wanderer in the land of Aram for 20 years (ibid., Abraham ibn Ezra). The text proceeds to retell the history of the Jewish people as they went into exile in Egypt and were enslaved and oppressed; following which God redeemed them and brought them to the land of Israel. The ceremony of Bikkurim conveys the Jews' gratitude to God both for the first fruits of the field and for His guidance throughout Jewish history (Scherman, p. 1068).
Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than the traditional festival observances of abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals. However, it is characterized by many minhagim (customs). A mnemonic for these customs is the letters of the Hebrew word acharit (אחרית, "last"). Since the Torah is called reishit (ראשית, "first"), the customs of Shavuot highlight the importance of custom for the continuation and preservation of Jewish religious observance. These customs, largely observed in Ashkenazic communities, are:
- אקדמות – Akdamut, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services
- חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese
- רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services
- ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery
- תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.