See H. Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (1938, repr. 1970).
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 Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It 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, , ); Festival of Reaping (Hebrew: חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir, ), and Day of the First Fruits (Hebrew יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim, ). 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, Christians gave it the name Pentecost (πεντηκόστη, "fiftieth day").
Karaite Jews believe that this always falls on a Sunday, "Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord." . Sunday is the First Day of the week, the "morrow" after the "sabbath". Mainstream Jews, however, follow the teaching of the Talmud which teaches that in this particular case, the "Sabbath" refers to the first day of Passover (which can be any day of the week) and not particularly Saturday. See 'Counting of the Omer' below for further explanation.
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 . 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 Jew's 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) that have taken on the force of law in traditional Jewish circles. 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:
On the Gregorian calendar, Shavuot usually falls around late May or early June. In 2007, Shavuot was on Monday, May 28. In 2008, Shavuot was on Monday, June 9, beginning at sunset the evening before.
Sephardim do not read akdamut, but before the evening service they sing a poem called Azharot which sets out the 613 Biblical commandments. The positive commandments are recited on the first day and the negative commandments on the second day.
Dairy foods such as cheesecake and blintzes with cheese and other fillings are traditionally served on Shavuot. One explanation for the consumption of dairy foods on this holiday is that the Israelites had not yet received the Torah, with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals). As the food they had prepared beforehand was not in accordance with these laws, they opted to eat simple dairy meals to honor the holiday. Some say it harks back to King Solomon's portrayal of the Torah as "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11).
The Book of Ruth (מגילת רות, Megillat Ruth) corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot both in its descriptions of the barley and wheat harvest seasons and Ruth's desire to become a member of the Jewish people, who are defined by their acceptance of the Torah. Moreover, the lineage described at the end of the Book lists King David as Ruth's great-grandson. According to tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot (Sha'arei Teshuvah to Orach Hayyim, 494).
For these reasons, Jewish families traditionally decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. Some synagogues decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah, as Shavuot is mystically referred to as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the Jewish people) to the chuppah (Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (God); the ketubbah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Eastern Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubbah between God and Israel as part of the service.
Any subject may be studied, although Talmud, Mishna and Torah typically top the list. In many communities, men and women attend classes and lectures until the early hours of the morning. In Jerusalem, thousands of people finish off the nighttime study session by walking to the Kotel before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan there. The latter activity is reminiscent of Shavuot's status as one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, when the Jews living in the Land of Israel journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday.
This service is printed in a special book, and is widely used in Eastern Sephardic, some German and Hasidic communities. There are similar books for the vigils before the seventh day of Pesach and Hosha'ana Rabbah.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews do not observe this custom.
According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g. if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday).
The Sadducees and Boethusians, however, disputed this interpretation. They contended that "Shabbat" really did mean "Shabbat," or Saturday. Accordingly, they reckoned the seven weeks from the day after the first Shabbat during Passover, so that Shavuot would always fall on a Sunday.
This interpretation was shared by the second-century BC author of the Book of Jubilees, and was motivated by the priestly sabbatical solar calendar of the third and second centuries B.C., which was designed to have festivals and Sabbaths fall on the same day of the week every year. On this calendar (best known from the Book of Luminaries in 1 Enoch), Shavuot fell on the 15th of Sivan, a Sunday. The date was reckoned fifty days from the first Sabbath after Passover (i.e. from the 25th of Nisan). Thus, Jub. 1:1 claims that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah "on the sixteenth day of the third month in the first year of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt".
Karaite Judaism today continues to follow the interpretation that the Counting of the Omer begins on the Sunday after the first Shabbat during Passover, and thus celebrates Shavuot on a Sunday.
Similarly the Christian feast of Pentecost, which falls on the fiftieth day counting from Easter, is always on a Sunday (except among the very large number of Evangelicals and Messianics who celebrate it 50 days after Passover).
Qumran scholar Gabriele Boccaccini has suggested that the 1,290 and 1,335 days of point to the observance of Shavuot in a restored Israel, as reckoned by the priestly solar calendar. These durations are exactly 30 and 45 days longer than the 3½ years mentioned in and . The period of 3½ years amounts to 1,260 days in the priestly solar calendar because the equinoxes and solstices count as markers of the seasons rather than monthly days (1 En. 74:11, 75:1, 82:4). The blessings expected at the end of the 1,335 days pertain to the resurrection to "everlasting life" mentioned a few verses earlier and this is the reward to those who refused to forsake the covenant unto death (, , ), while those who forsook the covenant face "everlasting contempt".
Boccaccini sees the 3½ years as ending at the spring equinox (equinoxes and solstices were important markers of the seasons in the solar calendar), to be followed by 30 days to complete the 1,290 days (the month of Passover), and an additional 45 days to reach the 15th of Sivan, the purported day of Shavuot. For those who refused to forsake the covenant, this would be the day the covenant would be renewed and the expected blessings would be realized.