What is Shavuot?

Shavuot is part of the Shalosh Regalim – “three festivals” - which are the three main religious holidays of the Jewish year - Daniel Sugarman explains more about the customs and background to this festival.


Shavuot is a Jewish festival which falls early in the Jewish month of Sivan. The word “shavuot” literally means “weeks”, a reference to the seven week period, known as the “Omer”, which is counted from the second night of the festival of Passover and which ends with Shavuot.

The festival, which is observed for one day in Israel and two days by religious Jews in the diaspora, has two main purposes. The first is to commemorate the Jews receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai, after having been redeemed from Egypt.

The second role, which is less prominent in this day and age, is that of a harvest festival. Shavuot used to mark the end of the grain harvest, and Jews would bring Bikurim – the first fruits – to the Temple in Jerusalem, as a gift to God. As a reference to this, one of the other names for Shavuot is Chag Habikurim.

Customs of Shavuot

Together with Pesach and Succot, Shavuot is part of the Shalosh Regalim – “three festivals” - which are the three main religious holidays of the Jewish year. However, Shavuot differs from the other two, in that there are no commandments specific to the festival, but rather only the general commandments associated with divinely ordinated holidays. Another name for Shavuot is “Atzeret”, which literally means “refraining from”, a reference to the prohibitions against specific types of work during the festival.

However, there are certain customs associated with Shavuot which are widely recognised among those who observe the festival.

The Reading of the Book of Ruth

The Biblical book of Ruth, which tells the story of a Moabite princess who went on to convert to Judaism, is read on Shavuot. This is because the events in the latter part of the book take place around the time of the harvest festival.

Torah Night Study

There is a widely-held practice among religious Jews to stay up and learn Torah on the first night of Shavuot. The practice originates from the Midrash – rabbinic commentary on the Torah – which says that the Israelites overslept on the day the Torah was due to be given, and Moses had to wake them up because God was waiting! To atone for this tardiness, generations of Jews have therefore stayed up all night to study.

There is also a special study service devised for the night which some use, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the “order of Shavuot night”. Created by the Arizal, a famous Jewish kabbalist, this service incorporates elements from the Torah, the Mishnah, and Kabbalah.

The Ten Commandments

On Shavuot, the portion of the Torah detailing the revelation at Sinai is read in the Synagogue. It is the custom to stand while the ten commandments are read out.


There is a custom to decorate synagogues on Shavuot with flowers; again, this a reference to the Midrash, which says that Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers just prior to being the venue for the giving of the Torah. Some synagogues will even create a canopy of flowers around the Bimah, the lectern from which the Torah scroll is read. This is in reference, again, to the giving of the Torah, which is sometimes referred to as the marriage between God and the people of Israel, with the Torah acting as a Ketubah, a marriage document. The canopy therefore resembles a Chuppah, a marriage canopy, which is traditionally used at Jewish weddings.

Dairy Food

Another custom on Shavuot is to eat milky products, such as cheese blintzes and cheesecake. There are a number of reasons given for this custom:

  • The Torah is compared to “milk and honey” in the Song of Solomon – "Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue"
  • Prior to accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Israelites had not had to keep any dietary laws. Now they had taken on the commandments in the Torah, they needed to make their meat utensils kosher before using them, and they ate dairy foods in the meantime.

Whether you celebrate Shavuot or not, we hope you have enjoyed finding out more about a holiday which is not, perhaps, ingrained in the public consciousness in the same way as Passover and Succot – but which is just as important a date in the Jewish calendar.    

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive