Shavuot is a minor, ancient pilgrimage festival that marked the harvest of barley. Shavuot literally means “weeks,” so named because the festival is exactly seven weeks (plus one day) from the second night of Passover. It is also called Festival of First Fruits, Hag HaBikkurim, Pentecost, and the Feast of Weeks. This feast, one of three pilgrimage festivals – the other two are Sukkot and Passover – marked the end of the barley and beginning of the wheat harvest. In ancient times, it was probably a midsummer festival taken over from the Canaanites.
On this festival in Temple times, according to the book of Leviticus, two loaves (shetei halehem) were “waved before the Lord.” These had to be offered only from the best new wheat, from produce grown that year in Israel. Shavuot was associated with the bringing of the bikkurim, “the first ripe fruits,” to the Temple of Jerusalem.
In rabbinic times, a radical transformation of the festival took place. Based on the verse from the book of Exodus: “In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai,” the festival became the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. In the traditional liturgy, Shavuot is zeman mattan torateinu (“the time of the giving of our Torah”). The ancient agricultural feasts were recreated into festivals marking the anniversary of significant legendary events in the life of the people. Both Passover and Sukkot are connected with the Exodus as well.
Unlike Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot has just a few special rituals. In modern Israel, some kibbutzim have tried to revive some of the harvest ceremonies. In the synagogue, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. It is customary in some congregations to decorate the synagogue with plants and flowers. It is also customary to eat dairy products in the home on Shavuot. In some communities triangular pancakes stuffed with meat or cheese are eaten because the Hebrew Bible has three parts (Torah, Prophets, and Writings). Also, in modern times Shavuot has become a day for confirmation ceremonies and religious school graduations. For Humanistic Jews, Shavuot is a wonderful day for picnics with fresh loaves of challa and is also a time to honor educational achievement, such as graduation from Sunday School.
Blessing Over Bread
B’rukhim hamotziim lehem min haaretz.
Blessed are those who bring forth bread from the earth.