December 5, 2023 /
Shavuot, literally meaning “weeks,” is the holiday that comes exactly seven weeks after Passover. Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is one of three pilgrimage holidays in the Jewish calendar. During these holidays, it was historically customary for Jews to journey to Jerusalem and to give offerings at the Temple. Beyond its agrarian roots, Shavuot has grown into a celebration of Torah.
On Shavuot, we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the acceptance of the Torah by our ancient ancestors. Indeed, the holiday marks both a giving and a receiving: God’s gift of Torah to us, and our receipt of our most sacred scripture. Shavuot celebrates this as a gift that continues through the generations.
Just as Sukkot includes a special reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and Passover includes a special reading of the Song of Songs, on Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth.
The Book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. Naomi, an Israelite woman moves to Moab with her husband and two sons. Her two sons unfortunately die, but not before they take local Moabite women as wives—one of which was Ruth. Orpah, the other Moabite wife decides to return to her people. Ruth, on the other hand declares, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, your God, my God.” And in so doing, Ruth becomes casts her lot with the Israelite people. She moves with Naomi to Bethlehem in the Land of Israel, where she eventually becomes the great-grandmother to King David.
Beyond reading the Book of Ruth, it is also customary to honor the gift of Torah through a late-night study session on the evening of Shavuot. This gathering, called a Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, lasts literally all night long in some communities, while in other communities, the study sessions only last late into the evening.
Shavuot Social Justice Guide
Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai, signifying the sacred covenant between God and the Jewish people. The period of the Omer (the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot) and the evening of Shavuot itself are times of preparation for re-living the moment of revelation, and the entire Shavuot season is a time to reengage with Torah.
It has been said that the entire Torah exists to establish justice. Thus, through the study of Torah and other Jewish texts, Shavuot offers us an opportunity to recommit ourselves to tikkun olam, the repair of the world. You can incorporate social action themes into your Shavuot celebration in the following ways
Collect Items for Charity
Jewish scholars took to heart the commandment to set aside a portion of the harvest for the poor. Rabbis connect pei’ah with other actions on which there is no fixed upper measure: the amount of first fruits, acts of loving-kindness and the study of Torah. Rabbi David Polish wrote that this list reveals “the attitudes and practices that the Rabbis considered to be of ultimate value. The [list] reads like an instruction book about how each of us should live our lives and reminds us about what is of limitless importance.”
On Shavuot, make canned goods, new socks and underwear, school supplies or unused toiletries the admission “price” to a Tikkun Leil Shavuot celebration. If collecting items such as school supplies or toiletries, create a station where people can assemble backpacks or toiletry bags throughout the evening. Donate these items to a charity that helps those in need of such items, like a homeless shelter or a shelter for abused women and children.
Feed the Hungry
The holiday of Shavuot is mentioned several times in the Bible. In Leviticus, Shavuot is linked to the commandments of pei’ah (leaving crops at the corners of the field for the poor) and sh’chicha (leaving the fallen grain for the poor). Even as we celebrate the first fruits and the bounty of the land, we are to remember those in need. Jews are commanded to provide for the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Deut. 24:19). Hence, rejoicing on Shavuot is incomplete unless even the poorest and most vulnerable members of society have enough to eat.
Prepare food for those in need. Bake bread or muffins during the night, and deliver them, fresh and hot, to a local soup kitchen for morning breakfast. Or assemble bagged lunches of peanut butter and jelly or tuna sandwiches, fresh fruit or vegetables, juice boxes, and cookies. Deliver them to local soup kitchen to be distributed at breakfast so people have food for lunch.
For the Family…
It is a tradition to stay up all night and study Torah on Shavuot. This custom evolved from the story that says that when the Israelites were at Sinai, they overslept and had to be awakened by Moses. As a result, many modern Jews stay up all night to study and celebrate receiving the Torah. In honor of this custom, have a Shavuot-themed slumber party and stay up late. These fun activities can help you pass the time productively:
Choose a baking project that takes several hours, such as making a whole wheat challah from scratch. When it is done, go to sleep and eat it for breakfast in the morning.
In ancient times, Shavuot was an agricultural holiday, during which Jews brought their first fruits to the Temple. Connect to the land by going berry picking and then use the berries (and wheat) to make a cobbler or berry pie. It’s also traditional to eat dairy foods to remind us of the sweetness of Torah, so enjoy your berries, cobbler or pie with whipped cream.
In recognition of the 10 Commandments, play a game of “10s”: Make a “Top 10” list of favorite Jewish activities, come up with 10 jokes, or try to toss a ball into a basket 10 times in a row.