Shavuot Traditions Explained

Traditions Explained

Shavuot has a number of unique traditions that tie into its origins and meaning. This article covers the traditions of:

  • Staying up all night
  • Eating dairy
  • Ice Cream Parties
  • Bringing plants into homes and shuls
  • Reading the book Ruth 

Staying up all night:

The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people slept in on the morning of the 10 commandments revelation. There are a number of explanations for this some positive and others critical. But in the last 1,000 years a mystical tradition came to broad communal awareness and was incorporated into regular community tradition- Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Originally just kabbalists but eventually communities around the world would stay up all night to rectify the wrong of our ancestors sleeping in. We spend the night studying fragments of the many schools and methods of interpretation of the Torah in a symbolic gesture of learning the whole Torah on Shavuot night. Many communities host learning evenings while the committed work their way through a text called the Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

Eating dairy:

  1. With the giving of the Torah, the Jews became obligated to observe the kosher traditions. Being that the original Shavuot  was given on Shabbat, no cattle could be killed and prepared and prepared according to the new laws of Kosher, the commentaries deduce form this that the Jewish people ate dairy that day instead. 
  1. The Hebrew word for milk is chalav, and when the numerical values of each of the letters in the word chalav are added together (8 + 30 + 2) the total is forty. Forty is the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah. This dovetails with the mystical tradition that the Torah is likened to nourishing milk. 
  1. The Midrashic commentaries share a narrative that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, the angels “urged” G-d to reconsider the decision to give the precious Torah to earthly beings. “Bestow Your majesty upon the heavens . . . What is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should be mindful of him?”. The Midrash provides a number of reasons why the angels’ request went unheeded, including the obvious: the Torah is about the Spirit manifesting into the physical through interaction and engagement. Do angels eat, love or engage ion or with the physical? No, therefore the Torah would never be actualised without moving into the physical and human realm. Another reason along the same line of thinking is that when the angles visited Abraham (in Genesis) they consumed butter and milk together with meat. On Shavuot we therefore eat dairy products and then take a break before eating meat—in order to demonstrate our commitment to this mitzvah. On the holiday of Shavuot, a two-loaf bread offering was brought in the Temple. To commemorate this, some have the custom to eat two meals in one meal on Shavuot- first a dairy meal, and then, after a short break, we eat the traditional holiday meat meal.  

Ice Cream Parties:

This isn’t a tradition per se as much as a 20th century evolution within synagogues. As part of the celebrations of Shavuot people go to shuls to hear the passage of the Ten Commandments read form the Torah. Because the children were anointed as the garantors for our tradition, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged children to attend the reading as their soul has such a profound connection wihth this ancient passage. Creative and fun ways emerged to bring children to shul on Shavuot.

Bringing plants into homes and shuls:

On Shavuot a miracle occurred, temporarily turning the area of Mount Sinai into fertile land and the mountain itself became covered in grass and plants completely defying its natural desert surroundings.

Further, Shavuot is called the Festival of Harvest- it is when the first harvests of the year would commence and farmers would come with their first fruit (Bikkurim) to the Temple in Jerusalem. Some decorate shuls and homes with greenery and flowers in remembrance of the custom to adorn the baskets of bikkurim (as well as the oxen leading the procession) with flowers and greenery.

These amongst many other reasons is why we decorate homes and Shuls with plants on Shavuot.

Special Recital of Ruth

Shavuot is the birthday and yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of King David, and the Book of Ruth records his ancestry. Ruth and her husband Boaz were King David’s great-grandparents. 

In of herself, Ruth was a sincere convert who embraced Judaism with all her heart. She is a great inspiration to us all and reminds us that on Shavuot all Jews were converts—having accepted the Torah and all of its precepts. Prior to this moment we were Hebrews, the descendants of Jacob but Shavuot was not just an experience, it was a moment of commitment.

Thematically, the scenes of harvesting described in the book of Ruth are appropriate to the Festival of Harvest.