What Even is Shavuot?



May 21, 2024

Well… first we need to talk about Passover:

Passover is a holiday that begins with oppression, slavery, and what we refer to poetically as “narrow places.” The Hebrew word for Egypt, where the Israelites escaped from, is the word Mitzrayim, which translates literally to “the narrow places.” The Passover story tells us how the Israelites miraculously escaped Mitzrayim. But the story doesn’t tell us what happened after they crossed the sea…

The Israelites weren’t totally in the clear after escaping the narrow place of Egypt. They had to make a journey through the desert toward what they hoped would be a safer place, a “promised land” where they could be free. On their way, they pitched their tents at the base of a mountain called Sinai. There, exactly 50 days after the Israelites fled Egypt, they received the Torah, the foundational intellectual, legal, and spiritual basis of Judaism. That day is called Shavuot, which translates to “The Feast of Weeks” because it occurs exactly seven weeks after Passover.

So that’s why Shavuot is such a big deal. 

Shavuot is the day when the Jewish people received the Torah – our central source of sustenance and map for our peoplehood. It marks the exact moment when the Israelites transformed from a band of wandering refugees escaping Egypt (in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, literally meaning a “narrow place”) into a people with self-determination, a collective purpose, a promised land (Israel), a communal identity, and a covenant with one God. Shavuot marks the day we transitioned from a scrappy start-up concept to an enterprise. 

It is said that all Jews who ever were, are, and will be (and it’s important to note this includes Jews by choice) were present at Mount Sinai during this moment of revelation. So if you identify as a Jew, check your metaphysical memory and see if you can find yourself in the crowd!

But how do we actually celebrate Shavuot? Two of the most popular Shavuot traditions:

  1. Learning and teaching: In honor of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, some folks stay up all night learning and teaching. What people choose to learn or teach varies from community to community, but it’s traditional to focus on Jewish topics and themes. 
  2. Eating dairy products: There are several reasons why Shavuot is often referred to as “the cheesecake holiday.” The first reason is poetic: Israel is referenced in the Torah as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” And since Shavuot is all about Torah, it’s only right to eat or drink some milk products, right? The second reason is logistical. Prior to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, there was no such thing as “keeping kosher.” Those laws literally were not a part of Jewish consciousness yet! But after Sinai, suddenly there were rules about what and how to eat. Some of those rules, which still exist today, mandate separating milk products from meat products. So the story goes that when the Jews returned to their camps after receiving the Torah, they ate a celebratory dairy meal in order to avoid cross-contamination with any meat products laying around, thus abiding by the brand new dietary rules stipulated in the Torah.

Making meaning of Shavuot post-October 7th:

In ancient times, Shavuot marked the start of the season for bringing bikkurim, first fruits, to the Holy Temple. A primary theme of bikkurim is thankfulness, appreciating the good we are given. In Hebrew, this is known as hakarat hatov, or recognizing the good. For many, accessing gratitude and appreciation for the “good” feels less tangible this year in the aftermath of the October 7th massacre, the ongoing conflict and loss of life in Israel and in Gaza, and the detention of over 130 hostages being held captive in Gaza. Below, we offer the following suggestions to embody gratitude in hard moments:

Words of wisdom on finding yourself at Sinai:

“Shavuot not only commemorates the experience of our ancestors receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, it invites us to inhabit this sacred process of reception ourselves. In Judaism, revelation is an ongoing process in which our learning, commentary, and insights are essential.” Excerpted from “Shavuot and the Sacred Process of Becoming” by Adina Allen

“The rabbi of Kotzk was asked: “Why is Shavuot called ‘the time the Torah was given’ rather than the time we received the Torah?” He answered: “The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times.” -Excerpted from “Tales of the Hasidim” by Martin Buber

Questions to guide you this Shavuot: