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This year, 2016, the Jewish festival of Shavuot is celebrated on 11-13 June. I wrote and published the following article several years ago to Helium writing site, now gone.

Shavuot is the second of three major festivals in the Jewish calendar, following Passover and before Sukkot. It falls in Sivan, the first month of summer, and commemorates the initial fruit of the year and the anniversary of Moses and the children of Israel being given the Torah by God at Mount Sinai. Shavuot is now a Jewish holiday. There are a number of modern day observances relating to Shavuot.

One of the customs is to stay up all night on the eve of Shavuot and study the Torah. The reason for this is that the Israelites nearly didn’t wake up in time on the morning they were to be given the Torah, so Jews accept they should now study the books through the night to make up for this failing. This tradition has its origins in 1533 when an angel told a rabbi and his associates who were studying the Torah overnight to go to Israel and make their home there. Studies are not restricted to the Torah but can include the Talmud, the Mishnah, and other works. Some people attend lectures or participate in study groups on the Torah. A custom in Jerusalem on Shavuot is to walk to the Wailing Wall in the early hours and participate in dawn prayers.

As part of studying the Torah before Shavuot, an evening service is held in many communities. This is called ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’ or ‘Rectification for Shavuot Night’ and includes readings from the Torah and various other works. The Ten Commandments feature in this service as they do in morning services held on Shavuot itself. The daytime service is attended by everyone, young and old, as they symbolically visit Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, and reaffirm their commitment to it. Grade 10 children often go through the confirmation ceremony at these services.

The first reading at morning service on Shavuot is the ‘Akdamut’, a 90 line liturgical poem. It comprises 45 two line verses. The usual custom is for the ‘baal koreh’, an official, to recite the first two verses and the assembly replies with the following pair, and so on for the entire poem. The verses are acrostic, meaning that the initial letters of each word of a line or verse spell out a word or phrase that is symbolic of some person, thing, or message. At the end of each line are the letters ‘ta’, being the last and first letters respectively of Hebrew, symbolizing a continuing learning process where a person who gets to the end of the Torah then starts again.

Another important reading at the morning service is the Book of Ruth. The reasons this book is read on Shavuot are several. First, Ruth’s great great grandson King David has the anniversary of both his birth and his death on Shavuot. Second, Ruth was a convert to Judaism and this symbolizes the Torah’s acceptance by Jews. Third, the book includes descriptions of harvests, and Shavuot is known as a harvest festival.

In contrast to other Jewish holidays, it is customary to eat only dairy foods or at least one meal of this food type on Shavuot. Popular dishes include cheesecakes, as well as blintzes, a kind of pancake that can be spread with butter or cream, or eaten with cheese. A reason for this custom is that before the Israelites were given the Torah, their meat was not prepared under kosher laws, so on Shavuot they eat dairy, which has fewer restrictions under these rules compared with meat. Another reason is the biblical view of Israel being a land of milk and honey.

A further Shavuot observance is to decorate homes and synagogues with leaves, flowers, and fruit. Children in Israel often wear a band of flowers and leaves on their head. The main reason for this custom is that when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the desert landscape quickly turned into an oasis of greenery and flowers. With this tradition, Jews are also commemorating the ‘bikurim’, or the sacrificing of fruits, where grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates, and olives were taken to the temple as sacrifice.

Various general observances are made on Shavuot and other Jewish holidays. These rules are known as the laws of ‘Yom Tov’ and can be found in the Torah. No work is undertaken on Shavuot, while writing, money, and electrical appliances should not be part of this day. Women are often given new clothing and children receive a toy or candy. Sharing food and drink with outsiders and paupers is also an important part of this day.