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Of the many holidays on our calendar, I am least familiar with Shavuot. How is the holiday celebrated?
Shavuot suffers from the lack of really great customs like building a sukkah or conducting a Passover seder. It is also a shorter celebration. The Torah specifies a one-day festival, which is observed that way in Israel today. In the Diaspora, an additional day was added, though some Jews (especially in the Reform movement) observe Shavuot as prescribed in the Torah.
Since Shavuot lacks the pizazz of the other two of the chagim (festivals), many folks in the U.S. do not pay as much attention to it.
Shavuot means "weeks" and is so named because it occurs seven weeks after the second day of Passover, during which the special "wave offering" in the Ancient Temple, called "omer," marked each of those days. On the 50th day, the "Festival of Weeks" was held as a joyous celebration.
Two other names for Shavuot point to the agricultural origins of this biblical holiday. Shavuot is known as Hag HaKatzir, literally the "harvest festival," recalling the end of the wheat harvest that began in the spring, at Passover time. Another name is Hag Habikkurim, the festival of the summer harvest of the ripening of the first fruits. The first fruits were brought in baskets to the Temple, expressing thanksgiving for God's bounty.
Secular kibbutzim in Israel have made the first fruit harvest the center of a summer celebration with songs, pageantry, music and summer fruit.
Liturgically, Shavuot is known as "Z'man matan Torahtenu: the time of the giving of our Torah." As Israelites and a multitude of others assembled at Mount Sinai to become a nation, they understood that they were united in a covenant of obligations.
Those obligations were recorded in the Torah, a constitution of the Jewish people, experienced as revelation from God. In the most dramatic description of the revelation at Sinai, our people accepted and pledged faithfulness to performing God's commandments. The importance of Torah is reiterated by an Aramaic phrase, "Israel (land and people) without Torah is like a body without a soul."
Since the Ten Statements (what the Ten Commandments are called in Hebrew) are given at that dramatic scene, they became part of Shavuot tradition. The Rabbis prescribed that these words be read during the Torah reading on Shavuot morning. It is customary for us to recite them standing as our ancestors stood to receive Torah at Sinai.
Other Shavuot customs developed, including all-night Torah study and eating dairy foods (blintzes, enchiladas, pizza, burekas) because no meat was eaten before the revelation of Torah. Shavuot, too, is a day of rest, celebratory meals and prayers in synagogue, including yizkor (memorial prayers).
Jewish tradition teaches that all Jews, past, present and future, were at Sinai, so when you see a Jew who looks familiar but whom you do not think you know, remember you were probably standing together at Sinai.
Rabbi Barton Lee is the executive director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University.