More than Just Cheesecake: The Meaning of Shavuot

More than Just Cheesecake: The Meaning of Shavuot

Although Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays of the Jewish tradition along with Pesah and Sukkot and is just as important as they are, it sometimes seems that the “Feast of Weeks” is the poor cousin of the other two. Pesah and Sukkot are both considerably longer than the Shavuot because they include intermediate days (hol ha-mo’ed), while the Shavuot does not; in Israel Shavuot lasts only one day! It is also missing something crucial that the other two possess: a significant positive mitzvah, a ritual that resonates in our spiritual lives and is rooted in our collective memories. During Pesah we eat matzah rather than leavened bread for eight days, and of course the holiday is marked by that most powerful of ceremonies, the family seder, while Sukkot’s main features are building a Sukkah (and eating/celebrating in it) along with waving the lulav and etrog. In other words, each of these hagim are connected with physical rituals and the endless activities that revolve around them (art projects, stories of wonderful or terrible sedarim, searching for the perfect etrog, sitting in the Sukkah while it rains, etc.). What do we actually do on Shavuot?  

In the Torah itself, Shavuot is celebrated as an agricultural holiday, marking the early wheat harvest in the Land of Israel. Later, the sages of the Talmud transformed the chag into a celebration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, z’man matan Torateynu. As it turns out, Shavuot is every bit as significant as the other two pilgrimage holidays, not because of the ritual acts its entails but because of its profound spiritual meaning. The holiday beckons each individual Jew to stand again at Sinai and proclaim kol asher diber Ha-Shem na’aseh ve-nishmah/ “all that God has spoken, we will faithfully do!” (Exodus 24:7). 

This means that the focus of the holiday is on connecting with the Torah itself. A practice began about five hundred years ago among mystics in the small town of Tz’fat in the Galilee to study Torah all night during the Shavuot – each Jew would receive Torah anew by engaging in learning throughout the night. This custom of all-night study, known as a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, rapidly spread throughout the Jewish world and today is very widespread in Jewish communities of every type (there will be a community-wide Tikkun this Sunday night via Zoom – please be in touch with me if you’re interested in attending). In addition, the Ten Commandments are read in synagogue to commemorate the experience at Sinai. Finally, there is a custom of eating dairy on the holiday, such a cheesecake, blintzes, and of course plenty of ice cream! It’s not clear where this practice came from – there are many explanations. My favorite is that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for milk, halav, is 40…which is how many days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and other teachings!

While Shavuot may lack the rituals of the other pilgrimage holidays, it more than makes up for that in deep religious meaning…and wonderful dairy desserts! 

Chag Sameakh,

Rabbi Adam Rubin, Ph.D.

Beth Jacob Congregation




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