Shavuot: Celebrating the Gift of Torah

Posted on May 4, 2018 by Sarah Gluck and Lisa Friedman

First, a little Hebrew. The three root letters of shavu’ot are shin-bet-ayin — the same root that yields the word sheva’, “seven, sevenfold, seven times.” (In the language of the Bible, sheva’ can also mean the less specific “many times.”)

Sheva’ appears frequently in Jewish tradition. The sheva b’rachot, “seven blessings,” are recited at a wedding ceremony. Sh’nat ha-sheva’, “the seventh year,” is the Sabbatical year, when the mitzvah of leaving one’s fields to lie fallow is to be fulfilled.

The masculine form of the number seven, shiv’ah, is the customary term for the traditional seven-day period of mourning. Seven days make a week, a shavu’a. Because God rested on the seventh day (ba-yom ha-sh’vi’i), we, too, take a break from routine on Shabbat and throughout the weekend (sof ha-shavu’a). As part of the ritual of Havdalah after sundown on Saturday night, we wish each other a good week, with a hearty Shavu’a tov!

The plural of shavu’a is shavu’ot, which is one the of the names of the holiday we celebrate on the 50th day (i.e., seven weeks) after the beginning of Pesach. This year, Shavuot — also known as the Feast of Weeks, Chag ha-Shavu’ot — falls on May 19-20 on the secular calendar (6 Sivan every year on the Jewish calendar).

Shavuot is the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Like so many other Jewish holidays, it began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest.

Our tradition teaches that the words of Torah are as sweet as milk and honey, which is where the custom of eating sweet dairy foods on Shavuot comes from. Also based on this teaching is a beautiful old custom related to the beginning of a child’s Jewish education. Children who were in the classroom for the first time and just beginning to learn the alef-bet would find the letters covered in honey. As they learned each letter, they would be allowed to lick the honey — a tangible demonstration that learning, especially Jewish learning, is sweet and rewarding.

For Jews everywhere, Shavuot has agricultural, historical, and religious significance. In the American Jewish community, it is also the time when Jewish teens, typically 10th graders, reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is a beautiful ceremony led by our young people who have chosen to continue their Jewish education after bar/bat mitzvah and live a Jewish life as they grow into independent young adults. It has become customary for many Reform congregations to celebrate the ceremony of Confirmation on or around Shavuot, for just as Shavuot commemorates the moment in Jewish history when our people accepted the Torah, so Confirmation marks the time when Jewish young adults take their next significant step in publicly accepting Torah and affirming their covenant with God.

On Friday, June 1, at 7:00 p.m., Temple Beth-El’s 10th graders will take their place on the bimah during the erev Shabbat service and ceremony of Confirmation. Please share our pride in our students and join us for this joyous and moving service, as we witness their affirmation of the rewards of Jewish learning and the sweetness of the Covenant.

Chag Shavuot sameach — wishing you a happy Shavuot!

Sarah Gluck and Lisa Friedman

Originally published in the May-June 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.