The Festival of Shavuot

The Festival of Shavuot is the second holiday of the Shelosha Regalim, the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. The holiday has many names, the most widely used are Chag HaBikkurim (holiday of first fruits), Chag HaKatzir (holiday of harvest), and Chag Matan Torah (holiday of the giving of the Torah).
​According to the Torah, the Festival of Shavuot is celebrated fifty days after Passover. This is the only holiday for which the Torah does not note a date. Nowadays, Shavuot is celebrated on the sixth day of the Hebrew month Sivan. In the days when the Holy Temple existed the holiday was primarily an agricultural holiday, where the first fruits were brought to the Temple and an offering of “Shti Valechem” was made. Following the Temple’s destruction, the holiday stands out mainly as the day of Matan Torah.
The most common customs of the holiday are Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Rectification for Shavuot Night), reading of piyyutim and azharot (warnings) – piyyutim dealing with Minyan Tarig (613 Mitzvot/commandments) and Akdamut (liturgical poem extolling the greatness of God, the Torah and Israel that is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot). The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. Tradition has explained this in a variety of ways. The Book of Ruth deals with an act of kindness that takes place during the harvest. The Book tells of Ruth Moabi who accepted the Torah and joined the people of Israel. At the end of the Book of Ruth, which takes place in the vicinity of Beit- Lechem, it is told that Ruth Moabi is the great-grandmother of King David. And so, kindness for strangers and payment for acts of benevolence, joining the people of Israel, acceptance of the Torah, and the legitimacy of the kingship of the House of David are the foundations of the Book of Ruth. The reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot joins these foundations together.
Another custom popular among Israeli communities on the Festival of Shavuot is eating dairy. The reason for this is unclear, but many people claim that eating dairy on Shavuot is customary because when the Torah was given, and with it all the kosher halachot as one, the Israelites didn’t have time to makes knives kosher, to slaughter livestock and prepare meat to celebrate Matan Torah, an so they ate dairy foods. Another claim, Midrashi in character, is based on the verse in Shir Hashirim “Milk and honey under your tongue”, which is understood as a hint to the Torah. In this context milk is seen as the amount of kindness, as a relation to a mother, as the infant’s first food, and as an element that ties together all of humankind. According to this view, meat is related to lust while milk is related to moderate amounts of kindness, pity and harmony, values that are linked to the Torah, to the acceptance of Mitzvot and to the desired effect of the Torah on man.
There are notes by the folklore researcher Yom-Tov Levinski preserved in the archives of the National Library in which he documents the traditions of different ethnic groups on Shavuot. For example, the following description can be found amongst his notes: “In Ashkenaz communities it was customary to bake cheesecakes in celebration of the holiday, ‘Mount Sinai’ cakes filled with fruits and cheese”. However, Levinski does not describe the preparation of dairy foods alone.  The motifs of Mount Sinai and Moses' ascent to receive the Torah on the mountain unleashed the creative memory of different communities: "In Italy they would bake Sulam ("ladder") cakes, for sulam is numerically equivalent to Sinai in gematria [the system which attributes a numerical value to each Hebrew letter]. Among the Sephardic Jews there is a custom still common today to bake a "Siete Cielos" (Seven Skies) Cake for Shavuot, in honor of the seven skies from which God descended to Mt. Sinai, or commemorating Moses' passing through seven skies until he reached the Divine Seat of God in order to receive from him the Torah for the People of Israel."
The baking of symbols for the Feast of Shavuot is documented by Levinsky as a custom among the Jews of Tripoli in Libya, who bake all sorts of symbolic cakes: "We make ladder-shaped biscuits because it was a ladder which Moses used to ascend to Mt. Sinai. Moreover, sulam (ladder) is numerically equivalent to Sinai. But ladders are not the only symbols baked by the Tripoli community. Hands, tables of the covenant and even doves are baked as well: "We prepare hamsa hands because one holds out one's hands to receive the Torah, and we prepare two tables of the covenant like those we received on the day the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, and we also bake dove-shaped biscuits symbolizing the People of Israel who received the Torah like a dove." In addition, there is also a very practical aspect to this tradition of baking for Shavuot: "And in order for us to be able to read the Torah well, we prepare eye-glasses."
In the Land of Israel, before the establishment of the State of Israel, Shavuot was chosen as the day to express the connection to the land. In the agricultural settlements, the tradition of harvest ceremonies and the presentation of the first produce was re-established. Especially notable is the tradition of bringing the first fruit, which became central in the kibbutzim. The ceremony of the presentation of the first fruit in the kibbutzim was an opportunity to display the achievements of all the production branches during the year. A parade of decorated and heavily loaded wagons would present the innovation in machinery and in the means of production as well as sample of the fresh harvest, including babies born in the kibbutz since the previous Feast of Shavuot. In addition, a theatrical aspect developed with very elaborate parades and text-based shows which were staged in front of a large audience. In the archives of the National Library there are documents attesting to this aspect of Shavuot in the kibbutzim. Standardized forms of the "Inter-kibbutz Feast Committee" including suggestions as to how to decorate the wagons illustrate the visual aspect of the feast: "A car whose doors have been left open and covered with tent material until it resembles a sort of a hill, on which the different kinds of wheat are suitably arranged in a natural manner". The dairy production branch could opt for the following suggestion: "A decorated cow, whose horns are covered in gold, carrying a basket in which a calf has been put". The committee even thought of the fisheries: "A boat on a wagon. Nets and fishing implements. The fish itself – the first produce to be presented – shall be in the net".
The documentation at the National Library includes also humorous versions of the presentation of the first produce as were created in various kibbutzim. For example, in Beit Zera, those working in the fisheries would recite: "Look here and see, we have brought you every kind of fish, to enjoy the feast in glee". Nevertheless, the preparations for the celebrations had a serious tone to them, as did the performance itself. The authorities of the Kibbutz Movement were also strict in demanding a detailed report from the kibbutzim as to what had been done on each day of the feast, what contents were chosen, which biblical verses were used for the public signs and so on. This serious approach is evident in the documents held in the National Library, including the forms sent out by the "Inter-Kibbutz Feast Committee". On one of those forms, one of the kibbutzim, Bet Hashitah, writes the following: "The Feast of the Presentation of the First Produce is the feast of those who planted and hoped all year long, and they are those who deserve to sincerely rejoice and to present what they have produced. The children did not sow in tears, not did they reap in mirth (except for the first produce of the children's farm), therefore it will be a sacrilege and a lack of respect to let the children of all people represent the serious as well as the joyful aspects of the feast. The children shall be made part of the celebration in accordance to their participation in the process of the work done in the specific production branch in the kibbutz and in the children's farm only. If there is no truth in the feast, it cannot in any way express or satisfy those who mark it."
Not only the agricultural settlements used to mark Shavuot with parades. In the archives of the National Library there are posters from the 1920s and the 1930s inviting the public to large popular parades in the cities. The Histadtrut  (the National Workers' Union) used to organize Shavuot parades in the streets of Haifa. Similar parades took place in Yaffo and in smaller towns. Shavuot was an opportunity to identify with the agricultural and ideological backbone of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. There were even organized tours to kibbutzim and moshavim which allowed the city folk paying a fee to be transported to watch the parades in the agricultural settlements.  
  • An ad for transportation to watch the parades in the agricultural sector.
  • A Shavuot parade in Haifa, 1934
  • "A Green Ball", the Union of Hebrew Women, Haifa, 1932
  • "A White Ball", Shavuot, Haifa, 1932
  • "A Feast of Flowers", Shavuot, The Relief Committee for the Hebrew Sick
  • A Shavuot reader for children, in Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish, Warsaw6. A Shavuot reader for children, in Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish, Warsaw
  • The Mishnah, a Latin translation, Amsterdam, 1698
  • An illustration of the tractates of the Mishnah, in Latin, Amsterdam, 1698