Shavuot is a one-day holiday (two in the Diaspora) with many names, dozens of traditions and recipes galore.
The hype surrounding the holiday — agricultural festivals at kibbutz and moshav communities, special lectures at synagogues and community centers, sales on everything white at shopping malls, cheaper dairy products at the supermarket, school plays and child-oriented festivals — make it seem as though Shavuot is a much longer event.
Here are eight facts you may not have known about the holiday:
1. Shavuot, which means “Festival of Weeks,” is just one name for the holiday. It also goes by Harvest Festival (Chag HaKatzir), Day of the First Fruits (Yom Habikurim), The Stoppage/Restrain (Atzeret – a reference the sages use to highlight the prohibition against work on this day), and Time of the Giving of the Torah (Z’man Matan Torah).
2. Shavuot commemorates the day when the Israelites received the Torah during their desert wanderings approximately 3,327 years ago, and is the only Jewish holiday mentioned in the Torah without a specific calendar date. Rather, it is to be celebrated 50 days after the second day of Passover. The rabbis say that Passover and Shavuot are really one holiday – the Exodus from Egypt was only complete with the giving of the Torah.
3. Shavuot is the only Jewish holiday with a dairy menu. The Bible refers to Israel as “the land of milk and honey,” and Shavuot puts the country’s world-famous dairy in the spotlight.
The Torah that Moses brought to the Israelites included the commandment to keep kosher. It was much easier to celebrate the receiving of the law with a dairy smorgasbord than to immediately set into motion kosher slaughtering techniques. Moreover, the gematria (numerical value) of the word chalav (milk) is 40, the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.
Israel boasts more than 1,000 locally made dairy products and the world’s largest selection of soft, spreadable white cheeses, according to the Israel Dairy Board.
The Dairy Board helps some of the 834 dairy farms around the country arrange visiting days for the general public to see how the 125,000 milking cows of the Israeli Holstein breed each produce an average of 12,083 kilos of milk per year.
4. In Israel, you know Shavuot is coming when you pick up your newspaper and recipe booklets drop out. About three weeks prior to the actual date, Israeli newspapers come replete with brand-sponsored recipe booklets and pamphlets promising the “easiest cheesecake” and “fastest blintzes” to wow your guests.
Social media is also awash with friends and friends of friends announcing, posting and sharing their famed recipes for dairy pastries and foods.
5. Get your water guns and buckets … Shavuot is all about water fights, presumably because the Torah is often likened to water. In many Israeli cities, children gather for impromptu water-gun and water-balloon wars in the streets, public squares and parks. Another way to celebrate is taking a water hike along Israel’s rivers.
6. Shavuot is “the” holiday for the farming communities of Israel to show off their agricultural prowess. The symbols of the holiday are the seven species with which the Land of Israel is blessed — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
Tradition holds that in ancient times, Shavuot was the day to bring offerings to the Holy Temple from the first fruits of the harvest and the first animals born to the flocks.
Today, farmers from different parts of the country take turns bringing their fruit and vegetable samples to Jerusalem – to the president. The annual pilgrimage to the presidential residence in the capital is a highlight in the farming community.
Moshav and kibbutz communities also hold elaborate agricultural festivals often open to the public during Shavuot.
7. Staying awake all night is not just for the teenagers. For centuries, it has been customary to study through the night as payback for the Israelites’ error in oversleeping on the morning they were supposed to receive the Torah.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or the “Repair of Shavuot Night,” draws people from all denominations to synagogues, community centers, theaters and schools for white-night group learning sessions. Most people come decked out in white (the color of purity). And while top rabbis and Torah scholars may have started the custom, today you can find speakers from all walks of life – singers, actors, professors, writers, spiritual guides, entrepreneurs – presenting lectures on this night.
8. Around the twelfth century a tradition kicked off in Germany of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavout, since the Torah was given then.
Whether it is because of this custom or just because Israelis love to celebrate festivals, the days around Shavuot offer a dazzling array of child-oriented events, happenings and fairs.