Shavuot 101

Biblical Sources for Shavuot

Shavuot is never referenced in the Bible as a holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, but here are some of the sources that frame it as a harvest holiday.

Bringing Bikkurim to Jerusalem, 1730, National Library of Israel

וְחַ֤ג הַקָּצִיר֙ בִּכּוּרֵ֣י מַעֲשֶׂ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּזְרַ֖ע בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה ...

and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field...

וּבְי֣וֹם הַבִּכּוּרִ֗ים בְּהַקְרִ֨יבְכֶ֜ם מִנְחָ֤ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה בְּשָׁבֻעֹ֖תֵיכֶ֑ם מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃
On the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the LORD, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.
(ב) וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית ׀ כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר תָּבִ֧יא מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָ֖ךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ בַטֶּ֑נֶא וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃
(2) you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.

Sources about the Giving of the Torah

The full story of the revelation of Sinai is in Exodus Chapter 19, and the Ten Commandments are in Exodus Chapter 20, verses 1-14. Below are two famous midrashic texts about the giving of the Torah.

Detail from Shavuot Prayers in the Rome Machzor, 1450, National Library of Israel

וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי (במדבר א, א), לָמָּה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, מִכָּאן שָׁנוּ חֲכָמִים בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים נִתְּנָה הַתּוֹרָה, בָּאֵשׁ, וּבַמַּיִם, וּבַמִּדְבָּר. בָּאֵשׁ מִנַּיִן (שמות יט, יח): וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ וגו'. וּבַמַּיִם מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שופטים ה, ד): גַּם שָׁמַיִם נָטָפוּ גַּם עָבִים נָטְפוּ מָיִם. וּבַמִּדְבָּר מִנַּיִן וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, וְלָמָּה נִתְּנָה בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, אֶלָּא מָה אֵלּוּ חִנָּם לְכָל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם כָּךְ דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה חִנָּם הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה נה, א): הוֹי כָּל צָמֵא לְכוּ לַמַּיִם, דָּבָר אַחֵר, וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, אֶלָּא כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ כַּמִּדְבָּר, הֶפְקֵר, אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לִקְנוֹת אֶת הַחָכְמָה וְהַתּוֹרָה, לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי.
"And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness" (Numbers 1:1). Why the Sinai Wilderness? From here the sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know it was given through fire? From Exodus 19:18: "And Mount Sinai was all in smoke as God had come down upon it in fire." How do we know it was given through water? As it says in Judges 5:4, "The heavens dripped and the clouds dripped water [at Sinai]." How do we know it was given through wilderness? [As it says above,] "And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness." And why was the Torah given through these three things? Just as [fire, water, and wilderness] are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them, as it says in Isaiah 55:1, "Oh, all who are thirsty, come for water... even if you have no money." Another explanation: "And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness" — Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, "the Sinai Wilderness."
ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם אמר רב אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא אמר רבא אף על פי כן הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
The Gemara cites additional homiletic interpretations on the topic of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.

Shavuot: The Cheesecake Holiday

There is a custom to eat dairy foods, like cheesecake and blintzes, on Shavuot. The sources below explore some possible origins of this tradition.

Tnuva Cheeses, National Library of Israel

{יב} מאכלי חלב - ...טעם נכון לזה כי בעת שעמדו על הר סיני וקבלו התורה וירדו מן ההר לביתם לא מצאו מה לאכול תיכף כ"א מאכלי חלב כי לבשר צריך הכנה רבה לשחוט בסכין בדוק כאשר צוה ה' ....ע"כ בחרו להם לפי שעה מאכלי חלב ואנו עושין זכר לזה:

Dairy foods - ... a correct reason for this: that when Bnei Yisrael stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah and they went down from the mountain to their homes they found nothing to eat immediately except for dairy foods because for meat they would need much preparation to slaughter with a checked knife like Hashem commanded... ... therefore they choose on account of the time to eat dairy foods and we do this as a commemoration of this.

...ונוהגין בכל מקום לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום ראשון של שבועות ונראה לי הטעם שהוא כמו השני תבשילין שלוקחין בליל פסח זכר לפסח וזכר לחגיגה כן אוכלים מאכל חלב ואח"כ מאכל בשר וצריכין להביא עמהם ב' לחם על השלחן שהוא במקום המזבח ויש בזה זכרון לשני הלחם שהיו מקריבין ביום הבכורים:

...We have a custom everywhere to eat dairy food on the first day of Shavuot. And it seems to me that the reason is: It is like the two foods that are taken on the evening of Pesach, a reminder of the Korban Pesach and a reminder of the Korban Chagiga, so too we eat a dairy food followed by a meat food, and we bring with them two loaves on the table in place of the Mizbeach, and thus there will be a reminder of the two loaves that were brought on "The day of the Bikkurim."

Tikkun Leil Shavuot - All Night Torah Study

In many communities, people stay up all night studying Torah on Shavuot night. Check out this sheet on the Origins of Tikkun Layl Shavuot for more details!

Tikkun Leil Shavuot, 1972, National Library of Israel

(יא) וְהָי֥וּ נְכֹנִ֖ים לַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י כִּ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י יֵרֵ֧ד יְהוָ֛ה לְעֵינֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם עַל־הַ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
(11) Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.
והיו נכנים. אולי לא יישן אדם בהם בלילה. שישמעו קול ה' בבקר. כדרך כהן גדול ביום הכפורים
Be Ready: Perhaps a person shouldn't sleep on them at night, because they will hear the voice of God in the morning, like the way of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

Decorating with Greenery

Some communities have the custom of decorating their prayer spaces with greenery to celebrate the holiday. These sources provide some context for this practice.

Das Wochen-oder Pfingst- Fest, Pentacost-Shavuot, National Library of Israel

...ונוהגין לשטוח עשבים בשבועות בבית הכנסת והבתים זכר לשמחת מתן תורה...

...We have the custom to spread out plants on Shavuot in the synagogue and in houses, as a memory for the happiness of the receiving of the Torah. ...

{י} זכר לשמחת מתן תורה - שהיו שם עשבים סביב הר סיני כדכתיב הצאן והבקר אל ירעו וגו'.

In remembrance of the joy of receiving the Torah: for there were grasses around Mount Sinai, as it says "The flocks and cattle shall not graze..."

The Book of Ruth

Combining harvest themes with the story of a woman who chooses to commit to life as a Jew, the book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot. Try searching our database to find sheets that explore this story!

Naomi and Ruth Postcard, 1870, National Library of Israel