Shavuot is a Jewish holiday I had never heard of before I started working for a Jewish organization and was told we have this Monday off. So I’m guessing you probably don’t know what it is, either. It’s the least-observed major Jewish holiday, after all.
But just for you, I learned everything* there is to know about this random holiday where you’re supposed to stay up all night and eat… cheesecake?
Shavuot is celebrated every year seven weeks after the second Passover seder. Passover isn’t just a holiday to commemorate freedom from slavery; it also used to be a festival to celebrate the start of the spring harvest season.
So Shavuot began as an ancient grain festival, but over time it transformed into a holiday used to commemorate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. You know what that means: Time for a Prince of Egypt gif!
If you want to know more, you can read the history of the holiday from the Bible to Temple times over on My Jewish Learning.
On Shavuot, Jews read the Book of Ruth, because, according to My Jewish Learning, “Ruth’s coming to Israel took place around the time of Shavuot, and her acceptance into the Jewish faith was analogous of the acceptance of the Jewish people of God’s Torah.” Additionally, King David (Ruth’s descendant, we’ll get into it), is thought to have been born and died on Shavuot.
The story of Ruth, quickly: Ruth is a woman who marries Mahlon, the son of Naomi and Elimelech. Ruth is Moabite (not Jewish), but converts. She’s commonly regarded as the first convert. After Mahlon dies, Ruth accompanies Naomi (her mother-in-law) to Bethlehem. Naomi is confused why Ruth is coming with her, but Ruth tells Naomi, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Pretty good daughter-in-law, amirite?
Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest (you see how this is all connected now?) and after some time, Ruth ends up having a son with a relative of Naomi’s named Boaz. That son, Obed, becomes a father to Jesse, who is the father of the famous King David. Ancient Jewish geography!
All the cheese!
On Shavuot, you’re supposed to eat a lot of dairy.
One reason for this could be from the Bible — we eat dairy to symbolize the land of milk and honey. Another possible reason is that “a sage discovered that the initials of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe the sacrificial meal offering on Shavuot, spell mei halav (from milk), suggesting that dairy food is the acceptable dinner for the festival. At Sinai, the Israelites were considered to be as innocent as newborns, whose food is milk.”
Either way, it’s customary to eat cheesecake and we’re not going to argue with that.
Up all night
Besides reading the Book of Ruth and eating cheesecake, the main ritual associated with Shavuot is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The practice is based on kabbalist (mystic) practices. According to My Jewish Learning, “We remain awake to show that, unlike the situation of our heavy-lidded ancestors at Sinai, there is no need to bring us to our senses; we are ready to receive Torah.”
Some Jews are creative and celebrate Shavuot in 24-hour spaces, like IHOP (yes, IHOP).
If you want to celebrate Shavuot, stay up all night, study Torah, and eat dairy.
*Okay probably not everything, but enough for these purposes.