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Shavuot: Its Origins and Customs

Shavuot is a festival holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is also the Hebrew word for “weeks.” According to the Torah, it took precisely 49 days (seven weeks) for the ancient Israelites to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to meet God, who gave him the Ten Commandments.

Like many other Jewish holidays, Shavuot began as an agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. In ancient times, the Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with an offering of crops. Today’s Jews can no longer bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem, so there are no particular commandments associated with this holiday. Several traditions, however, have come to be associated with Shavuot.

All Night Study

Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Rectification for Shavuot Night) is the custom of staying up all night to study with a community to re-experience standing at Mount Sinai when the Jewish people received the Torah. When this custom began is not entirely clear, but a couple of historical stories give us an inkling. We are told that when the Israelites were at Mount Sinai, they overslept and had to be awakened by Moses. We also know that in the 16th century, mystics in Tsfat believed that committing to study on Shavuot symbolically prepared them to enter into a sacred relationship with God.

Today, Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a wildly popular tradition in Israel. In Jerusalem, one can spend the whole night wandering from “tikkun” to “tikkun,” which are held not just in synagogues but in homes, community centers, and educational institutions of every religious and ideological flavor. The format varies, and many are simply evenings of study for the sake of study and fellowship, with an endless array of themes and topics.

This year, Washington Hebrew Congregation and Temple Emanuel are partnering to bring this tradition back to our communities. Although we will not stay up all night (whew!), on Saturday, June 8 at the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center, we will hold an incredible evening filled with insightful, engaging, and diverse opportunities for study … and cheesecake (more on that later).

Affirming a Commitment to Judaism

At Shavuot services, we traditionally read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a young Moabite woman who married an Israelite man. When her husband died, she followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel and adopted the Jewish faith and people as her own. The theme of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism is central to this story. Ruth declares to her mother-in-law “… wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Through these words, Ruth became the archetype of all who “choose” or convert to Judaism — accepting the Torah, just as Jews accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Bring on the Cheesecake

Jewish tradition compares the words of the Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey. Accordingly, sweet dairy dishes (think cheesecake and blintzes) have come to be associated with the holiday.

Embracing this custom fully, WHC and Temple Emanuel’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot will include a dessert reception that features our first-ever “Great Shavuot Cheesecake Bake-Off.” It’s a delicious contest that invites bakers of all abilities to bake and bring their best cheesecake to Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Everyone who attends will have a chance to sample each cheesecake and vote on their favorite, which will then be crowned “The Big Cheese of Shavuot”!

If you would like to experience exceptional study with a great group of people, reaffirm your connection to our religion, and enjoy some of the best cheesecake this side of New York, please join us at JBSC on Saturday, June 8 for Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Learn more and RSVP at whctemple.org/Shavuot.