The Customs of Shavuot
The Reasons for Celebrating Shavuot
The Torah (Devarim 16:9-10; see also Shemot 34:22) teaches that upon completing the count of the Omer, the Festival of Shavuot is celebrated.
Seven weeks you shall number unto you; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn you should begin to number seven weeks. And you shall keep the Feast of Weeks (Chag Ha-Shavuot) unto the Lord your God after the measure of the freewill-offering of your hand, which you shall give according as the Lord your God blessed you.
Shavuot not only commemorates the conclusion of the counting of the weeks of the Omer, but also celebrates the wheat harvest (Shemot 23:16), and is therefore known as “Chag Ha-katzir,” the Harvest Festival. In addition, the shetei ha-lechem, two leavened loaves made from the new wheat harvest, are offered with the Mussaf offering, and the festival is therefore also referred to as “Yom Ha-Bikkurim” (Bamidbar 28:26). The offering permits the use of new grains in the Beit Ha-Mikdash and ushers in the season of the Bikkurim, the first fruits which are brought to the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Devarim 10:1-11).
In addition to the themes reflected by the Biblical names given to this Festival, the Rabbis refer to this festival as “Atzeret” (Rosh Ha-shana 1:2; see also Onkelos, Bamidbar 28:26), seemingly referring to the fact that it marks the conclusion of the Pesach festival (see Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, 28). Indeed, the Ramban (Vayikra 23:36) asserts that Pesach and Shavuot are similar to the first and last days of Sukkot and Pesach, and the days between Pesach and Shavuot are actually similar to Chol Ha-moed.
And you should count 49 days, and seven weeks, and sanctify the eighth day, like the eighth day of Sukkot, and these days which are counted in between are akin to Chol Ha-moed, between the first and eighth of a festival… and that is why our Rabbis refer to Shavuot as “Atzeret” (a day of cessation), as it is similar to the eighth day of Sukkot, which is called “Atzeret.”
The description of Shavuot as “Atzeret” most likely also refers to the religious/historical connection between Pesach and Shavuot – the Jewish People left
In addition to the agricultural and ritual reasons for the holiday cited above, we traditionally associate Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. The Rabbis (Pesachim 68b) point to the uniqueness of Shavuot, as “it is the day upon which the Torah was given.” In addition, the Keri’at Ha-Torah of Shavuot, as recorded by the Tosefta and cited in the Talmud (Megilla 31a), recounts the giving of the Torah (Shemot 19). Furthermore, the Shavuot liturgy refers to the day as “Zeman Matan Torateinu” – the day upon which the Torah was given.
Numerous commentators have questioned why this aspect of Shavuot, Matan Torah, which is so central to our Shavuot celebration, is not mentioned in the Torah. In fact, the Talmud (Shabbat 86b) cites a debate between the Chakhamim and R. Yosi regarding whether the Torah was given on the 6th or 7th of Sivan. According to R. Yosi’s opinion that Matan Torah took place on the 7th of Sivan, nowadays, when we always celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (49 days after the second day of Pesach), we are actually celebrating Matan Torah on the incorrect day!
These questions brought R. Yitzchak Abrabanel (1437–1508) to explain in his commentary to the Torah (Vayikra 23):
The Torah did not specify that the reason for celebrating this Festival is to remember the day of the giving of the Torah, as no festival was assigned to commemorate the giving of our Torah. Because the Divine Torah and its prophecies which are in our hands testify to themselves, and there is no need to dedicate a day to remember it. Rather, the reason for the festival of Shavuot us because it is the beginning of the wheat harvest.
The Abrabanel does acknowledge that certain mitzvot and halakhot hint to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. For example, the offering of the shetei ha-lechem on Shavuot, which are made from leavened wheat, as opposed to Pesach’s Omer offering made from barley, indicates the Jewish People’s spiritual poverty before receiving the Torah. He continues:
[Although] there is no doubt that on this day the Torah was given, no festival was designated to remember it, just as you will find regarding Yom Teru’a (Rosh Ha-shana), upon which we say “this is the day of the beginning of Your creation, a remembrance for the first day” (Rosh Ha-shana 27a), and despite this God did not command that one should observe Rosh Ha-shana as an anniversary of the creation of the world, rather as a Yom Ha-Din (day of judgment).
The giving of the Torah is coincidental and secondary to the primary reason for the observance of Shavuot – the wheat harvest.
Others accept that the giving of the Torah plays a central role in the observance of Shavuot, but maintain that it was deliberately not mentioned by the Torah. R. Yitzchak ben Moshe Arama (c. 1420–1494), in his commentary to the Torah, the Akeidat Yitzchak (Vayikra 23), offers two reasons for this omission. First, he suggests that like belief in the existence of God, the giving of the Torah is so basic to Judaism that there is no reason to dedicate a day to its commemoration. Second, he proposes that the very nature of the Torah precludes designating a day of commemoration. He writes:
The commemoration of the giving of the Torah cannot be limited to a particular time, like other matters connected with the festivals, but it is a precept that applies at all hours and at times, as it is written (Yehoshua 1:8), “This book of the Law shall not move from your mouth and your shall meditate in it day and night.” Every day, we are commanded that its contents should remain as fresh and as dear to us as on the day they were given, as it is written “This day the Lord your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep them and do them…”
In other words, although the Torah may have been given on a specific historical date, we relate to Torah as if it is constantly given to us anew, and it is therefore not restricted or limited to a specific time. Indeed, the Midrash (Tanchuma, Parashat Ki Tavo) writes:
What is meant by “this day”? Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not ordained these precepts for
This beautiful midrash emphasizes the timeless nature of Torah, and how marking the anniversary of the giving of the Torah might ultimately reduce or minimize our relationship to the Torah.
Finally, R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843–1921), in his commentary to Sefer Vayikra, explains why there are no mitzvot associated with Shavuot:
No symbolic ritual was instituted for Shavuot to mark the Sinaitic Revelation, for the reason that it cannot be translated into the tangible language of symbol. The Children of Israel had been commanded to take heed “that you saw no likeness on the day that the Lord spoke unto you at Chorev from the midst of fire,” so as not to become involved in any idolatrous, anthropomorphic conception of the divinity. They were simply bidden to commemorate the historical experience. They would celebrate on the day of the giving of the law the conclusion of the harvest as well, to give thanks to Him on bringing the first fruits to the Sanctuary and acknowledge that He is the Lord of all to Whom it was appropriate to pay homage and Whose commandments they were to obey. By this they would reenact the promise they made on Sinai, “Na’aseh ve-nishma” (We shall do and hearken,” Shemot 24:7).
While it is impossible to commemorate the giving of the Torah with any symbols, we bring God our first fruits, give thanks to Him, and fulfill our promise to God at Har Sinai – “na’aseh ve-nishma.”
As R. Hoffmann observed, there are no halakhot or mitzvot specifically related to Shavuot today. In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (494) dedicates only one chapter – at the end of the Laws of Pesach – to the “Order of the Prayers on Shavuot.” The Jewish People, however, have enriched the Festival of Shavuot with many customs, which have themselves generated much Torah inquiry. It is fitting, then, that we dedicate this shiur to investigating a number of these customs.
Accepting Shavuot “Early”
The Rishonim record that the custom in Medieval Ashkenazic communities was to recite Tefillat Arvit on weekdays after pelag ha-mincha (and not only after tzeit ha-kokhavim), in accordance with the position of R. Yehuda (Berakhot 26a; see Rishonim on Berakhot 2a; Terumat Ha-Deshen 1; Teshuvot Ha-Maharil Ha-Dhadashot 45). Based upon this custom and another passage in the Talmud (Berakhot 26b) that explicitly records the practice of reciting Kiddush on Shabbat before dark, it was also customary to accept Shabbat before dark in Ashkenazic communities until the modern era.
On Shavuot, however, it has become customary to begin the Festival only after dark. What is the source of this practice?
R. Yeshayahu Horowitz (1565–1630), the Shelah, writes in his Shenei Luchot Ha-Brit (Masechet Shavuot):
I received [a tradition] from my teacher, the Gaon R. Shlomo of
This tradition dates back to R. Yaakov Pollack (1460–1561), the forefather of the Polish rabbinic tradition. Interesting,
R. Yosef Hahn (Frankfurt am Main, 1570-1637), a contemporary of
Although these early authorities only mention delaying Kiddush until evening, the Taz (494) records that the congregation delays beginning Arvit so that the count should be “complete.” R. Yaakov Emden (1697– 1776), in his Siddur Yaavetz, insists that, on the contrary, one should pray before dark in order to fulfill of the mitzva of adding from the weekday onto Shabbat and Yom Tov (tosefet Shabbat).
One of the most well-known customs associated with Shavuot is the practice of eating dairy foods. R. Isaac Tyrnau records in his Sefer Ha-minhagim (Hagahot U-minhagim, Chag Ha-Shavuot) that this custom is alluded to by the verse (Bamidbar 28:26), “mincha CHadasha La-Shem Be-Shavuoteichem,” the first letters of which spell “chalav” – milk. This practice has generated much discussion in halakhic literature.
First, aside from the textual hint, what is the reason for this custom? The Rema (494:3) explains that, in remembrance of the shetei ha-lechem, the two loaves offered in the Beit Ha-Mikdash on Shavuot, we wish to eat two loaves of bread at the meal. Since one is not permitted to use the same loaf of bread for both a dairy and meat meal (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 89:4), we eat a dairy meal and then a meat meal, in order to ensure that two loaves are eaten.
The Magen Avraham (494:6) offers another reason. He notes that the Zohar equates the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot to the seven “clean days” (shiva nekiyim) that a women counts before purification. Just as the women is “pure” after these seven days (after immersing in the mikva), so too the Jewish People are purified from the impurity of
The Mishna Berura’s (494:12) reason is possibly the most well known. He explains that after receiving the laws of kashrut in the Torah, the Jewish People were no longer able to eat their meat; they had to properly slaughter and prepare new meat in kosher vessels. This process is time consuming, and they therefore ate dairy products, whose halakhot are less intricate and which can be prepared in less time. The Mishna Berura (494:13) also cites the Kol Bo (52), who explains that since the Torah is compared to milk and honey (Shir Ha-shirim 4:11), it is customary to eat diary, and even honey, on Shavuot. The Acharonim offer additional reasons for this custom as well.
Second, this practice raises numerous halakhic concerns. For example, one may be obligated to eat meat on Yom Tov as a fulfillment of the mitzva of simchat Yom Tov (see http://vbm-torah.org/archive/moadim71/27-71moed.htm). Even if one is not obligated to do so, many agree that it is certainly a mitzva to eat meat. If so, the ancient practice of eating dairy on Shavuot seems to contradict this halakha! Indeed, even the Sefer Ha-minhagim cited above writes that one should still eat meat on Shavuot, as “there is not happiness without meat.”
The Acharonim note, however, that eating meat after dairy poses serious halakhic concerns, and therefore one should be careful not to violate the laws of basar be-chalav in fulfilling this custom.
The gemara (Chullin 105a) states, “R. Chisda said: One who ate meat may not eat cheese; one who ate cheese is permitted to eat meat.” The Shulchan Arukh (YD 89:2) rules, in accordance with this gemara and its continuation, that after eating milk, one should check if one’s hands are clean (and wash them if they are not), and one should chew on a solid substance (“kinuach”) and rinse one’s mouth (“hadacha”).
The gemara explicitly states that after eating cheese, one may eat meat. R. Moshe Isserlis, however, in his Darkhei Moshe commentary to the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 89), cites a teshuva of the Maharam of Rothenburg, who relates that he once found cheese between his teeth in between meals. He thereafter decreed upon himself to wait after eating cheese the same way he waits after meat, although he was lenient regarding chicken. The Darkhei Moshe (89:2) continues to cite other sources that limit this stringency to cheese that has aged at least six months.
In his comments to the Shulchan Arukh (Rema, Yoreh Dea’h 89:2), he cites the custom of waiting after hard cheese, even before eating chicken. He notes, however, that other are lenient and says not to rebuke those who are lenient, as long as they do kinuach, hadacha, and netilat yadiyim. He concludes, however, that “it is good to be stringent.”
How should one conduct himself if one wishes to eat both meat and milk at the same meal? Some (see Magen Avraham 494:6, Mishna Berura 494:12) write that one who does not eat hard cheese can simply clean and rinse one’s mouth, and then eat meat at the same meal. R. Ovadia Yosef (Chazon Ovadya, Yom Tov, p. 318) writes that this is his practice. Others (see Be’er Heitev 494:8, citing the Kenesset Gedola and the Shela) insist that one should eat dairy and then recite the birkat ha-mazon, in deference to the Zohar (Parashat Mishpatim), which implies that one should not eat meat and cheese in the same meal. Still others (see Orach Mishor as cited by the Darkhei Teshuva) object to this practice, on the grounds that recite birkat ha-mazon in between the meals constitutes a recitation of a “berakha she-eina tzerikha” (an unnecessary blessing), but R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:160) endorses this practice.
The Darkhei Teshuva, cited above, offers a different suggestion:
The preferred practice is the custom which I received from my teachers and my ancestors – to eat a dairy meal immediately after the morning prayers, during the kiddush, without bread, but only as a se’udat aria (informal meal). And then one should recite the blessing afterwards, wait a bit more than an hour, and then eat the day meal with meat and wine. That is the preferred custom in my opinion, and with this one fulfills one’s obligation according to all.
This custom also appears in the Luach Eretz Yisrael of R. Yechiel Michal Tekuchinsky.
Interestingly, R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (1886-1959), in his commentary to the Torah (Parashat Yitro), suggests that the custom of eating milk and meat at the same meal affirms the commitment the Jewish People, who, unlike the angels, are able to fulfill the mitzvot with their bodies, with great zeal and alacrity.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot
The earliest mention of the practice of staying up the entire night of Shavuot and learning Torah appears in the Zohar. One passage (Zohar I:8a) relates:
This passage describes the “wedding” of the Shekhina with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (the distinct aspects of God as understood by the Zohar), accompanied by the bridesmaids, the Jewish people, who learn Torah all night, as an adornment of the bride.
The Zohar (Parashat Emor 88a) describes this evening again elsewhere:
Therefore, the pious in ancient times did not sleep that night but were studying the Torah, saying, “Let us come and receive this holy inheritance for us and our children in both worlds.” That night, the Congregation of Yisrael is an adornment over them, and she comes to unite with the King. Both decorate the heads of those who merit this.
Although this custom is not cited by R. Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Arukh, there is written evidence of R. Karo holding a night of learning in Salonica (
By the 17th century, this practice was widespread, and the Magen Avraham (494) records the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuot:
The Zohar says that the early pious ones would stay awake all night on Shavuot and learn Torah. Nowadays, our custom is for most learned people to do so. Perhaps the reason is based on the fact that the Israelites slept all night long and God had to wake them when He wanted to give them the Torah, as it says in the Midrash, and therefore we must repair this.
There are different customs, however, regarding whether one should learn/recite the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a collection of texts selected for study on Shavuot evening, or whether one should learn “whatever his heart pleases.”
This practice of staying up all night has led to numerous and in depth discussions regarding whether or not one who has not slept may recite the morning blessings.
Concerning netilat yadayim, R. Yosef Karo (OC 4:13) writes that there is a doubt, and the Rema rules that one should wash without a berakha. The Mishna Berura (4:30 and in Bi’ur Halakha, s.v. ve-yitlem), however, maintains that the Acharonim agree that if one uses the bathroom before Shacharit, one should then wash one’s hands and recite the berakha of “al netilat yadayim.”
Since we follow the opinion that the birkhot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, are recited regardless of whether or not one actually received the benefit described by the specific berakha, it would seem to follow that one should recite these berakhot even if one was awake all night, as they are a daily obligation. This indeed is the ruling of the Arukh Ha-shulchan (46:13) and the Arizal. The Mishna Berura (46:24), however, cites those who question whether one who did not sleep should recite “E-lokay neshama” and “ha-ma’avir sheina,” and therefore suggests that one hear these berakhot from someone who has slept.
The Mishna Berura (47:28) cites a debate among the Acharonim regarding the birkhot ha-Torah: the Chayei Adam, Peri Chadash, and Gra rule that one should not say the birkhot ha-Torah if one was awake all night, while the Magen Avraham and Eliya Rabba rule that one should say the berakhot. Ideally, one should try to hear the berakhot from another person who has slept, but if this is not possible, one may have in mind that the second blessing preceding the morning Keriat Shema (“Ahava Rabba” in Ashkenazi congregations and “Ahavat Olam” in the Sephardic tradition) should exempt him from birkhot ha-Torah. One should then study a verse or mishna after one’s tefilla (Mishna Berura 47:28).
Interestingly, the Mishna Berura (47:28) cites the opinion of R. Akiva Eiger, who offers a brilliant solution to this quandary. He suggests that if one engages in sheinat keva (significant slumber) the day before, one may then recite birkot ha-Torah the next morning, even if one remained awake all night. He argues that, “mi-ma nafshakh,” whichever opinion one follows, one would be so obligated – if the berakha is meant to be recited daily regardless of if one slept, one should always recite it on Shavuot morning, and if is considered a birkhat ha-mitzva, then it should be recited after any interruption, such as a long afternoon nap! Therefore, everyone would agree that one should recite birkhot ha-Torah in such a case.
Another well-known custom of Shavuot is to adorn the Beit Kenesset with greenery. Throughout the centuries, this custom developed in different ways, and numerous reasons were given for this practice. Some even expressed opposition to this practice.
It seems that this custom first developed in fifteenth-century Ashkenaz. R. Yaakov Moellin (1360-1427), known as the Maharil (Minhagim, Hilkhot Shavuot, 2; see also Sefer Ha-Minhagim of R. Isaac Tyrnau, Hagahot U-Minhagim, Chag Ha-Shavuot), records that it was customary to cover the floor of the Beit Kenesset with flowers, “le-simchat ha-regel” (for the joy of the Festival). While the Maharil speaks of adorning the Beit Kenesset, the Sefer Leket Yosher (vol. 1, p. 150) writes that his teacher, R. Yisrael Isserlin, author of the Terumat Ha-Deshen, put greenery on the floor of his home. It seems that the purpose of this early German custom was to beautify and refresh the Beit Kenesset, or even one’s house, in honor of the Festival. Indeed, these sources emphasize that “besamim,” pleasant smelling greenery, was placed on the floors.
Writing over a century later in Poland, R. Moshe Isserlis (1520–1572) offers a different reason (Rema 494:3): “It is customary to place greenery in the Beit Kenesset and the homes as a remembrance of the happiness of the giving of the Torah.” In what way does greenery remind us of the giving of the Torah? R. Mordekhai Yoffe (1530–1612) explains in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh (494), the Levush Malkhut, that the greenery reminds us of the plants that adorned Har Sinai, as the verse (Shemot 34:3) warns that “neither let the flocks nor herds should feed before that mount” – implying that the mountain was filled with plant life.
The Magen Avraham (494:5) offers a third reason. He records that is customary to place trees in the Beit Kenesset on Shavuot to remind us that the fruits of the trees are judged on Shavuot (Rosh Ha-shana 1:2) and that we should pray for them.
The Chayei Adam (131:13; see also Ma’ase Rav 196:2) records that the Vilna Gaon abolished the custom of putting trees in the Beit Kenesset, as it resembled the current custom of non-Jews. Despite the Gaon’s objections, however, it is common practice to adorn the Beit Kenesset with greenery for Shavuot, and the Acharonim offer several defenses of this practice.
These customs, and others, fill the day with content and meaning, consistent with notion that the Jewish people not only observe the Torah, but are partners in its transmission and development as well.