At sundown on Saturday, May 23, the holiday of Shavuot begins. Also known as the Festival of Weeks, it marks the completion of the counting of the Omer period — which is 49 days long, or seven weeks of seven days.
Shavuot is one of the Jewish calendar’s pilgrimage holidays, or Shalosh Regalim. But unlike the other two pilgrimage festivals — Passover, marked through the retelling of the Exodus story at the seder, and Sukkot, celebrated by building a sukkah outside one’s home — no definitive ritual is associated with Shavuot in the text of the Torah. As such, many Jews struggle to connect with the holiday.
Despite its undefined nature, Shavuot “is a gift of a holiday,” says Roberta Miller, a teacher at Chicago Land Jewish Day School in Chicago. “It’s when we got the Ten Commandments, God’s greatest present to the Jewish people.”
Here are seven ways to infuse more meaning and tradition into the holiday:
It is traditional on Shavuot to eat dairy foods. Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, says some believe this is because the Scripture compares Torah to “honey and milk … under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation: When the Israelites received the Torah for the first time, they learned the kosher dietary laws and didn’t immediately have time to prepare kosher meat, so they ate dairy instead.
Baking and consuming dairy foods can differentiate Shavuot from other holidays, Miller says. Her children associate cheesecake with Shavuot, she says. For her family, Shavuot also heralds the first ice cream cake of the season, and that knowledge builds anticipation for the holiday.
Games are a great way to educate young children about the messages of Shavuot, says Miller. She suggests counting games. “You can count up to 49 of anything: 49 ways Mommy loves you, 49 things you are grateful for.”
For slightly older children, Miller offers a “Jewish commandments” version of Pictionary, in which before the holiday children draw their favorite commandment on a notecard. The cards are mixed up and put into a bag. Then the family gets together, members draw picture cards, and someone acts out each commandment while participants guess which commandment it is and why it is important.
On the second day of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of the first Jew by choice. It is also a story of welcoming the stranger and inclusivity, says Frisch.
Shavuot is the perfect holiday for inviting new friends over for a meal, or for opening one’s home to people who are interested in learning more about Jewish traditions, she adds.
4. Jewish learning
Many Jews stay up all night on the first night of the holiday to study Torah at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot — a night of Jewish learning. Others might want to host their own communal night of learning, Frisch says..
For people who live in small communities without a formal Shavuot learning event, there are multiple online sources that can be used to organize a grassroots evening of learning at an individual’s home, Frisch adds.
5. King David birthday party
Tradition has it that King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, was born and died on Shavuot. Miller suggests holding a King David birthday party featuring decorations, cake, ice cream and gifts. “Use it as a learning tool,” she says, noting how the party can springboard into a historical discussion.
On Shavuot, it is customary to decorate our homes and synagogues with flowers and plants. Ruthie Kaplan, a former Hebrew school teacher who lives in Jerusalem, calls it “the perfect time” to connect with nature and appreciate the beauty of the world that God created for us.
7. Setting goals
A deeper reading of the Book of Ruth at Shavuot can prompt the setting of new goals and resolutions, according to Kaplan.
“The story of Ruth really comes to life on Shavuot,” Kaplan says. “Ruth is open to the truth and therefore she sees it and she is willing to be honest with herself. For anyone searching and struggling, Ruth is a good role model for life.”