The Festival of Shavuot, which begins after Shabbat this Saturday night – we begin a new book of the Torah with parashat BaMidbar on Shabbat morning – is one of the Shalosh Regalim, one of the three main pilgrimage festivals. It comes at the end of the seven-times-seven (a “week of weeks”) cycle of the Omer, which began on the second day of Pesach. The name “Shavuot” itself means “weeks”.
The Festival of Shavuot is something of an oddity. Not only is it not assigned to a specific date, but there is no real explanation given in the Torah as to the meaning of the day. In Biblical times, the period of counting seven weeks marked the transition from the first grain crop (barley) of early spring (at Pesach) to the beginning of the summer grain (wheat) harvest (at Shavuot). Thus, names for this holiday – in addition to “Shavuot” – given in the Torah are Chag Ha-Katzir – the Festival of the Harvest – and Chag Ha-Bikkurim – the Festival of the First Fruits [Exodus 23:14-19; Leviticus 23:9-22].
Just as Pesach and Sukkot both have historical associations though, so too does Shavuot: Pesach commemorates our liberation from Egyptian bondage and Sukkot recalls our ancestors’ experience of dwelling in sukkot while wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Our ancestors found themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai 50 days after leaving Egypt – exactly on Shavuot!- receiving the revelation of God’s teachings about what to do with their new-found freedom.
Our tradition therefore also refers to Shavuot as Z’man Matan Torateinu – The Time of the Giving of our Torah. As the anniversary of revelation, Shavuot evolved into a celebration of Torah. In the synagogue, the account of the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are read as part of the service.
A popular custom, which originated with the Jewish mystics in Safed in the sixteenth century, is the practice of staying up all through the night of Shavuot studying Torah. This practice, called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot is based on a Midrashic legend that the Israelites slept late on the morning of the revelation at Sinai, and thus almost missed the giving of Torah. Apparently, God had to sound a shofar blast and bring thunder and lightning to wake them up! Another explanation is that receiving the Torah at Sinai was like a marriage between God and the Jewish people – with Moses as matchmaker and the Torah as the ketubah marriage certificate. Like an anxious bride or groom, we have trouble falling asleep the night before our wedding! By staying up all night, we atone for the lapse of our ancestors and demonstrate our eagerness to recommit ourselves again to Torah, and we symbolically prepare ourselves as we learn Torah to review the highlights of our sacred relationship.