Shavuot, one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover and Sukkot), will take place this year between sunset on Saturday, May 19, and nightfall on Sunday, May 20. The Government Press Office would like to offer the following as a brief summary.
Shavuot is a legal holiday. There will be no public transportation; schools, shops and offices will be closed; and newspapers will not be published.
Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; Judaism’s most basic scripture) at Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Indeed, Shavuot literally means “weeks” and is celebrated exactly seven weeks after the first day of Passover, which marks the exodus itself.
The celebration of Shavuot is specified in Exodus 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16:10. On Saturday night, May 19, after festive evening prayers and a festive meal, many people will follow the custom of staying awake all night and studying religious texts, and then saying morning prayers at the earliest permitted time – thus expressing the enthusiasm of the Jewish people to receive the Torah. Most synagogues and yeshivot will organize special classes and lectures throughout the night of Shavuot. In Jerusalem, there is a widespread custom of going to the Western Wall – which will be exceptionally crowded – for Shavuot morning (Sunday) prayers, often accompanied by dancing and singing.
The Shavuot morning prayers are marked by special hymns and scriptural readings, including the Book of Ruth. Special memorial prayers for the departed are also said. Some communities maintain the custom of decorating their synagogues with green plants and flowers; this is in keeping with traditions that Mt. Sinai was a green mountain and that Shavuot is a day of judgment for fruit trees. On Shavuot, some hold the custom of eating dairy dishes; there are many explanations for this custom.
In ancient times, Shavuot marked the end of the barley harvest, and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Jewish farmers brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), where special offerings were brought (Numbers 28:26-31). In honor of Shavuot’s status as the “Day of First Fruits” and the “Harvest Festival” (as it is referred to in Numbers 28:26 and Exodus 23:16, respectively), many kibbutzim and moshavim also organize special celebrations revolving around these themes, including ceremonies in which new produce from the kibbutz or moshav is highlighted.
Shavuot in Film
Following are clips from ten films (courtesy of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive) that depict the various ways in which Shavuot has been celebrated:
Jerusalem Online 21/93 (1993) – Rabbi David Hartman speaks about the spiritual significance of Shavuot (from 4:48 min.)
Sofer Stam (1981) – An in-depth look at the work of the Torah Scribe, in French.
Israel Journey (1950s) – An extremely rare close up view of an ancient 1800 year old Torah Scroll belonging to the Zinati family of Pekiin. They are the only Jewish family acclaimed never to have left the Land of Israel (from 11:55 min.)
Palestine in Song and Dance (1931) – Ceremony celebrating the bringing of first fruits for kindergarten and school children in Tel Aviv (from the beginning of the film).
Hadassim: A Children’s Village (1950s) – Film documenting life on a youth village in the Sharon region. Scenes of the bringing first fruit ceremony from 12:21 min.
First Steps (1953) – Film summarizing Israel’s achievements on its fifth anniversary. Ends with a first fruits parade (from 26:53 min.)
Youth at the Crossroads (1980s) – Film about centers for youth in distress, including a first fruits parade (from 15:32 min.)
Omer Dancing at Ramat Yohanan (1950s) – On the eve of Shavuot, Jews finish counting the Omer, which began on Passover. This film beautifully illustrates the bringing of the “omer”, a measure of barley which was offered in the Temple. This ceremony was adapted by agricultural settlements in modern Israel.
Songs of Israel: Harvest in the Galilee (1952) – Shavuot is also called the Harvest Festival because it occurs during the wheat harvest season in Israel. This film shows scenes of reapers singing while working in the fields (from 11:48 min.)
This Is the Land (1935) – Depicts renewed settlement in the Land of Israel. The last scenes of the film, wonderfully illustrate the abundant harvest and climaxes in a group of young pioneers dancing in the fields to celebrate a successful harvest (from 53:43 min.)