Shavu’ot and Its Relationship with Pesaḥ
There are four names for the festival of Shavu’ot:
Shavu’ot, as we read: “Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks (Ḥag Shavu’ot) for the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:10). The Harvest Festival (Ḥag Ha-katzir), as we read: “the Festival of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field” (Shemot 23:16). The Day of the First Fruits (Yom Ha-bikurim), as we read: “on the day of the first fruits, your Festival of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Bamidbar 28:26). The Gathering (Atzeret), the festival’s name in rabbinic literature.
We will begin by explaining its primary name – Shavu’ot.
The timing of Shavu’ot is unique. All other festivals have a defined date – Pesaḥ starts on the fifteenth of Nisan, Rosh Ha-shana on the first of Tishrei, Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishrei, and Sukkot on the fifteenth of Tishrei. However, Shavu’ot has no assigned date. Its date is dependent upon Sefirat Ha-omer. The omer offering was brought on the second day of Pesaḥ. From that day, we count seven weeks, for a total of 49 days. The following day (the fiftieth) is celebrated as Shavu’ot. Thus we read: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days, then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Vayikra 23:15-16). Similarly, we read: “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks for the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:9-10). True, nowadays Shavu’ot is always on the sixth of Sivan, but this is because we have a set calendar. In the past, when rabbinic courts were comprised of properly ordained judges (musmakhim), they would sanctify the new moon, determining Rosh Ḥodesh based on testimony as to the moon’s appearance. Under those circumstances, the festival was sometimes celebrated on the fifth or seventh of Sivan.
Accordingly, the timing of Shavu’ot depends upon the timing of Pesaḥ. The implication is that only by starting with Pesaḥ can we get to Shavu’ot and the giving of the Torah. Two interconnected principles were revealed on Pesaḥ – the Jewish people’s uniqueness, and simple faith (emuna peshuta). When God chose Israel as His special nation, smote the Egyptians, and led His nation to freedom, He demonstrated that there is a Creator Who runs the world. Jews have this simple faith. However, for this faith to reach its full expression and allow us to help the world progress toward redemption, we need the Torah as well, for it contains the values, commandments, and guidance necessary to perfect the world. This is the meaning of what we say in the berakhot on the Torah: “Who chose us from among all the nations” refers to Pesaḥ, while “and gave us His Torah” refers to Shavu’ot. Without the natural and basic Jewish faith revealed on Pesaḥ, it would be impossible to arrive at the deep and complex faith represented by Shavu’ot. Conversely, our natural faith and our uniqueness could not survive without the Torah given on Shavu’ot (see Peninei Halakha: Pesaḥ 1:1 and Zemanim 2:1-2).
God gave us the festivals of Pesaḥ and Shavu’ot so that we may relive the miraculous events of the Exodus, and to once again remind us of the uniqueness of the Jews and simple faith. These realizations allow us to use the time period of Sefirat Ha-omer to gradually ascend to the sacred day on which the Torah was given, when our faith becomes whole and complete. Each year we are able to rise higher and higher. Ultimately, the whole world will be filled with righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, and the land will be filled with the knowledge of God.
Preparation and Purification During Sefirat Ha-omer
The relationship between God and the Jewish people is compared to that of a bride and groom, as we read: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5). In a similar vein, we read: “Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Yirmiyahu 2:2). The Exodus from Egypt is considered an act of betrothal, because with it, God separated us from all the nations and sanctified us by making us His special nation. The day of the giving of the Torah is likened to a wedding day (Ta’anit 26b) because through the Torah our lives are intertwined with God.
The Sages explain that even after the Jews left Egypt they still could not receive the Torah, as during their enslavement they had descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity. Just as a menstruating woman needs to count seven days before she can immerse and purify herself, so too the Jews needed to count seven weeks in order to purify themselves from the impurity of Egypt and become fit to connect with God (based on Zohar, Emor, p. 97).
The number seven indicates the complete manifestation of something, as the world was created in seven days. Indeed, every physical entity has six sides – four lateral sides, a top, and a bottom – as well as a seventh aspect: its essence. Man has seven facets as well, which is why it takes seven days to go from a state of defilement to a state of purity. For seven days, one prepares every facet of selfhood to rise from the defilement to purity. The same is true of purification for sacred endeavors in this world, like eating teruma and sacrificial foods and a woman’s purification for her husband. However, receiving the divine Torah, whose lofty status belongs to the supernal worlds, requires a much deeper count: seven weeks instead of seven days. In this count, each of the seven numbers is manifested through all seven of its facets. Thus, our purification to receive the Torah is complete. Every aspect of our character undergoes refinement and expresses its yearning and anticipation for receiving the Torah. We were thus able to achieve the highest heights, beyond nature, and receive the divine Torah, through which we are able to perfect and elevate the world, bringing it closer to redemption.
Throughout those seven weeks, Israel eagerly awaited and anxiously anticipated receiving the Torah. A midrash relates that when Moshe announced to Israel that after leaving Egypt they would worship God at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, they asked him, “When will this take place?” Moshe answered, “After fifty days.” Then, due to their great love for God, they counted every day, saying, “One day has passed,” “two days have passed,” and so on, every day. Because of their love and anticipation for the Torah, it seemed like a long time to them (Shibolei Ha-leket §236). Because of this, their Torah endured, as the Sages state: “If one’s fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. If his wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure” (m. Avot 3:9).
The preparation and purification leading up to Shavu’ot are so important that they give it its primary name – Ḥag Ha-shavu’ot. As we read: “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks for the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:9-10). Similarly, we read: “You shall observe the Festival of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest” (Shemot 34:22).
Since preparation is so important, one should be careful not to begin Ma’ariv of Shavu’ot before tzeit ha-kokhavim, so that every bit of the seven-week preparation period may be utilized, and the preparation for receiving the Torah can be completed (MB 494:1).
The Time of the Giving of the Torah
From the time of creation, the earth was filled with trepidation, for “God made a condition with the works of creation, saying: ‘If the Jews accept the Torah, you will endure; if not, I will return you to primordial chaos’” (Shabbat 88a). This idea is also expressed in a midrash on the verse “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Bereishit 1:31). According to this midrash, the definite article “the” is prefixed to “sixth day” to teach us that the existence of the world depends upon a specific sixth day – the sixth day of Sivan, when the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah.
Actually, we were given the Torah on the fifty-first day of Sefirat Ha-omer. According to the Gemara, God originally commanded Moshe to tell the Jews to purify themselves for two days before the giving of the Torah on Friday. Moshe added a day, instructing the Jews to purify themselves for three days. God went along with Moshe and waited until Shabbat to reveal Himself on Mount Sinai (Shabbat 86b-87a). This remarkable account teaches us how important the Oral Torah is. It mediates between us and the exalted Written Torah; without the Oral Torah, the Written Torah could not have been revealed. Therefore, even the giving of the Torah itself was postponed for a day because of the Oral Torah, that is, the interpretation of Moshe Rabbeinu.
However, this would seem to present us with a difficulty. As Shulḥan Arukh (494:1) states, we refer to Shavu’ot as “Zeman matan Torateinu” (the season of the giving of our Torah). Why do we call it that if Shavu’ot is not actually the day the Torah was given? Shavu’ot takes place on the fiftieth day of the omer, while the Gemara above states that we received the Torah on the fifty-first day! The answer is that in truth, from the heavenly point of view, right after the completion of Sefirat Ha-omer the sacred day of the giving of the Torah arrived, and God blessed us with the Torah (in potential). It was only from the human point of view that we needed an additional day before we were capable of receiving it (in actuality). Nevertheless, for future generations, the giving of the Torah is commemorated on the day that God had originally ordained and sanctified, when the Torah was given to us in potentiality (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael ch. 27).
The names of the festivals reflect the agricultural seasons in which they take place. Thus we read: “Three times a year, you shall hold a festival for Me: You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Pesaḥ) – eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you – at the set time in the month of Aviv, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; the Festival of the Harvest (Shavu’ot), of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Festival of Ingathering (Sukkot) at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field” (Shemot 23:14-17). Pesaḥ is celebrated in the spring, when everything begins growing. Shavu’ot is celebrated at the completion of the harvest and the beginning of the fruit-picking. Sukkot is celebrated when all the year’s fruit has been gathered. The natural processes that take place in this world reflect the spiritual processes that take place in the supernal world. The festivals disclose the spiritual content of this world and elevate nature’s yearly cycle. Pesaḥ takes place during a season of new beginnings and renewal. Therefore, it is at this time that we left Egypt and became a nation. Shavu’ot takes place during a season when a process of growth has peaked. Therefore, it is at this time that we received the Torah. Sukkot takes place during a season of summation, when we manifest the privilege of living our lives in the shelter of God’s providence (above 1:2).
The holiday of Shavu’ot is also the day on which the fruits of the tree are judged (RH 16a), because the first of the fruits start to ripen at about this time. Various fruits continue to ripen over the course of the summer, up until around Sukkot. On Shavu’ot, God passes judgment on the crop of fruit and determines its quantity and quality.
Thus we see that Shavu’ot is a type of Rosh Ha-shana for plant life, both fruits and grains. As we just explained, Shavu’ot is the judgment day for fruits. Grains, the staple food of humanity, finish growing then: barley begins ripening around Pesaḥ time, and other grains continue to ripen until Shavu’ot, when the wheat crop matures. Accordingly, Shavu’ot is called the Harvest Festival.
Ezra ordained that we read the curses at the end of Vayikra just before Shavu’ot and the curses at the end of Devarim just before Rosh Ha-shana as an expression of hope that the current year’s curses have come to an end, leading people to repent in hopes of assuring a blessed new year (Megilla 31b). Nowadays, though, in practice, the curses are usually read two weeks before Shavu’ot and two weeks before Rosh Ha-shana, because we do not want to place these curses in such close proximity to the festivals (Tosafot ad loc.; R. Goren, Torat Ha-mo’adim, p. 437).
On the Harvest Festival, farmers harvest the fruits of their labor; they finish harvesting the grain and begin picking the fruit. Similarly, from a spiritual perspective, on Shavu’ot the Jewish people harvested the fruits of their ancestors’ labor and were privileged to receive the Torah. Two processes were brought to completion on Shavu’ot with the giving of the Torah: first, the lengthy process that began when our ancestors started to follow God’s ways, and which continued with the self-sacrifice of the generations enslaved in Egypt; second, the shorter process of spiritual growth during Sefirat Ha-omer.
Shavu’ot is also referred to as Yom Ha-bikurim, as we read: “On the day of the first fruits (yom ha-bikurim), your Festival of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not do any melakha of labor” (Bamidbar 28:26).
There are two meanings of bikurim on Shavu’ot. First, Shavu’ot was the time for the offering of shtei ha-leḥem (two loaves), which was referred to as bikurim (first fruits), because it was the first minḥa offering from the year’s new wheat. Following this offering, the Jews were permitted to bring further offerings from the new grain. Earlier, on Pesaḥ, the omer offering permitted Jews to eat from the year’s new grain, but not to bring sacrifices from it (m.Menaḥot 10:6). There is a unique law which pertains to the shtei ha-leḥem offering. Even though leaven was forbidden in the Temple all year long, these two loaves were leavened. Though they were not actually placed on the altar, they were eaten by the Kohanim (see section 7 below).
The second meaning of Yom Ha-bikurim is that with the shtei ha-leḥem offering, the time had arrived for the mitzva of bikurim. In Temple times, this mitzva was relevant to anyone with a field where any of the seven species grew. The farmer was required to take the first fruits to the Temple and present them to the Kohanim. When he saw the first of his grain or fruit begin to ripen in his field, he tied a ribbon around them and declared: “These are first fruits.” When they finished ripening, he prepared them to be brought to the Temple. All of the people from the periphery who were ascending to Jerusalem for the festival gathered together and slept in the streets of their town. When dawn broke, the appointed leader announced: “Let’s get up and go up to Zion, to the house of the Lord our God.” They traveled in a procession of decorated carriages, accompanied by music. When they got close to Jerusalem, they sent messengers ahead to inform the residents that they were about to enter the city. Important Kohanim and other dignitaries went out to greet them. When they passed through the streets of Jerusalem, workmen stopped working and greeted them: “Our brothers from such-and-such: welcome.” They then ascended to the Temple Mount, singing and dancing, with the baskets of bikurim on their shoulders. Each pilgrim presented his basket to a Kohen and proclaimed: “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us” (Devarim 26:3). The Kohen then took the basket and placed it before the altar. The pilgrim continued reciting the formula as written in the Torah, including the litany of travails that the Jews experienced from the beginning of their history until their redemption, and concluded: “The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me” (ibid. vv. 8-10). Together with offering bikurim, pilgrims generally also offered a celebratory shelamim (m.Bikurim 3:1-6).
The time to bring bikurim began with the shtei ha-leḥem on Shavu’ot and ended on Ḥanuka (m.Bikurim 1:3, 6). But the first fruits of the wheat and barley crops were brought on Shavu’ot, leading to its name of Yom Ha-bikurim.
In rabbinic literature, the festival of Shavu’ot is called Atzeret. At first glance, this is surprising. The Torah refers to the last day of Pesaḥ as Atzeret, and refers to the day following the seven days of Sukkot as Shemini Atzeret. Why did the Sages choose to ignore biblical precedent and refer to Shavu’ot as Atzeret?
Let us explore the meaning of the word. “Atzeret” is related to “atzara,” stopping. An Atzeret is a time when many people refrain (i.e., stop themselves) from doing other things, and gather together to celebrate. They then internalize and absorb the messages that the celebration is meant to convey. This helps us to understand why, at the conclusions of Pesaḥ and Sukkot, the Torah prescribes an additional Yom Tov. It is meant as a meaningful send-off for all the pilgrims celebrating near the Temple. It helped them internalize and hold on to their experiences during the holy festival. Even if one missed out on going to Jerusalem, he was required to stop working on the final day of Yom Tov. He needed to internalize all of his spiritual accomplishments and the joy he experienced during the festival, which would then strengthen and elevate him during all the upcoming weekdays.
There was no greater Atzeret in world history than the revelation at Sinai, when all Jews united to accept the Torah. Thus we read: “Israel encamped (va-yiḥan, in the singular) there in front of the mountain” (Shemot 19:2) – as one person with one heart (Rashi). All the other encampments are recorded in the plural, as in every community there are always arguments and disagreements. Only then and there, facing the mountain with the intention of accepting the Torah, were all united. This is the meaning of R. Akiva’s statement: “‘Love your fellow as you love yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18) is a vital principle of the Torah” (Sifra, Kedoshim). It is through the Torah that love and unity are revealed among the Jews, and it is through unity that the Torah is revealed. It was not only the Jews of that generation who were present at Sinai and accepted the Torah, but the souls of all Jews of all times, including those of all future converts. Acceptance of the Torah finally put an end to the defilement which had adhered to them as a result of the sin of Adam and Ḥava (see Shabbat 146a).
The Torah itself refers to the day of Matan Torah as Yom Ha-kahal (the day of assembly), meaning the time when the whole community gathered together, as we read: “the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you out of the fire on the day of the assembly” (Devarim 9:10; see ibid. 10:4 and 18:9).
Actually, the name Shavu’ot has something in common with the meaning of Atzeret, because it indicates summing up and pulling together all the spiritual achievements reached while counting the seven weeks. Since the omer count begins on Pesaḥ, Shavu’ot turns out to be the finale and conclusion of the process that begins with Pesaḥ.
We see that the Sages did not change anything by calling Shavu’ot Atzeret, as Shavu’ot is indeed a festival of gathering and summing up. The Torah’s preference for the name Shavu’ot emphasizes the preparations the Jews underwent before Matan Torah. In contrast, the Sages’ preference for the name Atzeret emphasizes the Jews’ gathering together to absorb the divine overflow that God grants us at the conclusion of the omer period.
Extra Joy – Spiritual and Physical
The joy on Shavu’ot is intense and unique. Therefore, as we saw above (1:6), even R. Eliezer concedes that on Shavu’ot one must have a festive meal, because this is the day on which the Torah was given. This is despite the fact that when it comes to other festivals, he is of the opinion that people who are capable of dedicating the day to studying Torah should do so, eating something only so that they will not suffer (Pesaḥim 68b). Since the Torah’s purpose is to perfect the physical world as well as the spiritual world, the joy with which we celebrate receiving the Torah must manifest itself not only spiritually but also physically, through eating and drinking. When improving the world includes both body and soul, it shows that nothing is cut off or removed from God. There are deep insights that are hidden within the sensate body and that can be understood only when the body and the soul coalesce. Therefore, true closeness with God involves both body and soul. Similarly, in the future, when the dead are resurrected, the soul will once again be embodied so that its divinity will be fully revealed at all levels (Shlah, Masekhet Shavu’ot, Ner Mitzvah §9 and Torah Or §19).
Similarly, the Gemara tells a story about a pious person who fasted every day but three: Shavu’ot, Purim, and the day before Yom Kippur. It continues that R. Yosef instructed his household to prepare a particularly choice meal for Shavu’ot, explaining that he was able to reach his remarkable spiritual level only in the merit of the Torah. Therefore, it was appropriate for him to be especially happy on Shavu’ot (Pesaḥim 68b).
Accordingly, we must make extra efforts to maximize our enjoyment of Shavu’ot, as Torah perfects even the physical aspects of life. The special Shavu’ot offering, the shtei ha-leḥem, which was made from ḥametz, alludes to this idea. As we know, ḥametz alludes to arrogance and the evil impulse; the Torah is a remedy for the evil impulse, and so we symbolically sacrifice it on Shavu’ot. Our Sages proclaim that Torah is “an elixir of life” that can transform every potential threat into something positive. Thus the Gemara describes God as saying to the Jews: “My children, I created the evil inclination and I created the Torah as an antidote (tavlin). If you occupy yourselves with Torah, you will escape the clutches of the evil inclination” (Kiddushin 30b). The use of the word “tavlin” (which literally means “spice”) teaches us that the Torah does not negate the evil inclination, but “seasons” it, sublimating it into something positive. The custom on Shavu’ot of eating dairy and honey (in addition to other more usual Yom Tov fare) can be interpreted similarly. These foods, which originate in something impure (as explained below in section 14), are transformed into something pure and tasty. In this, they express the special properties of the Torah.
Shavu’ot Night Learning
Many joyfully study Torah all night long on Shavu’ot. The reason for this custom is explained in the Zohar: “The early pious ones did not sleep that night, but would busy themselves with Torah…thus when the rabbis gathered at the home of R. Shimon b. Yoḥai on Shavu’ot night, he said: ‘Let us fix the bride’s jewelry so that tomorrow she will be properly adorned before the king.’ Fortunate is the lot of the learned, when the king asks the queen: ‘Who fixed your jewelry and burnished your crown?’ There is no one in the world who knows how to fix the bride’s jewelry other than the scholars; fortunate is their lot in this world and the next” (vol. 3, 98a). Elsewhere the Zohar recounts that R. Shimon and all the rabbis were joyfully studying Torah on Shavu’ot night. Each of them shared original insights, and R. Shimon rejoiced along with them. R. Shimon said to them: “My children, fortunate is your lot. Tomorrow the bride will enter the wedding canopy and only you will accompany her. All those now preparing the bride and sharing her joy will be written in the Book of Remembrance. God will bless them with the 70 blessings and crowns of the supernal world” (vol. 1, 8a).
In order to understand the Zohar, we should clarify that the day of Matan Torah is referred to as a wedding day. It is then that God and the Jewish people formed a special relationship, as do a bride and groom when they get married (Ta’anit 26b). Each year on Shavu’ot, Matan Torah is revisited, and the Jewish people once again renew their relationship with God as if they were bride and groom. According to the kabbalists, studying Torah on Shavu’ot night prepares the Jewish people to receive the Torah in the most delightful way. When the morning arrives, they ascend toward God, deepening and intensifying their connection with Him. As a result, they merit an abundance of Torah, life, and blessing throughout the year.
The holy Arizal said that if one studies Torah all night long on Shavu’ot without sleeping at all, he is guaranteed to live out the year, and is protected from harm all year long, for all of human life hinges on the Torah.
Another explanation is offered for this custom. On the day when the Jews received the Torah, they overslept. Moshe our teacher had to wake them up to receive the Torah, as we read: “Moshe led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17). This was a failure on the part of the people. They neither prepared themselves properly for Matan Torah, nor experienced the appropriate anticipation (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 1:56). In order to make up for this sin, we study Torah all night on Shavu’ot, as we long for and anticipate the light of Matan Torah, which is revealed anew each year on Shavu’ot (MA §494).
At first, only the pious few would stay up and study Torah all night. Around 400 years ago, thanks to the Arizal’s statement above, the custom to stay up studying all night started to spread and became widely observed. The kabbalists emphatically insisted that those who stay up all night must dedicate the time to intensive Torah study, and not waste time on frivolous matters (Ben Ish Ḥai, Year 1, Bamidbar §3).
In any case, following this custom is not obligatory. If it is difficult for one to stay up all night studying Torah, he may go to sleep. Even some great rabbis preferred to sleep on Shavu’ot night. They evaluated the situation and decided that if they remained awake all night, the loss would outweigh the gain: they would not be able to focus properly on praying in the morning, or they would not be alert enough at night to learn productively, or they would need to catch up on their sleep later on and learn less Torah, or they would not be able to enjoy the rest of the festival properly on account of exhaustion.
On the other hand, those who do stay up all night feel that even if their Torah study is not of the highest caliber, and it is difficult to focus on the morning prayers, this holy custom gives expression to love of God and love of Torah. It has the special advantage of showing dedication to God’s glory. Such dedication enhances the glory of the Jewish people as well. Each person should choose the practice that will allow him to serve God best.
What to Study
There are two customs regarding what material to study on Shavu’ot night, both of which are perfectly fine. The first custom is the one established by the kabbalists and called Tikun Leil Shavu’ot. According to this custom, one recites the first three and last three verses of every parsha in the Torah. Sections particularly relevant to the festival, such as those that describe Matan Torah and the Ten Commandments, are recited in their entirety. After the Torah verses, the first and last three verses of each book of the Prophets and the Writings are recited. Afterward, the first and last mishna of every tractate is recited, though some do not recite mishnayot. Afterward all 613 mitzvot are enumerated, followed by midrashim about the giving of the Torah. This is followed by Idra Rabba and other Zohar passages. In addition to those who always follow kabbalistic customs, other communities have adopted this routine as well, and it was the custom of the Vilna Gaon, Ḥatam Sofer, and R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (Aderet). Some maintain that this order of study should be done with a minyan (Shlah; Ḥida).
The second custom is that each person should learn whatever he wants, as the Sages state: “A person best learns the area of Torah that his heart desires” (AZ 19b). Many yeshiva students study Gemara, as they do during most of their study time. Others choose to study texts related to the value of Torah or the sanctity of the day. It is told that the author of Terumat Ha-deshen, Rabbi Israel Isserlein (who lived about 600 years ago) studied Smak (Sefer Mitzvot Katan) and sometimes Rambam’s Laws of Talmud Torah. Some prefer to study Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot. Our master Rav Kook would give a lengthy class on Shavu’ot night based on Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot. Others choose to study topics of interest to them so that they will find it easier to concentrate despite their exhaustion.
Birkhot Ha-shaḥar and Other Laws for Those Who Remain Awake All Night
Even one who did not sleep at night recites the morning berakhot (Birkhot Ha-shaḥar). Since they are meant to express our thanks for all the good that we experience daily, they are recited even by one who does not benefit personally from something specific they mention (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 9:3). Nevertheless, there are a few specific berakhot whose recitation is subject to dispute in these circumstances.
All agree that one must perform netilat yadayim before praying Shaḥarit, but there is disagreement as to whether the berakha is recited over it. According to Ashkenazim, the best way to handle this is to go to the bathroom before praying, and touch some part of the body which is normally covered and can be assumed to have become sweaty. Doing so obligates him to wash his hands with a berakha. However, according to Sephardim, even in such a case he should not recite a berakha over the washing (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 8:1 n. 1).
In terms of Birkhot Ha-Torah, all agree that one who slept for at least half an hour during the day, prior to the night, recites the berakhot in the morning. According to the vast majority of poskim, one who did not sleep at all still recites the berakhot. However, since there are a few poskim who feel he should not recite them, le-khatḥila it is best for him to hear the berakhot recited by one who did sleep. Both people should have in mind that the reciter is fulfilling the obligation of the listener (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 10:7).
Some maintain that only one who slept may recite the berakhot of Elokai Neshama and Ha-ma’avir Sheina. Therefore, it is preferable for one who did not sleep at all to hear them from a friend who did sleep and who will have him in mind. If there is no one present to recite the berakhot for him, according to most poskim he should recite them himself. This is the custom of Sephardim and some Ashkenazim. Other Ashkenazim recite these berakhot without the name of God, due to the uncertainty. If an Ashkenazic Jew does not know what his custom is, he may follow the majority practice and recite the berakhot himself.
To summarize: The custom of most communities is that those who stay awake all night recite Birkhot Ha-shaḥar and Birkhot Ha-Torah. Those who are meticulous make sure to listen to Birkhot Ha-Torah, Elokai Neshama, and Ha-ma’avir Sheina from one who slept, if at all possible (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 9:6).
As far as the timing, halakha mandates that these berakhot be recited in proximity to Shaḥarit. According to Kabbala, the custom is to say Birkhot Ha-shaḥar after midnight and Birkhot Ha-Torah after dawn (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 46:49; see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 9:5 n. 4).
During the night, one may eat and drink as much as he likes. Once dawn (alot ha-shaḥar) has arrived, he may not eat or drink even coffee or juice. One who had begun eating or drinking before dawn must stop. Water is the only beverage that may be drunk after dawn. In the half-hour before dawn, one may not sit down to a meal, lest it extend past dawn. Included in this prohibition is eating bread or cake that is more than the volume of an egg. However, one may snack on anything, including fruits, vegetables, and grain-based cooked (as opposed to baked, which are considered cakes or bread) dishes (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 12:8).
Those who are up all night should begin Pesukei De-zimra 30 or 40 minutes before sunrise, so that they will reach the Amida at sunrise. Praying at this time is known as praying ke-vatikin, and is considered ideal (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 11:1-2, 5-6).
Reading the Ten Commandments from the Torah and Whether to Stand
Our Sages ordained that the Torah reading on Shavu’ot be about the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The haftara is from the beginning of Yeḥezkel, where the heavenly chariot is described (Megilla 31a; SA 494:1). As on all festivals, there are five aliyot (Megilla 21a). The original rule was to take out only one Torah scroll from the ark, and the maftir was one of the five people called up to read from it. However, the Ge’onim record the custom of taking out two Torah scrolls. Five people read from the first scroll, as described in the Mishna, and then maftir is read from the second scroll. The maftir is from Bamidbar and describes the festival offerings. According to the Gemara (Megilla 31a), the rationale behind this is that “God said: ‘For when the Temple no longer exists, I established [the texts about] the sacrificial order. Whenever the Jews read them, I consider it as if they offered the sacrifices, and forgive all their sins’” (Rosh; Ran; Beit Yosef 488:3; see above 2:8 n. 8).
Our Sages tell us that the Torah reading on Shavu’ot describing Matan Torah is especially important. “God said to the Jews: ‘My children, read this portion every year, and I will consider it as if you are standing before Sinai and receiving the Torah’” (Pesikta De-Rav Kahana §12).
On account of this, the custom on Shavu’ot is to read the Ten Commandments with the festive (“upper”) cantillation (ta’am elyon). When reading with the usual cantillation, one pauses at the end of each verse; when reading with the festive cantillation, one pauses at the end of each commandment. For example, the commandment to remember the Sabbath day extends over four verses, but it is read as one long verse with the festive cantillation. Likewise, there is a single verse that contains four commandments: “Do not murder,” “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not steal,” and “Do not bear false witness.” Normally they are read as one verse, but in the festive cantillation they are read as if they are four separate verses. This different division of verses affects the cantillation of so many words that a slightly different tune was established for reading according to this division (BHL 494:3). All agree that on Shavu’ot, the Ten Commandments are read with the ta’am elyon. Although there used to be various customs as to how to read them during the year in the normal cycle of Torah readings, nowadays at all public Torah readings it is standard to read the Ten Commandments with the festive cantillation.
Many stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, as a remembrance of the awesome and magnificent event it describes. Listening to a public reading of the Ten Commandments is considered to be greeting the Divine Presence. The custom of standing is first mentioned in the time of the Rishonim about 800 years ago, but has become widespread only in the last 200 years or so. All Ashkenazim and some Sephardim follow this custom. Some object to it, because the Sages of the Gemara chose not to require the daily recitation of the Ten Commandments together with the Shema. They felt that this way, people would be less likely to be led astray by the heretical claim that it is sufficient to keep the Ten Commandments alone and disregard the rest of the mitzvot (Berakhot 12a). For the same reason, some object to standing for the Ten Commandments. Nevertheless, most poskim are not concerned about this. After all, the people stood at Sinai. They feel that the Sages were concerned only that the daily recitation of the Ten Commandments might lead people astray. Additionally, nowadays it is unusual to find heretics who argue that the Ten Commandments are the only obligatory mitzvot.
It is customary to read the Book of Rut on Shavu’ot. According to the Midrash, this is “to teach you that the Torah is acquired only through poverty and suffering…. The Torah asked of God: ‘Master of the universe, throw my lot in with the poor, for if the wealthy study me, they will become arrogant, while poor people who study me are aware that they are lowly and hungry’” (Yalkut Shimoni, Rut, §596). In this megilla we see the fulfillment of the mishnaic proclamation: “Anyone who keeps the Torah while poor will eventually keep it while rich, while anyone who ignores the Torah while rich will ultimately ignore it while poor” (Pirkei Avot 4:9). Ruth lived long enough to see her descendants David and Shlomo sitting on the throne.
A second reason for reading this megilla on Shavu’ot is that Israel’s acceptance of the Torah at Sinai was in effect their conversion to Judaism. Rut’s conversion, as portrayed in the megilla, can be seen as a continuation of that event (Abudraham). A third reason is that it was on Shavu’ot that King David died. The Book of Rut deals with his lineage, as we read at its end: “And Yishai begot David” (Birkei Yosef 494:11). A fourth reason is that “This scroll contains neither laws about purity and impurity, nor laws about what is permitted and prohibited. Why then was it written? To teach how great the reward is for performing acts of kindness” (Rut Rabba 2:14). Encouraging kindness is the primary purpose of Torah, as we read: “The Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness” (Sota 14a). This is also expressed by R. Akiva’s declaration: “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ is a vital principle of the Torah” (Sifra, Kedoshim).
As we saw above (2:10), some Ashkenazim read from a megilla written on parchment, reciting the berakhot of “al mikra megilla” and She-heḥeyanu beforehand. This is the custom of the Vilna Gaon’s followers. The custom of most Ashkenazim and all Sephardim is not to recite a berakha before reading. They also do not insist on reading from parchment.
In Ashkenazic countries, the custom was to read the megilla at Shaḥarit before the Torah reading on Yom Tov Sheni. However, if necessary it may be read at another time. Therefore, in Eretz Yisrael, some of those who stay up all night read the megilla before Shaḥarit, or after Minḥa so they will be able to concentrate on it better.
Sephardim and Yemenites generally read Megillat Rut before Minḥa. If they have already read it during their Shavu’ot night learning, it is not necessary to read it again before Minḥa.
Decorating the Synagogue
Many decorate the synagogue with pretty, fragrant branches and plants, in honor of the Torah that was given on Shavu’ot. Since Torah adds life, it is customary to decorate the synagogue with plants or branches, which symbolize life. This custom also reminds us that at the time of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai was covered by plants to honor the Torah (Levush). Some use fragrant branches in order to increase joy and pleasure, and to represent the exquisite spirituality of the Torah: “With every statement that issued forth from God’s mouth, the entire world filled with fragrance” (Shabbat 88b). Some use tree branches, because God passes judgment on fruit trees on Shavu’ot. By seeing branches in the synagogue, people will remember to pray for the trees (MA 494:5). However, branches from fruit trees should not be used, as they should not be broken off without a good reason.
This custom began in Germany around 600 years ago (Maharil; Rema 494:3). From there it spread to most Jewish communities, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The Vilna Gaon opposed the custom, because he felt it was similar to gentile practices. Christians decorated their homes with branches before their holiday (Pentecost), and the Torah commands us not to imitate their practices. Thus we read: “nor shall you follow their laws” (Vayikra 18:3). Some rule in accordance with the Vilna Gaon (Ḥayei Adam 131:13).
Nevertheless, most poskim maintain that there is no problem with the custom. The prohibition of following the gentiles applies only when either the custom is immodest in some way, or it is meaningless and pointless (and is done only to imitate non-Jewish practice, which can be assumed to be based on false beliefs). In contrast, in this case there are good reasons for the custom, and there is no concern that it looks like following non-Jewish ways. Accordingly, most Jewish communities do decorate the synagogue with pretty, fragrant branches and plants. Some decorate their homes as well with branches and flowers (Rema 494:3).
Since the branches are for decoration, they are not muktzeh. However, if Shavu’ot is on a Sunday, the branches should not be set out on Shabbat. Doing so would be preparing on Shabbat for Yom Tov, which is prohibited (MB 494:9).
The custom to eat dairy and honey on Shavu’ot is a custom that goes back over 600 years, to the time of the Rishonim. The custom originated in France and Germany, and spread from there to many Jewish communities. However, it is not universal. Many from Libya, Djerba, Bukhara, Iran, and Yemen do not follow it.
A number of reasons are given for this custom. Some say that it is because the Torah is compared to milk and honey (Devarim Rabba 7:3), as we read: “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (Shir Ha-shirim 4:11). According to another midrash, when the Jews stood at Sinai and said, “All the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do” (Shemot 24:7), God responded with the verse: “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (TanḥumaBuber, Ki Tisa §9). The idea is that since the Jews agreed to accept the Torah unconditionally, they would find the Torah’s words as sweet as honey and milk. Accordingly, to remind us of the Torah’s sweetness and preciousness, there is a custom to eat dairy cakes that are tasty and sweet, as well as foods sweetened with honey (Orḥot Ḥayim; Pri Ḥadash).
Rav Kook presents a second explanation. Both milk and honey are foods which originate in something “impure” (not kosher). Honey is produced by bees, while milk is formed from blood. Because these foods involve the transformation of impure to pure and thus symbolize repairing the world, they have a special taste. Foods which symbolize transformation are appropriate to eat on the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, as the Torah has transformative power. It repairs what is wrong with the world, and “flavors” the evil inclination, transforming it into a positive force. Eretz Yisrael also possesses this power, which is why it is referred to as a land flowing with milk and honey.
A third suggested reason for the custom is that as a result of a Yom Tov menu including dairy foods, people have to prepare two challahs – one to be eaten with dairy and the second with meat. This hints at the offering of the shtei ha-leḥem on Shavu’ot (Rema 494:3). It has been further suggested that the custom imitates the behavior of our ancestors when the Torah was given. Right after they had received so many laws about preparing meat for consumption – including how to slaughter animals, how to check the slaughtering knife, how to salt the meat and more – they preferred to eat dairy. Dairy foods were easily prepared, requiring little work. To commemorate this, we too eat dairy on Shavu’ot (MB 494:12). However, since there is also a mitzva to be joyful on the festival, we eat meat then as well. We must be careful to separate between the two. By doing so, we demonstrate that we cherish the laws of the Torah.
Many have a custom to eat both milk and meat at the same meal. Some do this at the daytime meal, while many do it at night. They begin with dairy food. Afterward, they must brush their teeth or eat bread, an apple, or any other hard food, and then rinse out their mouths to wash away any milk residue. Then the tablecloth is changed, the table is reset, and meat is served. Obviously, the order cannot be switched, because if people begin with meat, they would need to wait six hours before having dairy.
Another variation practiced by many who stay up all night is to make kiddush after Shaḥarit in the morning, eat dairy cakes, and then go to sleep. After they wake up, they have a meat meal. Of utmost importance is the mitzva of simḥa; all these customs are meant to add joy to the holiday and honor to the Torah.
The Six Days Following Shavu’ot
When the Temple stood, there was a mitzva to make a pilgrimage three times a year, once on each festival, and to offer an ola and shelamim on the first day of the festival. These offerings were referred to as olat re’iya and shalmei ḥagiga. One who did not offer them on the first day could fulfill his obligation to do so up through the conclusion of the festival, meaning the seventh day of Pesaḥ or until Shemini Atzeret (Ḥagiga 9a). One who did not offer them on Shavu’ot could offer them in the following six days. Just as one had seven days to bring the ola and shelamim for Pesaḥ, so too one had a week to bring them for Shavu’ot (Ḥagiga 17a).
Since these festival sacrifices may be offered during the six days following Shavu’ot, an element of festival joy continues as well. Therefore, the custom is not to say Taḥanun during that time (MA; MB 131:37).
On the day after Shavu’ot, known as Isru Ḥag, fasting and eulogizing are prohibited. This is because it is “a day of slaughter,” meaning a day when sacrifices are sometimes brought. Specifically, when Shavu’ot was on Shabbat, the olat re’iya and shalmei ḥagiga would be postponed until Sunday, which was Isru Ḥag. Additionally, even when Shavu’ot was not on Shabbat, there were always many people who did not get a chance to offer all their sacrifices on the festival. What they did not manage to offer on Shavu’ot, they would offer the next day. A day on which sacrifices are offered is considered a day of simḥa. Therefore, one may not fast then (SA 494:3; Levush; MA ad loc. 3; SAH ad loc. 19; see above 2:13).