The festival of Shavuot is known as one of the three regalim, pilgrimage festivals. Shavuot falls 49 days after the Exodus of Egypt which is why we count through Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, 49 days. Traditionally it is thought that Shavuot marks the time that the Israelites received Torah at Sinai. So why have we been counting the Omer, the wheat? Shavuot also marks the wheat harvest in Israel and when the first fruits would have been brought to the Temple. On Shavuot we eat dairy products with cheesecake being a particular crowd favourite. There are a few explanations as to where this custom came from. I’ll share three of the reasons here. Firstly, a play on words and numbers. Supposedly, the numerical value of the word chalav (milk) is 40. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving Torah therefore we enjoy food with Chalav that comes to represent revelation. Secondly, dairy represents sustenance just as babies need milk to grow so too the Jews need Torah to sustain them. Finally, it is said that we eat dairy to commemorate the two loaves of bread that were brought as an offering to the Temple. Two loaves of bread represented by two meals, one dairy then one meat, instead of the traditional singular meat meal eaten on other festivals.
As well as gouging ourselves on delicious cheesecake one of my favourite Shavuot customs is to study all night until morning shacharit. As Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, even today people flock to Jerusalem and study all night before walking to the Kotel for sunrise shacharit (morning prayers). When I spent time living in Israel, I would always love going to the Kotel for moving prayers on Shavuot. The place is packed with tens of thousands of people who have been filling themselves with Torah all night. It is incredible to see and in the past decade since the egalitarian platform has existed, it is even possible to pray together with hundreds of progressive Jews instead of having to watch from a distance. With all night Torah learning and a custom to eat cheesecake, Shavuot is one of my favourite festivals. It will be wonderful this year to join our three Mosaic communities together to pray and study, not quite all night and hopefully we’ll be able to create an all night study and pilgrimage to, Stanmore in future years.
For further details of Mosaic’s Shavuot celebrations, please see the newsletter below.