By Jessica Herrmann, Director of Service Jewish Learning, and Shula Ornstein, Midwest Community Manager

What is Shavuot? 

Shavuot is the celebration that occurs 50 days after the 2nd day of Passover. Originally, it was a wheat harvest festival, but it is also a celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai! It’s a time to welcome the spring season, learn Torah, discuss revelation (you know, #casualstuff). This year Shavuot begins at sundown on Sunday, May 16th, and ends at nightfall on Tuesday, May 18th.

What are some traditions connected with Shavuot/ways to celebrate?

  • Eat dairy 
      • In the words of Rabbi Loren, “75% of Jewish people are lactose intolerant, so why eat cheesecake?” Turns out there are many varying opinions (no surprise there) including: 
        • The Jewish people were just given the Torah and since the Torah is “Like honey and milk under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), we eat dairy. 
        • The mystical reason- the gematria value of the Hebrew word for milk- חלב chalav is 40.  Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, so we eat dairy in honor of those 40 days.
        • The Torah was given to the Jewish people on Shabbat, and it included new laws of kashrut and animal slaughter. Since it was Shabbat, the Jewish People could not make their pots kosher to prepare meat, hence the dairy.  
      • It is traditional for Jewish people to stay up all night studying Torah on Shavuot. The Midrash teaches that the Israelites overslept the day the Torah was due to arrive (the clouds must have caused their sundials to be delayed) and they had to be awoken by G-d’s alarm clock, a shofar blast. To make up for sleeping in, the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, declared that on Shavuot no one will sleep; the Jewish people will stay up all night studying Torah. 
    • The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because of the many parallel connections: the theme of chesed-kindness, the Torah being open to all, and the wheat harvest.

Program Ideas

Shavuot is ripe (get it?) with events and activities for your community. Here are a few ideas:

  • Learning how to make cheesecake or blintzes or any dairy heavy food 
      • Hire a local chef or a talented community member to teach the class 
      • Have your community members sign up to get ingredients and make it together on zoom 
      • Take this program up a notch and incorporate Jewish learning – check out this source sheet about why we eat dairy on Shavuot!
  • Make a Shavuot gift bag! 
      • Put in a prepackaged dairy good, an excerpt from your favorite Springtime poem or quote from the Book of Ruth, and a sign of Spring. Oh, and maybe a Lactaid? Check out this Shavuot 101 source sheet for ideas.
      • Connect with your community partners and join a local tikkun leil, or create your own tikkun leil with community partners or other Moshe Houses. Ask community members to teach about a topic they’re passionate about! If you have to stay up all night expand your timezone of partners.  
      • Or get really creative and organize a night of mini-TED talks, where community members have the chance to talk about their own areas of expertise and interest, with a Jewish twist! 
  • Host a friendship celebration in honor of the Book of Ruth! 
      • Bring the strong female relationships within  Ruth to life. Host a friendship celebration gathering to learn about and mirror the deep, loyal friendships of Ruth by sharing gratitude for your own friends…Galentine’s Day in May! 
  • Volunteer with a food bank, community garden, or host a food drive
      • Shavuot isn’t only about Torah and cheesecake.  Shavuot ends the counting of the Omer and marks the beginning of the wheat harvest. In Leviticus, we are commanded to leave the corners of our fields for those who are hungry.  Most of us aren’t farmers today, but we can still find ways to leave the corners of fields for our neighbors in need:
        • Volunteer with your local food bank.  Connect with your local food bank to see what they need: a group of volunteers to distribute foods, a donation of food from your community, admin help, etc. 
        • Volunteer with your community garden.  Reach out to your community garden and learn its story and who is part of it. See what help is needed- prepping the beds, making seed packets, weeding, etc. 
  • Take a hike
      • Moses had to hike up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah (twice, since, you know, the golden calf and smashing the OG tablets), but it is taught that we were all at Sinai when we received the Torah. Celebrate Shavuot by going out into nature for a hike.  Reflect and discuss themes of Shavuot during the hike. 
  • Host introspective Yoga
      • The Israelites were liberated on Passover, but it took 49 days before the Israelites received revelation. Each year on Shavuot, the Jewish people recommit to the covenant of the Torah. Host a meditation or yoga class or journaling session guided by questions like “what has been revealed to you in the past year?” and “what are you recommitting to?”  
  • Create a time capsule 
      • Ask your community members to reflect on the past year using the same guiding questions above. Ask them to record messages for an online time capsule that you’ll all receive next year on Shavuot (June 4-6, 2022)!
  • Make a Mosaic
      • After smashing the first set of tablets, Moses went back up Mount Sinai and after 40 days returned with new tablets. In this spirit, host a craft night to create something whole from the broken. For instance, use mosaic tiles to make art or use old magazines to design a collage.  

If you’re looking for more sources, has tons of pre-made source sheets on Shavuot topics. And don’t forget your Regional Jewish Educator who is available to help you make your programs engaging and thought-provoking.