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Writing Jewish Characters: Shavuot and the Omer

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Welcome back to the third edition of Writing Jewish Characters. Today we’ll be discussing Shavuot, the festival of weeks.

In Hebrew, the word Shavuot comes from the root Sheva, which means seven. A Shavuah (singular) is a week, and Shavuot (plural) means weeks. This name comes from Shavuot’s timing: it begins exactly seven weeks after the first day of Passover ends. As Passover commemorates leaving Egypt, Shavuot commemorates receiving the Torah - an event that took place 49 days later in the Torah.

Shavuot has multiple alternate names, including Yom HaBikurim (day of the first fruits), Chag HaKatzir (festival of reaping/harvest), and Z’man Matan Torah (the time of the giving of the Torah). While each of those names is used in specific contexts, your character is most likely to call the holiday Shavuot.

The Greek word for Shavuot is Pentecost (50th day, Shavuot’s distance from Passover). Due to the modern association with Christianity, most Jews do not use that word for the holiday anymore.

Shavuot is a one day holiday in Israel and a two day holiday everywhere else. In Israel, it begins at sunset on the 6th of Sivan and ends at sunset at the end of the 6th of Sivan. Everywhere else it runs from sunset on the 6th of Sivan to sunset at the end of the 7th of Sivan. These dates can range from May 14th to June 14th.

Shavuot is the third of the Shalosh Regalim. Unlike Sukkot and Passover, which are longer holidays, Shavuot is a short one and therefore is entirely “Chag”, or holiday - all of the stricter observance rules (i.e. the “no work” rules - see this post) are followed.

Preparation - The Omer

We count the omer starting on the second night of Passover and continue counting all the way up until the day before Shavuot. In biblical times, this involved an offering of grain every day. Now, we just count the days themselves. As I said in the Passover post, it is highly unlikely that your non-Orthodox characters will perform this ritual.

However, if your character is involved in the Jewish community or went to a Jewish dayschool as a child, they will likely notice/remember certain other observances.

Halakha (Jewish Law) forbids certain practices during the Omer, including haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, and conducting weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing. This is because the Omer is a period of semi-mourning, during which we remember 24,000 Torah-studying students of Rabbi Akiva who all died, possibly due to plague, possibly due to the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer, is the day that the slaughter ended, and is therefore a day of celebration. The restrictions in the last paragraph are lifted. Jewish dayschools often do fun activities (games/cheers/songs/etc.) on this day. People get haircuts (in the Orthodox communities, this is often the day three year old boys get their traditional first haircut). Men shave. Bonfires are lit. There are lots of weddings.

After Lag BaOmer, the mourning ends and everyone heads toward Shavuot. (But don’t forget to keep counting the days!)

Shavuot Observances

Shavuot as a holiday celebrates two major things: the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai and the first harvest of the year. Therefore, observances/celebrations usually have to do with one of those two things. Unobservant Jews (and even many semi-observant Jews) will often skip some or all of these observances.

In ancient times, Jews brought an offering of bikurim (the first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem. This offering had to be from one of seven species: wheat, barley, figs, grapes, dates, pomegranates, and olives, all of which are native to Israel. A specific liturgical prayer (Arami Oved Avi) was recited when this was done. Nowadays, with no ritualistically operating Temple, this tradition is not observed, but these foods are often eaten on this holiday anyway.

My personal favorite part of the Shavuot observance is the eating of dairy, which (in modern America) often means blintzes. Sometimes cheesecake. Often other foods with dairy. Basically, milk is good.

The reason for this is debatable - explanations include:

1) The fact that the Jews were required to follow the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) once they got the Torah, which was Shavuot. Meat has more rules, so milk is easier, so they went with milk. As a variant, the meat dishes/cooking supplies had to be kashered, or made kosher, while the milk was more flexible, so they ate milk first. I…really need to do a post on keeping kosher, don’t I? That’ll have to go on my list!

2) A whole bunch of… interesting comparisons, such as King Solomon comparing studying the Torah (a Shavuot thing) to honey and milk, the fact that the gematria (letter math) for Chalav (milk) is 40 which equates to the 40 days/nights Moses spent getting the Torah, and comparison of each day of the year to one negative commandment with Shavuot matching up with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (the basis for Jews not eating meat and milk together).

Basically, we don’t really have a reason, and it’s not actually a commandment, but it is a tradition, and hey, why not? Cheesecake and blintzes are awesome.

Traditionally, Mount Sinai bloomed with flowers on the day the Torah was given. Therefore, homes and synagogues are often decorated with plants, flowers, and leafy branches.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an all night study session that happens on the first night of Shavuot. In Midrash (rabbinic stories), the Jews went to bed early the night before they received the Torah so they’d be well-rested… and then managed to oversleep anyway. So we stay up all night studying Torah so we won’t miss it. This is done at many synagogues. As an interesting piece of trivia, this wasn’t done until the 16th century, which coincides quite neatly with the European adoption of coffee. For Jews who stay up all night, there is often a sunrise shacharit (morning prayer service).

At synagogue on Shavuot morning, the book of Ruth is read. This is one of the five megillot (single scrolled parchments - Torahs are double scrolled) which are read at various times of the year. Ruth is read at Shavuot for a number of reasons. The two reasons I’ve heard most often are its association with the harvest and the fact that Ruth is, in some ways, the best-known convert to Judaism. She chose to become and stay a Jew. This can compare to the mass conversion of the Jewish people when they received the Torah.

Reform synagogues often do a confirmation service for students aged 16-18 who are completing their Jewish education on Shavuot.

On the last day of Shavuot (1st in Israel, 2nd if not), synagogues add a service to the morning worship called Yizkor, in which the dead are remembered. This service is for Jews who have lost a close relative (parent/spouse/sibling/child) and often includes communal prayers for those who have no mourners (especially Holocaust victims) as well. Yizkor is a very short service - it consists of a psalm, specific silent prayers that each individual says for their dead, a blessing for all the dead, another psalm, and the mourners’ kaddish - a prayer praising God that is said by close relatives three times a day for a period of time after their relative dies. I’ll discuss the time periods when I get to mourning rituals, which will be another post.

As Shavuot, despite being a major holiday, is not celebrated by a lot of non-Orthodox Jews, they are not necessarily likely to go to synagogue on this holiday. I, personally, always go to Yizkor (in memory of my father), but I don’t bother any other days. I didn’t bother on the 2nd day before my father died.

Relevance to Jewish Characters

The truth is, unlike a number of other Jewish holidays, your characters are highly unlikely to do anything for Shavuot unless they a) are Orthodox, b) are a member of the clergy, c) work for or go to school at a primarily Jewish organization, d) live in Israel, or e) say Yizkor for close family members (this is most likely considering the number of orphaned or partially orphaned characters out there). Other than that, they may only eat dairy that day or be excited about eating blintzes or cheesecake. (Really, who isn’t?)

Basically, even though Shavuot is one of the top five holidays in the traditional Jewish calendar, in modern America it’s lost a lot of its importance, and nowadays, most Jews don’t really celebrate it.

So feel free to ignore this holiday for most Jewish characters. They may not even remember that it happened. But if you want some sort of observance, look at my list up above!

And now you’ve finished the end of our session on Shavuot! Look for a whole bunch more of these Holiday Specific posts come September, and hopefully some others over the summer. :)

As always, feel free to ask if you’ve got any questions!

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