At sundown on Saturday, June 11, Jews around the world will start the two-day holiday of Shavuot, which lasts only one day in Israel. Also known as the Festival of Weeks because it marks the completion of the counting of the Omer period – which is 49 days long, or seven weeks of seven days – Shavuot is one of the Jewish calendar’s shalosh regalim, three pilgrimage holidays.
Unlike the other two pilgrimage festivals – Passover and Sukkot – there is no definitive ritual associated with Shavuot in the text of the Torah. As such, many Jews struggle to connect with the holiday, which has yet another name: Chag Hakatsir, the Harvest Festival.
But, despite its undefined nature, Shavuot “is a gift of a holiday,” says Roberta Miller, a Chicago Jewish day school teacher. “It’s when we got the Ten Commandments, God’s greatest present to the Jewish people.”
In that spirit, here are seven ways to infuse more meaning and minhag (tradition) into your Shavuot this year:
1. Food. It is traditional on Shavuot to eat dairy foods. Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, explained some believe this is because the scripture compares Torah to “honey and milk … under your tongue.” (Song of Songs 4:11) Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah for the first time, they learned the kosher dietary laws and didn’t immediately have time to prepare kosher meat, so they ate dairy instead.
Baking and consuming dairy foods can differentiate Shavuot from other holidays, said Miller. “We all have very strong memories associated with scent. If I smell a honey cake, I think of my grandmother and Rosh Hashanah. The smell of cheesecake generates a connection to Shavuot for my kids.”
In Miller’s family, Shavuot marks the first ice cream cake of the season, and that knowledge builds anticipation for the holiday. Just as no one in her house is allowed to eat matzah until the seder, she said no one gets ice cream cake until Shavuot.
2. Games. For families with children, games are a great way to educate youth about the messages of Shavuot. Miller suggested counting games. “You can count up to 49 of anything: 49 ways Mommy loves you, 49 things you are grateful for,” she said.
For older children, Miller suggested a Jewish commandments version of Pictionary, in which, before the holiday, children write their favorite commandment or commandments on a notecard. The cards are mixed up and put into a box or bag. Then, the family gets together, members draw picture cards, and someone acts out each commandment while participants guess which commandment it is and why it is important.
3. Guests. On the second day of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of the first Jew by choice. Frisch explained that it is also a story of welcoming the stranger and inclusivity. Shavuot is the perfect holiday for inviting new friends over for a meal, or for opening one’s home to people who are interested in learning more about Jewish traditions, she said.
4. Learning. Taking part in a tikkun leil Shavuot (a night of Jewish learning) is another Shavuot custom. Many traditional Jews stay up all night on the first night of the holiday to study Torah. Frisch also suggested hosting a communal night of learning that can draw in a more diverse mix of Jewish learners, or hosting an evening of learning at an individual’s home.
“Jewish learning doesn’t have to be biblical texts.… It could be liberal values or social justice or just a discussion about Jewish identity or Jewish laws,” said Frisch.
5. Birthday party. Tradition has it that King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, was born and died on Shavuot. Miller suggested holding a King David birthday party featuring decorations, cake, ice cream and gifts.
“Use it as a learning tool,” she said, noting how the party can springboard into an historical discussion. “What would you write on a card to [King David]? What do you want to ask him? What would he want for a present? What would he put in the goody bag that he gives to each of us?”
6. Nature. On Shavuot, it is customary to decorate our homes and synagogues with flowers and plants. Ruthie Kaplan, who lives in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem and is a former Hebrew school teacher, said following this tradition of surrounding ourselves with the lushness of the natural world could “add a lot of beauty to the day.” She said Shavuot is “the perfect time” to connect with nature and appreciate the beauty of the world that God created for us.
7. Goals. Kaplan said a deeper reading of the Book of Ruth can transform Shavuot from simply another Jewish holiday into an opportunity to set goals and resolutions. Ruth, she said, believed in something (Judaism) and followed through on her belief.
“That story of Ruth excites me and really comes to life on Shavuot,” said Kaplan. “Ruth is open to the truth and, therefore, she sees it and she is willing to be honest with herself. For anyone searching and struggling, Ruth is a good role model for life.”