What do people do?
Many Jewish people may take a day off work, attend special prayer services in a synagogue and eat a special meal on Shavuot. There are some customs associated with the festival in some communities. These include:
- Studying the Torah throughout the night.
- Reading the Akdamot (Akdamut, Akdamus), a liturgical poem with a message on how Jewish people are encouraged to continue studying the Torah. Many Sephardic Jewish people sing a poem called Azharot, which sets out the 613 Biblical commandments.
- Decorating homes and synagogues with plants, flowers, and leafy branches.
- Reading the Book of Ruth.
- The consumption of dairy products such as milk and cheese.
Some people in Jerusalem study the Torah all night before walking to the Western Wall (Kotel, Kosel) for morning prayers. Some synagogues in the United States also hold confirmation celebrations for young adults.
Shavuot is a public holiday in Israel. It is not a federal public holiday but it is observed among Jewish communities in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States. Many Jewish businesses and organizations are closed or have restricted opening hours. Some Jewish people may also choose to take some of their annual leave at this time.
On the 50th day after the Israelites left Egypt and were in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, God presented Moses with the Torah, or Ten Commandments. In accepting these, the Israelites became a nation committed to serving God and Shavuot marks the anniversary of this event. There are similarities between Shavuot and the Christian festival of Pentecost. Pentecost, or Whitsun, is 49 days after Easter Sunday and celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit onto Jesus' followers.
The period between Passover, when Jewish people celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and Shavuot, is known as the Counting of the Omer. This marks a period of spiritual preparation before the Torah is received. In the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish people offered a sacrifice of an omer (a measure) of barley in the temple on each of the 49 days after Passover. On the 50th day, known as Shavuot, they offered wheat at the temple. In modern times, Jewish people remember this during the Counting of the Omer by counting the number of days since Passover each night after sundown. They may use scrolls, tear-off calendars, magnets, pin boards, mobile telephone SMS reminders or email services to help them to remember to do this.
An important symbol of Shavuot is the Bikkurim, or first fruits. This was a basket of gold or silver that contained the first harvest of the Seven Species crops and was carried to the Temple in Jerusalem in a procession accompanied by music. These crops are: barley; dates; figs; grapes; olives; pomegranates; and wheat. Modern versions of the Bikkurim may include other crops now grown in Israel or other Jewish communities around the world. Images of the Ten Commandments inscribed on stones or scrolls representing the Torah are also symbolic of Shavuot.
Note: Many Jewish holidays begin at sundown the day before the date specified for the holiday.