Shavuot, also referred to as the Mount Sinai Revelation, is considered by many as the climax of human history. It commemorates the day on which the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai and became a nation committed to serving G-d. The holiday typically falls on the 5th and 6th of Sivan, but no explicit date is provided in the Torah, rather Shavuot is always 50 days from the 2nd day of Passover, marking the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer. Shavuot is considered one of the the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Sukkot. In Israel the holiday is celebrated for one day, while in the diaspora, it is celebrated for two.
The holiday is connected to the month of Sivan and the seven-week, 49-day, period of "counting" the Omer. Sivan (Gemini) is represented by the duality of human twins. Similar to the good and evil nature of the biblical twins, Jacob and Esau, Shavuot has the duality of light and dark or physical and spiritual. This duality can be seen by the physical nation of the Israelites connecting with the spiritual nature of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
In order to get the full "Light" from the manifestation and receiving of the Torah on Shavuot, we first need to correct or rectify all aspects of our soul. According to the sages, each aspect of our soul is represented by a sphere or sephirot. Each sephirot has a corresponding human essence (ie. mercy, judgement, bonding, endurance). The lower 7 of the 10 sephirot - Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut, are each counted, one within the other, and rectified through personal reflection and meditation, for a total of 49 days. For example, on day 1 we count Chesed of Chesed, and on day 2 we count Gevurah of Chesed, for a total of 49 days. After the counting, the sephirot are rectified and in a state of unity. It is only at the place of unity where we resonate with the same love and unity found in the Torah and are prepared to receive the revelation on the 50th day. 50 is literally one above 49 and has the essence of miracles, beyond the physical realm. Seven is the standard measure in life - 7 seas, 7 musical notes, 7 days of the week, 7 colors in the spectrum, 7 continents, etc. while 50 is one above 7 (x7) in the higher realm. By counting and correcting the 49 aspects of our soul and the 49 gates of impurity that were reached in the time of Egypt, we can break through to the realm of miracles and receive the infinite light and wisdom of the Torah on Shavuot.
There are several customs and mystical practices followed on Shavuot. These practices are reflected by the acronym "Acharit", which represents Akdamut, Chalav, Ruth, Yerek and Torah.
Akdamut - This 90-verse poem written by Rabbi Meir Ben Yitzach is recited in most synagogues during the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot. It consists of praise for G-d and the Torah. The language of the Akdamut is complex and has a hidden message. Each line of the poem concludes with the syllable "ta", represented by the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet - Tav and Aleph. The message is that a Jew never stops learning Torah, and when the last letter is reached, they must start again anew. The practice of reciting the Akdamut on Shavuot began in the 15th Century.
Chalav - It is typical to eat dairy on Shavuot. The commentators provide 4 primary reasons: (1) following the Mount Sinai revelation, there was no time to properly slaughter and kosher an animal so dairy was chosen for the celebratory meal; (2) the Torah is said to be akin to "milk & honey"; (3) there is no need to be reminded of the sin of the golden calf by eating meat on the holiday; and (4) the numerical value of the word Chalav, the Hebrew word for milk, is 40. This is the same number of days and nights Moses spent on Mount Sinai before coming down the mountain with the Torah.
Ruth - It is customary to read the Book of Ruth on the 2nd day of Shavuot. Ruth was a Moabite princess who followed her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, into the land of Israel after her husband died. The story of Ruth has several beautiful connections to Shavuot. (1) The story details how Ruth would work in the fields to help support herself and Naomi. One of the fields she chose to work belonged to a wealthy Judge, Boaz. Boaz saw her kindness to Naomi and eventually married her. The story takes place during the harvest time, and connects to the wheat harvest in Israel when Shavuot is also celebrated; (2) there is a general theme of Chesed (mercy or kindness) in the story which connects us to the similar energy of Chesed in the Torah; (3) Ruth converted to a daughter of Israel, giving up her Moab ancestry. This act represents the entry into a covenant with the Torah, similar to what occurred between the nation of Israel and G-d at the Mount Sinai Revelation; (4) the numerical value of Ruth is equal to 606, equal to the number of commandments in the Torah. We count the full 613 commandments when adding the 7 Noachide laws; (5) the story represents Ruth's journey from bondage and slavery (the nation of Moab was dark and morally depraved) to freedom and love (she gave birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David). The story parallels the Israelites journey from slavery in Egypt to the receiving of the Torah at Mt .Sinai; (6) Jewish tradition says that King David was born and died on Shavuot. It is also believed that the Baal Shem Tov was the reincarnation of King David and that Moshiach will come from the ancestral line of King David.
Yerek - Yerek or greenery is part of the Shavuot celebration. The greenery is connected to Shavuot's origin as a wheat harvest festival in Israel and to the greenery that bloomed at the base of Mount Sinai when the revelation of the Torah took place. It is customary to decorate homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches.
Torah - The centerpiece of the holiday is the Torah. Every year the full energy of the revelation returns in potential to the cosmos, and anyone can connect to it through an all night Torah study. The night of Shavuot is referred to as the “Night of the Bride” where the Jewish people (the bride), get prepared to receive the Torah and G-d (the groom) the following day. The initial reference to an all-night study is found in the Zohar, and it become more widely practiced when Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, established an organized study with his mystic colleagues in the early 16th Century. The Torah study is referred to as the Tikkun Leil Shavuot and was subsequently codified by the famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Issac Luria, known as the Ari. The study includes 24 readings which correspond to the 24 ornaments used to dress the bride. The Zohar recounts that "G-d prepared Eve for her wedding by adorning her with 24 ornaments". The readings are from the 24 books of the Tanach, an acronym for the 5 books of the Torah, the Prophets & Writings, the Megillot, the Sefer Yetzirah and the Zohar. By connecting to these readings we can prepare ourselves for the Torah and ignite the power of Light and immortality. Spiritually, humanity and everything in the physical realm are part of Malchut, the lowest spherot, represented by Sovereignty. By preparing ourselves as the bride on Shavuot evening, we are are able to unite Malchut with Zeir Anpin, the spiritual spheres, represented by the Torah, or groom in the morning. The light revealed through this process is so powerful, that the Ari, Rashi and other Torah mystics stated that whoever stays up all night shall be protected and guaranteed life for a full year. Also, the Zohar reveals that sleep is 1/60th of death, so by overcoming our urge to sleep, we overcome the angel of death and bring the energy of immortality to the universe. There is a Midrash that states the Israelites fell asleep and had to be awakened to receive the Torah - another reason many people stay awake all night.
Quantum Leap to Freedom - Shavuot, on the 50th day following the Counting of the Omer, connects us to the energy of freedom. The holiday concludes the work we started 49-days prior, on the 2nd night of Passover, when we made the spiritual journey out of slave consciousness and despair from our personal Egypt. The 49-day rectification of our souls and creation of unity through the Counting Of the Omer, allows us to connect to the energy of freedom. The mystics say “there was freedom on the Tablets”.
Goodness & Morality - The Torah was the first book of moral code. It set forth the laws of cause and effect and took humanity out of darkness with a comprehensive set of rules for morality. There is a direct correlation between the social and economic status of modern societies that have faith and believe in the 10 Commandments, and those that do not have a similar system of beliefs. The Torah is a guide that allows us to become our highest selves by taking full responsibility for our actions.
Have a happy and Light-filled Shavuot!