The Jewish celebration of Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, starts this evening commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Shavu’ot actually holds both an agricultural and a historical significance. Agriculturally, the holiday celebrates the first time fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple; therefore, it is also known as Hag ha-Bikkurim or the Festival of the First Fruits. Historically, Shavu’ot commemorates the giving of the Torah and, therefore, is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu, or the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah.
The day is related to the Christian celebration of the Pentecost as, like the Pentecost, it is not celebrated on a specific calendar date. Rather, it is celebrated 50 days after Passover. To add to the confusion, Hellenistic Jews also named the holiday Pentecost because of the 50 day separation.
Similar to traditions observed for other holidays, work is not allowed on Shavu’ot. Also, the reading of the religious poem Akdamut has become a common practice on the first day of the Festival of Weeks as it largely celebrates the Torah.
Unlike Passover, meals are not carefully planned in the Torah for Shavu’ot. That being said, however, the holiday has had close ties to dairy meals such as cheese blintzes, cheese cakes, and cheese kreplach. Although no specific reason is known for why dairy meals are traditionally eaten during this time, one common theory is that they refer to the Israelites being promised the “land of milk and honey.” Another belief is that because the Israelites had not needed to follow kosher rules, dairy foods were the first readily available kosher meals after being given the Torah.
In a celebration of the Torah, many Jews stay awake all night studying it to show their love and appreciation. This observance is known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The act of staying up the whole night is also done in reference to the day the Jews originally were given the Torah as they had accidentally overslept, and Moses had to them all up. By staying awake, modern Jews guarantee that they will not oversleep on this day.