What is the Festival of Shavuot?

As over three million people congregated at the foot of Mount Sinai, after forty years of trudging through the desert, the defining moment in Jewish history occurred. Through dust and clouds, The Creator’s voice emanated across the masses and transmitted the ten commandments. With great seriousness, each person who bore witness to this grand mass revelation accepted the responsibility of keeping them. Beginning Thursday evening, May 25th, we celebrate this monumental experience with the holiday of Shavuot.

The Hebrew word shavuot means “weeks” in English and represents the seven weeks between the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah. Following the second day of Passover, we count the 49 days of the Omer and then celebrate Shavuot on the 50th day. On this holiday, Jewish people attempt to merge their spiritual selves with the spirit of the Divine and fortify their souls by accepting the Torah anew. In essence, on Shavuot, Jews reaffirm the declaration they made to The Almighty upon receiving the commandments: “We will do, and we will listen.”

Because King Solomon described the Torah as “sweet as milk and honey under the tongue,” many reminiscent traditions are undertaken during the Shavuot festival. Some people study Torah from Thursday night until sunrise and on Friday, Jews around the world assemble, just as they did over three thousand years ago, to hear the recitation of the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, it is customary to eat a dairy meal and recite Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance, on Shabbat morning. During those same morning prayer services, the Book of Ruth is read, in homage to the fact that, just as Jews loyally accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, Ruth, a convert, demonstrated her willingness to take upon the tenets of the Jewish religion. As she told her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.”

Ruth was a young Moabite princess and her eventual conversion to Judaism earned her an important place in Jewish history. Generations later, the union between the young Ruth and the 80-year-old Boaz would produce the brave King David, who is credited with building the first Temple. The Hebrew date upon which Shavuot falls also happens to be the day that King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, entered and exited the world. Samuel, the exulted biblical prophet, wrote the Book of Ruth as genealogical proof of his fine character. My book, Ruth Talk: Questions and Answers on the Book of Ruth, is meant to be a companion to the Book of Ruth. Ruth Talk analyzes each segment of the four chapters in a way that brings the biblical characters to life and makes the story relevant to our time. My hope is that readers will come to see it as a powerful account of self-transformation, filled with elements of love, hope, fate and world reparation. Ruth Talk is written in an easy question-and-answer format that reveals timeless life lessons, nuanced meaning, and emotional depth, all found within the interpersonal challenges that our ancestors faced. I dearly wish people will pick up Ruth Talk alongside the biblical Book of Ruth and have both an enriched reading experience and a soulful celebration of Shavuot festival because of it.

For this upcoming Festival of Shavuot, I’d like to give each person some encouragement: Each of us can figuratively ascend Mount Sinai. We may celebrate Shavuot once a year, but we experience Shavuot and reaffirm our allegiance to our Creator every time we take the Torah out of the ark, every time we listen to the reading of the Torah, and every time we engage in Torah study. This Shavuot, believe in your spiritual potential and make efforts to realize it. Find in your hearts the steadfast loyalty that Ruth possessed and watch yourselves become the recipients of untold spiritual reward. Perhaps your descendants will make priceless contributions to our future, as Ruth’s great grandson, King David, did. Or perhaps you’ll find that just being a part of this journey, using our Torah as a blueprint and observing the commandments are all the fulfillment you need. Wishing all who celebrate a Happy Shavuot!