It’s fair to say that Shavuot is the convert’s holiday, although it’s certainly not a holiday only for converts. And whether you are a born Jew or a convert, religious, secular, cultural, or anything in between, there’s plenty of magical symbolism to Shavuot.
Shavuot is on the 6th of Sivan. It’s the 50th day after Pesach (Passover) and ends the 49 day (seven week) period of counting the Omer. We’ve already seen the significance of the Omer, and Shavuot is the triumphant end. We’ve spent seven weeks delving into our shadows and preparing to become truly free- the freedom we gained at Passover.
Shavuot was a celebration of the wheat harvest. This aspect of the holiday really ended in 70 AD with the destruction of the second temple. When the temple existed the first fruits of the wheat harvest as well as two loaves of bread symbolizing the end of the barley harvest were brought to the temple and offered as a sacrifice, but since there is no temple anymore, that ended. However, we Jews like to symbolically do things, so we still celebrate the harvest theme. We decorate for Shavuot with greenery placed around the synagogue. You’ll see lots of green plants everywhere. We also have festive meals (because we love to eat), special prayers, and reading from the Torah scroll.
Shavuot- Festival of Weeks
Chag haKatzir- Harvest Festival
Seman Matan Torateinu- time of the gift of Torah (heading tworads the idea that Shavuot is the convert’s holiday)
Chag haBikkurim- Holiday of the First Fruits
What’s with all the Torah jazz going on with this holiday? As we have seen previously, the Hebrew slaves gained physical freedom at Passover. This was followed by the seven week counting of the Omer in order to prepare for becoming a nation. That time in between Passover and Shavuot is a time for a mindset change. The Hebrews were not ready for nationhood, but at this point they are. When G-d gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Hebrews became a nation of one people. Shavuot recalls the revelation at Sinai.
One Shavuot tradition is leil tikkun or “night of repair”. We stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot in order to study Torah and other sacred texts. It is a symbolic way to accompany the bride (the Torah, or the Shekhinah) to her wedding canopy. We repair or make “tikkun” by bringing together opposites- heaven and earth, male and female, the imperfect world and the heavenly realm- into one whole.
The Zohar likens the giving of Torah at Sinai as a marriage between G-d and the nation of Israel. We hint at this with leil tikkun. We also see it in some Sephardic congregations where a ketubah or wedding contract is read announcing the marriage agreement between G-d and Israel.
Legend says that on the night of Shavuot, the sky opens, and all prayers offered at that moment will go straight to heaven.
My favorite mystical aspect to Shavuot? It is said that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai for the giving of Torah. Every single Jew. Of all time. Before Sinai. During Sinai. After Sinai. We were all there. Each and every Jewish person- ever- was present at Sinai to receiveTorah. And that leads me into the next section.
Well, Jews by choice were at Sinai, too. So it only makes sense that if their souls were present at this mystical party, that Shavuot would be the convert’s holiday. It’s also said that Ruth, the quintessential Jewish convert, and thus all converts, are like a seed of wheat celebrated at Shavuot. Converts are planted in a new field (Judaism) where they grow like a staff of wheat bringing sustenance to those around them (as did Ruth for Naomi). Ruth married Boaz, who supported her as the earth supports the growing wheat. Ruth and Boaz’ baby, Obed, is the grandfather of King David and represents the continuing seed line.
But why does conversion matter? Why is it so important? Tradition tells us that Sinai was a forced acceptance of Torah for all but the converts. The story as told in the Bible is that the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain. Some interpretations see this as G-d had lifted the mountain up and the people were on earth below it. G-d gave the people the choice to accept Torah and be blessed or reject it and be cursed. It is said that the curse for rejection would have been the mountain falling down and crushing them so of course the people chose Torah. But not Ruth. Not the convert. She was not forced. In fact, Naomi pleaded with her to return to her family in Moab. But, out of love and devotion, Ruth chose to give up everything she had ever known and stick it out with Naomi. The convert chooses Torah out of love and not fear.
So, that’s Shavuot in a nutshell. From bringing plants inside the synagogue, to celebrating conversions, to remembering a psychedelic Torah party, Shavuot has a little bit of everything. And, it’s the dairy holiday. Who doesn’t love a good cheesecake- even a vegan one!