The Laws of Shavuos #1: Laws of the first night and morning of the Holiday of Shavuos

Shavuos is the Holiday during which we commemorate, primarily, Hashem’s giving us the Torah — both the Written and Oral Torah — at Mount Sinai, over 3,315 years ago.

The Laws of the Holiday of Shavuos are actually taught in the Laws of Pesach (Passover), because in a sense Shavuos is a continuation of Pesach. Hashem took us out of Egypt in order to give us the Torah, so that we could, via the Torah, become a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

It is the Custom in most communities to decorate the synagogues and homes for Shavuos with flowers and branches. It must be done before Shavuos, because on Shavuos it is forbidden to cut any growing vegetation. This is done to remember the joy of the Giving of the Torah, because, among other reasons, at that time Hashem performed a miracle and caused sweet-smelling plants to grow at Mount Sinai, where nothing usually grows.

However, it is forbidden to use an entire tree, whether large or small, because that is a gentile custom done on one of their celebrations. The Torah forbids us to do the same customs as gentiles.

It is Customary for a Jewish person to immerse in a mikvah the day before Shavuos.

On what would be the fiftieth night and day of Sefirah (though we actually count only forty-nine nights), we keep the Holiday of Shavuos. The prayers are pretty much the same as any of the three cyclic Holidays (Pesach, Shavuos, Sukkos), but at the appropriate times in the prayers we say «the day of the Holiday of Shavuos, the time of the Granting of our Torah….»

And like the other Yomim Tovim (Jewish Holidays), outside of Israel we hold two days of Yom Tov (Holiday).

We wait and pray later than usual on the night of Shavuos, because the Torah says that we must count seven full weeks of Sefiras Ha’Omer, starting from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuos (Leviticus 23:15).

The Torah tells us,

«You shall count seven complete weeks after the day following the [Passover] holiday when you brought the omer as a wave offering, until the day after the seventh week, when there will be [a total of] 50 days. [On that 50th day] you may present new grain as a meal offering to God.

— Leviticus 23:15-16

That fiftieth day is the Holiday of Shavuos.

The Torah specifically says «seven complete weeks.» Therefore, we may not pray Maariv (the nighttime Prayers) at the beginning of Shavuos until the entire period of «seven complete weeks» has completely and definitely ended.

Usually, when Holidays begin, and when Shabbos begins, it is generally permitted to begin the Holiday early, and indeed, sometimes it is preferable. But we may not begin the Holiday of Shavuos early, so that the Count of Omer should be a complete seven weeks. Therefore, both nights of Shavuos we wait until the stars come out, and do not begin praying until then.

It is the Custom to remain awake all night the first night of Shavuos and learn Torah until dawn. This is because of something we are taught in a Medrash:

The night before the giving of the Torah, that is, the night of the very first Shavuos, all of the Children of Israel went to sleep. When morning came, they overslept. To amend this, it is the Custom to stay awake the night of Shavuos until dawn, studying Torah.

Once the dawn arrives, it becomes forbidden to study Torah without first saying the Blessings over the Torah again. The new dawn comes with a new requirement to say the Morning Blessings. However, we may not say many of those, because we have been awake all night, and we have not slept.

Therefore, what many people do is go to sleep, wake up a few hours later to pray the Morning Prayers, and at that time say all the Morning Blessings.

It is imperative that you wake up in time to pray all the prayers before the final time allotted for the Morning Prayers. Just as the Torah mandates set times for the offering of the Holy Temple Sacrifices, and they may not be brought once that time has passed, so too, the prayers, whose times are based and set according to the times of the Holy Temple Sacrifices, may not be recited (by men) after their time has passed. Once the time of the Morning Prayers has passed without your having said them, that is a loss that can never be recovered. (Women, however, are not bound by time the same way that men are. The rules of time-related Laws are different for them, in that in some Laws they follow time like men do, but in most things they follow Laws that are associated with their own bodies and bodies’ cycles.)

Many people, however, are not certain they’ll be able to get up again so quickly, after being awake all night. So they use another solution.

They find someone who has slept at least thirty-five minutes, and they have that person say the Blessings for them. The Halachah (Jewish Law) is that if someone who is also required to say those Blessings, says them out loud for you, and you answer Amain, it is considered as if you said those Blessings. However, this works only if both the person saying the Blessing and the person hearing the Blessing intends to fulfill the obligation of both people.

These people then begin the Morning Prayers immediately, before going to sleep. They begin to pray at dawn, which actually is the best time to pray (though the Laws of this are complicated, so don’t do it unless you are with a minyan (quorum group for prayers) that knows how to do it right). If you do that, you may not say the brachos (blessings) over washing your hands and Asher Yatzar («Who has formed mankind…») unless you first use the restroom (Mishnah Brurah 494:1).

The Laws of the other brachos are also complicated, and many people prefer to hear them said by someone who has slept, and answer amain and thus fulfill their obligation.

This includes Birchos HaTorah, the Blessings before Studying Torah that we must say each morning. After hearing Birchos HaTorah, learn the Torah that we learn every day after those brachos, which includes the Priestly Blessing and so forth (Mishnah Brurah 47:28).

However, the best way to solve the question of Birchos HaTorah is to sleep at least an hour or so during the day BEFORE Shavuos, for the purpose of being able to stay awake that night. If you do that, then you may say Birchos HaTorah by yourself, without any doubt (Mishnah Brurah, ibid, citing Rabbi Akiva Eiger).

However, this does not apply to two brachos: E-lokai Nishamah, which refers to the soul returning to the body in the morning when you wake up; and the brachah (blessing) of «Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids…» If you have not woken up recently from an hour’s (or more) sleep, then those two brachos you have to hear from someone else.

Others go to sleep at dawn and wake up to pray at the normal hour that they start the prayers every Yom Tov. (Perhaps they set an alarm clock.)

If you combine that with sleeping during the day before Shavuos, then you may say all the Morning Brachos when you wake up to pray.

Many Chassidim have the Custom to go to the Mikvah at dawn on Shavuos morning.

Some Shavuos Customs and their Meanings

It is customary — but it is not a Law — to decorate the home and synagogue with leaves and branches, but is forbidden to bring in an entire tree, no matter what size. We may not prepare these during the Holiday, but only before; if they were not cut or prepared before the Holiday, it is forbidden to do it during the Holiday.

There are a number of reasons for decorating with branches and leaves. The primary reason seems to be because on Shavuos we are judged concerning the trees, and we must remember to pray that the trees grow well and healthy.

Another reason we decorate with greens is to remember Mount Sinai, on which the Torah was given. Even though it was a mountain, it was verdant and lush with green.

Moses, who was born on the seventh day of Adar, was hidden by his mother for three months, until the sixth day of Sivan. He was then placed among the river weeds. We therefore spread greens to remember the miracle that was performed for Moses at that time.

The Midrash teaches us a parable. A king planted a garden. After some days, the king looked at the garden and found it full of thorns. He was about to destroy the garden, when he saw a rose blossoming in it. The king declared, «For the sake of that one rose, I will not destroy the garden!» So too, although the world is mired in sin and degradation, for the sake of the Torah, and for the sake of the Jewish People, whose purpose it is to fulfill the Torah, the world is not destroyed, but rather, the whole world is saved.

The first night of Shavuos it is the custom to stay awake all night (until dawn) and study Torah. Some people say Tikun Lail Shavuos, which consists of representative quotes from every section of the Torah, from the Written Torah to the Oral Torah. But many people simply study any Torah they have the ability and knowledge to learn, and most people attend a lecture or dialogue session.

The Torah reading in the synagogue for the first day of Shavuos is the Torah’s telling of the day that the Creator spoke to us at Mount Sinai, and told us of the Ten Statements (which Christians have ignorantly renamed the Ten Commandments).

During the day of Shavuos, it is customary to eat dairy foods. We eat the dairy foods, recite the after-blessings, take a half hour or an hour break, and then eat the Festival Meal, which by Law must contain some meat. (If necessary, chicken can also count as meat, but people unable to eat meat or chicken for health reasons are excused.) Some people eat challah bread twice, once with the milk and once with the meat, to commemorate the Two Loaves brought as gift offerings at the Holy Temple on Shavuos. (We may not use the same bread at each meal.)

There are a number of reasons for the eating of dairy on Shavuos. One reason is to recall that when Moses was pulled out of the water on this day, he would nurse only from a Hebrew woman and he refused the milk of any other woman. Therefore, we eat dairy foods to remember this.

Another reason is to remember that until the Children of Israel received the Torah they were permitted to eat non-kosher meat. Once they received the Torah they were not permitted to eat anything non-kosher, or even to use the dishes and utensils they had used with non-kosher food. So, after they received the Torah, they had to eat uncooked dairy foods until they could make their dishes and utensils kosher, or make new ones.

Some have the custom to eat foods with honey and milk, to recall the verse, «Honey and milk are under your tongue» (Song of Songs 4:11), which refers to one who has attained the knowledge of Torah.

The Second Day of Shavuos: Many people read the entire Book of Psalms on the second day of Shavuos, because that is the day of both the birth and death of King David.

The Torah reading in the synagogue for the second day of Shavuos is the Torah’s instructions about the various Holidays throughout the Jewish year.

During the second day we study the Book of Ruth. There are a number of reasons for this.

The events of the Book of Ruth occurred around Shavuos time, as it says, «…until the end of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest…» (Ruth 2:23)

Ruth converted and accepted all the Commandments, just as we did at Mount Sinai.

King David was born and died on Shavuos, and the Book of Ruth recounts his ancestry.

A bit deeper: The Written Torah says that a Moabite who converted to Judaism may not marry an Israelite. The Oral Torah explains that this refers only to a Moabite, not a Moabitess. A Moabitess who has converted to Judaism may marry a Jewish man. (The reason for this is not difficult to understand, but it is too involved to discuss here.) Were it not for the Oral Torah, Boaz would not have been permitted to marry Ruth. It is therefore the Oral Torah that made King David possible. The Book of Ruth was written by the Prophets to show us that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah work together as a unit, and were both given to us at Mount Sinai.

The lesson within is therefore very pertinent to Shavuos, the time we received the Torah.

The Many Names of Shavuos

The key to understanding Shavuos is in understanding its names. Shavuos has a number of names, and each of them highlights one aspect of the Holiday and its observances.

Some of the names by which Shavuos is known are:

The Reaping Festival. The Torah says: «Also keep the Reaping Festival, in which you reap the first yield of your produce that you have planted in the field» (Exodus 23:16). Wheat is the latest grain of the year. The reaping season concludes with the reaping of the wheat, which takes place around Shavuos time, as we mentioned above.

The Day of Bikurim (first fruit), as it says: «And on the day of Bikurim, when you make a new gift offering…» (Numbers 28:26). This «gift offering» refers to the offering of the First Fruits, and the Two Loaves of Wheat-Bread.

What was the First Fruits Offering? Every farmer would bring to the Holy Temple the first ripe fruit of each of his crops. Not all his crops, mind you. Just those of the seven species praised by the Torah, which are: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The Torah praised Israel for these species because there was a time — and there will yet be a time again — when Israel produced the best of these species, better than anywhere else in the world.

 The Two Loaves were also part of the First Fruits Offering, except that they were brought by the Kohanim. The Two Loaves would be baked from the fresh wheat crop that had just been cut. Until the Two Loaves were brought to the Altar at the Temple, it was forbidden to use any of the wheat from the new crop.

Shavuos (weeks) is another name the Torah gives this Holiday. The Torah commands us to count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuos (Leviticus 23:15), in preparation for the Giving of the Torah. Since Shavuos is the culmination of Passover, we connect these two Holidays by counting and preparing from the one to the next, each day of the seven weeks.

Therefore the Torah says: «Count seven shavuos — weeks — from when you begin to cut the standing grain (i.e., the barley at Passover time) . . . and then celebrate the festival of Shavuos — Weeks — for Hashem your G-d» (Deut. 16:9-10).

Atzeres. This is not a Biblical name, but a name used by the Rabbis of the Talmud. It refers to the conclusion of the Holiday of Passover. We learned above that Shavuos is the culmination of Passover. Just as Simchas Torah is the conclusion of Sukkos, so is Shavuos the conclusion of Passover. (Simchas Torah is the «Atzeres» of Sukkos; Shavuos is the «Atzeres» of Passover.)

Simchas Torah should really be fifty days after Sukkos also, just as Shavuos is fifty days after Passover, but that would have occurred during the rainy season, and it would have been hard for Jews to travel to the Holy Temple, as they used to do for each Holiday. So G-d instead set it for immediately after Sukkos. However, Passover marks the beginning of the dry season in Israel, thus there is no hardship to travel to Jerusalem for Shavuos.

Shavuos is the continuation of Passover, and it is the reason for Passover. As I said above, it was the reason G-d took us out of Egypt. This leads us to yet another name for this Holiday:

The Time of the Giving of the Torah. Around the time of Shavuos, all of the People of Israel, the entire Nation, stood at Mount Sinai and witnessed the Giving of the Torah. Moreover, every Jewish soul that was ever created was present at Mount Sinai, and was actively involved in receiving the Responsibility of the Torah.

We all assembled at the mountain, and we all saw the mountain burning with a fire that reached the heart of heaven, along with darkness, cloud, and mist. We all heard the voice of the Creator speak out of the fire, yet we saw no image whatsoever. We saw incontrovertible evidence that there is a Creator Who is an active force within the universe and on this earth.

The Creator then charged us with our mission on this earth: to accept and nurture the beautiful gift and opportunity we were receiving, to conduct ourselves with the dignity and holiness befits the Kingly-Priestly Nation status to which we had been appointed: to develop ourselves only according to the multi-faceted dictates of the Torah, and to follow no other system.

Continue on to the next article in this series: The Customs of Shavuos and their Meanings.

Shavuos — The Forgotten Holiday

Everyone has heard of Passover. But what is Shavuos? And why have so few people heard of it? It’s also in the Torah, yet it certainly does not have the eminence that Passover holds for most people. Why is it not as well known as Passover?

We all know what Passover is about. That’s when we became a nation, in a sense. At any rate, that’s when we became the «Nation that the Creator has taken for His very own.» But what was it for? Why did the Creator choose us? What purpose did He have in mind?

Well, that’s what’s Shavuos is all about. While Passover is the time we became the Nation to receive a Mission, it was on Shavuos that we received that Mission.

It is a fundamental of Judaism that the calendar year (and week) is a recurring cycle. Every Sabbath is an exact spiritual replica of that very first Sabbath of Creation. The exact same holiness and spirituality that pervaded the world on that first Sabbath pervades and permeates the world each and every Sabbath of the year.

And the same is true of the Holidays. The very same holiness that was bestowed upon the Children of Israel that night they sat in Egypt eating Matzoh and Bitter Herbs at the very first Passover Seder — that very same holiness is available to us each and every Passover Seder night, if only we learn how to tap into it!

And the same is true, of course, for all the other Holidays. Shavuos marks the season during which the Creator gave us custody of the Torah. On that day, the purpose of Creation was handed over to us, and the responsibility for its maintenance became our charge.

The giving of the Torah was actually a part of the process of Creation. More to the point, it was and is the very act that sustains the universe, as it says, «Were it not for my covenant, observed day and night, the laws and heaven and earth I would not have set.» (Jeremiah 33:25) The Torah, сtherefore (and the fulfillment of its commandments, of course), is the very purpose of Creation.

This was the reason G-d took us out of Egypt, to give us the Holy Torah. It was not mere material riches that G-d promised Abraham when He said «and afterwards they will leave with great wealth…» (Genesis 15:14), but it was to the Torah that G-d was referring.

And so, each and every year, on the Holiday of Shavuos, we renew that relationship, and we reaccept that responsibility. Shavuos takes place fifty days after Passover, time enough for us to get ready to accept our mission.

Note that Shavuos is not called the «Season in which we received the Torah,’ but rather, the «season in which the Torah was given.» That marked the beginning of our deeper relationship with the Creator, but in truth we must affirm it every day. Every day of our lives is another day of «receiving the Torah,» but the special moment of the Giving of the Torah takes place on Shavuos.

Almost every Holiday (Yom Tov — literally «good day») marks both a historical event (though recurring, as we spoke above), and a yearly agricultural event. Passover marks the time the Creator rescued us from Egypt, and also takes place during the barley harvest. Consequently, in addition to all other Holiday observances, such as the Passover Sacrifice brought by the people, the Kohanim (priests) at the Holy Temple were required to present the Barley Offering, the Omer.

Shavuos marks the season in which the Torah was given to us, and also takes place during the harvest of the wheat and the fruit. Consequently, among the Holiday observances of Shavuos were two additional offerings: the «Two Loaves of Wheat-Bread,» brought by the Kohanim; and the Bikurrim, the First Fruits, brought by the fruit farmers themselves. In addition, there are many Holiday observances and customs specifically for Shavuos, as we shall see in the next article in this series, The Many Names of Shavuos.