Know Your Neighbour: Shavuot

Know Your Neighbour: Shavuot

We are using our blog space for a new Know Your Neighbour feature, which will provide a short briefing for some of the key religious festivals in the calendar. This is so that you can stay abreast of what major events are approaching for individuals of other faiths and what it all means. The first Know Your Neighbour briefing is on Shavuot.


This weekend, from May 23rd until May 25th, Jewish communities across England will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot.

What is Shavuot?

This festival is one of the three key festivals for the Jewish faith—the other two being Passover and Sukkot.

The word Shavuot means weeks and the festival of Shavuot marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. The main significance of Shavuot is its association with the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Because of this, Shavuot is often described as Pentecost. In the Torah, however, Shavuot is described as a harvest festival (Exodus 23:16).

When is Shavuot?

The festival takes place fifty days after Passover. The connection between Passover and Pentecost is particularly significant, which is why Jewish communities count down the days leading from Passover until Shavuot. The counting is designed to remind Jewish communities of the important connection between Passover and Shavuot. The common understanding is that Passover freed the Jews

Why is Shavuot celebrated?

As was mentioned above, Shavuot was originally a harvest festival. For the Ancient Israelites,    this marked the start of the wheat harvest and the end of the barley harvest.

However, the harvest element of the festival has become subservient, for later Jewish consciousness, to the association with the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Because of this later connection, the agricultural rituals and customs associated with Shavuot have been re-interpreted in line with this theme.

How is Shavuot celebrated?

It is a custom to decorate the synagogue with greenery for the festival, which has been interpreted as symbolising the greenery surrounding Mount Sinai.

As well as this, it is customary for Jews to consume dairy products, including cheese and milk dishes. There are numerous understandings for why Jews might do this. One such explanation links this with the events at Sinai, suggesting that the Jews could only eat milk then because they were subject to the dietary laws after the revelation and needed to time ritually slaughter their cattle and to fully understand all of the laws surrounding their dietary restrictions.

The first night of Shavuot is spent by some Jews in a long vigil of Torah study, which ends with prayers at dawn. The custom of a night-long vigil, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, is explained from a midrashic account of how the Israelites overslept as Sinai, and had to be awakened by Moses. Their descendants, therefore, stay awake all night to be ready to receive the Torah anew.

Prayers are also said on Shavuot (especially at dawn) to thank God for the Torah.


If you are celebrating Shavuot this weekend, we hope you have a blessed and rewarding time.  

Author: Mr Tim Burton-Jones

Date: 22 May 2015