- It is customary to read the Ten Commandments in the synagogue in keeping with the tradition of linking Shavuot to the Giving of the Law.
- We read the book of Ruth at Shavuot for three reasons. The setting of Ruth is the harvest. She became a follower of the God of Israel, just as Israel became a follower of the Almighty at Mount Sinai. And the book of Ruth announces the ancestry of King David, Ruth’s great-grandson who, according to Jewish tradition, was born and died on Shavuot.
- In Ashkenazic synagogues, our people recite a twelfth-century poem called Akdamut in the Aramaic language. This poem extols God and heralds the messianic future. In Sephardic congregations a poetic ketubah (marriage contract) between God and Israel is offered.
- It is customary to decorate homes and synagogues with green plants and flowers. According to tradition, we do so because Shavuot is the day of judgment for trees and because grass grew on Mount Sinai, the place of the Giving of the Law. Also, green plants remind us of the trimming used to adorn the people’s baskets of firstfruits.
- There is a custom of staying awake all night on the eve of Shavuot to read the Torah, the Psalms, and the Talmud. One midrash tells us that God revealed himself on Mount Sinai at noontime, but the Israelites were still asleep and Moses had to rouse them. Some say the present custom of staying awake all night is a way of atoning for our failure to be awake and alert when God appeared to us.
- One tradition states that when Israel received the dietary laws (kashrut) and realized that the pots being used were not kosher, the only solution was to eat dairy products which didn’t need to be cooked! For that reason dairy foods are eaten during Shavuot. Another tradition states that after receiving the Torah, the Israelites were too hungry to wait for meat to be cooked, so they simply made a dairy meal instead.
- Since the nineteenth century, Reform Jews have used the occasion of Shavuot to hold confirmation ceremonies, just as our people were confirmed” in our faith at Mount Sinai when we entered into the covenant and Ruth was “confirmed” into the fold of Israel. The Christian holiday of Pentecost or Whitsunday is a confirmation time for Christians to receive first Communion.
Some Shavuot customs beautifully express how our spiritual needs relate to our physical needs:
- According to one rabbinic interpretation, dairy foods are eaten at this time because the Bible compares the Torah to milk in the Song of Songs 4:11: “Honey and milk are under your tongue.” Another reason is that the law of firstfruits is right next to the law that prohibits boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, possibly to avoid imitating pagan rites. As we consider how God’s word “feeds” us, physical requirements become images of our spiritual necessities.
- We array our homes and synagogues with flowers and plants to symbolize that the Torah is a tree of life. As a tree provides fruit and nourishment, so does the word of God.
- A Jewish child would learn the alef bet on the Shavuot of his or her fifth year. A special treat followed—a taste of honey to help the child associate God’s word with sweetness, as it says in Psalm 119:103, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”