Laws and Customs

Table of Contents

Shavuot is a low-key, pensive holiday, unlike Passover with its long Seder nights and crunchy, matzah-filled days. The following are the general laws and customs for the holiday of Shavuot.

I. Festival Laws

Candle Lighting
Shabbat and all Jewish holidays always begin at sunset of the evening before. On the Sabbath and Yom Tov [festival] candles are lit 18 minutes before sunset to welcome the holiday.

Two candles (minimum) are lit, then both hands are waved towards the face, symbolically drawing in the light of the candles and the sanctity of the Sabbath/Yom Tov. The eyes are covered and the blessing is recited.

Baruch atah Ado-nai, Ehlo-haynu Melech Ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzeevanu l’hadlik ner shel Yom Tov.
Blessed are you L-rd, our G-d, Ruler of the world, who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Yom Tov (festival).

An additional blessing, Sheh’heh’cheh’yanu, is pronounced to acknowledge the good fortune of being able to experience the holiday:
Baruch atah Ado-nai, Ehlo-haynu Melech Ha-olam, sheh’heh’cheh’yanu v’kee’manu v’hee’gee’anu la’zman ha’zeh.
Blessed are you L-rd, our G-d, Ruler of the world, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Evening services are held in the synagogue.
A festive meal is eaten, preceded by the Festival Kiddush, ritual washing of the hands and Ha’Motzee, which is made over two whole challot. The meal is followed by the Grace After Meals with the addition of Y’aleh V’Yavo, “May there rise and come…”, in honor of the holiday, and the Harachamon for the festival.
Changes in the morning synagogue service

      • During Shacharit, the morning service, the Festival Amidah is recited.
      • Hallel
        • Hallel is a collection of Psalms that are recited on the festivals and Rosh Chodesh (the new month).
        • Hallel can be found in the siddur (Jewish prayerbook).
      • The Book of Ruth is read on the last day of the holiday (see below for details).
      • The Torah Reading
        • On the first day of Shavuot, Exodus 19:1-20:23 is read in synagogue.
          On the second day of Shavuot, Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 is read in synagogue.
        • The maftir (additional reading) on both days is Numbers 28:26-31.
        • The haftorah (prophetic message) on the first day is from the Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12.
          The haftorah on the second day is from Habakuk 2:20-3:19.
      • Yizkor – The Memorial Service
        • The Yizkor Memorial Service is recited on the last day of all festivals — Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and on Yom Kippur.
        • While those who have passed away are no longer able to effect their own spiritual growth, the deeds of their children may result in additional merit for their souls.
        • ) According to some Ashkenazic customs, those whose parents are both living leave the sanctuary during Yizkor. In Sephardic custom, everyone remains in the sanctuary while the cantor recites Yizkor.

A festive meal is eaten, preceded by the daytime festival Kiddush, ritual washing of the hands and HaMotzee, which is made over two whole challot. The meal is followed by the Grace After Meals with the addition of Y’aleh V’Yavo, “May there rise and come…”, in honor of the holiday and the Harachamon for the festival.

Mincha, the afternoon service is recited with the special Festival Amidah (and the special insertions for Shabbat, as well as including the weekly Torah reading for Shabbat Mincha, when applicable).

Havdalah – At the conclusion of the second day of Yom Tov, Havdalah, separating holy days from week days, is recited in the evening Amidah. This Havdalah is followed by the formal Havdalah, which consists of only the blessing over grape juice (HaGafen) and the Havdalah blessing (HaMavdil), which can be found in the prayer book.

II. The Book of Ruth

Read during the morning service prior to the Torah reading (On the first day of Shavuot in Israel, and on the second day in the diaspora). The reasons that we read the Book of Ruth are:

      1. Acceptance of the Torah – The Book of Ruth is the story of a courageous Moabite woman who took upon herself the laws of the Torah. Since Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah by Israel, the story of Ruth’s journey from Moabite princess to the wife of one of Judea’s leading citizens, is an inspiration for all.
      2. The Harvest Time – The story of Ruth takes place during the period of the Counting of the Omer and culminates at the time of the wheat harvest, which is the time of Shavuot.
      3. King David – According to tradition, King David, the great-grandson of Ruth, was born and died on Shavuot.

III. Customs

      1. All-Nighters: To demonstrate our love for the Torah and our appreciation for G-d’s revelation on Mount Sinai, it is customary to stay up all night either learning, listening to lectures, or simply discussing Jewish matters.
      2. Decorating the Synagogue with greens: There are several reasons given for this custom:
          • More than just a recognition that Shavuot takes place at the blossoming time of spring, the custom of decorating synagogues is related to the Talmudic description of Mount Sinai when the Torah was given. Although located in the wilderness, Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers.
          • When the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was standing, Shavuot was the time when Jewish farmers brought their first fruit offerings. To enhance the beauty of the mitzvah, the baskets containing the fruit were usually decorated with flowers and greenery. Thus, one of the names for the holiday of Shavuot is Chag Ha’Bikurim, the holiday of the first fruits.
      3. Dairy Foods: On Shavuot, it is customary to eat dairy foods cheesecake and blintzes being particular favorites! (see NJOP’s Shavuot Recipes) Those who have the custom to specifically eat meat meals on festivals as a sign of joy, usually have a small dairy kiddush and then, after rinsing their mouths, have a meat meal. Again, numerous reasons are suggested for eating dairy on Shavuot:
          • Prior to receiving the Torah, the Jews did not know the dietary laws. Among the first laws that were taught to the Jews were those of kosher slaughtering. The Jews refrained from meat at that time until they were able to properly prepare the utensils and learn, with precision, the laws of shechita, ritual kosher slaughter.
          • In the times of the Temple, Jews celebrated the bounty of the land on this holiday of the first fruits. Dairy foods represent the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to bring the Israelites to a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
          • The Song of Songs, written by King Solomon, has been interpreted as a love song between G-d and the Jewish people. Chapter 4, verse 11 reads: “…honey and milk are under thy tongue,” an allegory for the sweetness of learning Torah.
          • On more mystical level, the gematria (numeric value of the letters) of the word chalav, milk, is 40, which corresponds to the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai learning the Torah.


The Festival of Weeks, Holiday of the First Fruit, Time of the Giving of the Torah – the many names of Shavuot describe it well.

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