The Mothers Circle Guide to Shavuot

Shavuot is a spring harvest festival that celebrates when the Jewish people received the Torah (the core Jewish sacred text) on Mount Sinai after they left Egypt.  If you heard the story of the Exodus during Passover, this is part of the “sequel” that explains what happened after the Israelites escaped.  Unlike many other Jewish holidays, Shavuot does not have any mitzvot, prescribed commandments, associated with it. However, there are a number of customs that have become closely associated with the holiday. You may want to take Shavuot as an opportunity to create unique family traditions that incorporate and/or supplement the rituals associated with the holiday.

Here are some of the traditions you might notice in your community during Shavuot:

  • Dairy meals : This is a Shavuot tradition that doesn’t have a clear origin.  It’s traditional to eat dairy products and some people think this is because Hebrew Scriptures refer to Israel as the land of “milk and honey.” 
  • All -Night Events: To revel in the anticipation of the revelation of the Torah, many communities hold all-night study sessions where people gather together and read, sing, discuss, and learn throughout the night. This event is called Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (the Shavuot night-watch) in remembrance of the Biblical legend that the ancient Israelites were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai for three days and three nights in anticipation of receiving the Torah. Today, Jews all over the world celebrate Shavuot as a time of learning and education.
  • The Book of Ruth : The central character of Shavuot is a hero named Ruth. Surprisingly, this hero is not Jewish (although she eventually embraces Judaism later in the story). Ruth's tale is one of the special readings recited in synagogues throughout the world in celebration of Shavuot.  Ruth, like many participants in The Mothers Circle, married into a Jewish family and forms a special bond with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  In one passage Ruth says to Naomi: "Your people will be my people, your God will be my God, where you reside there shall I reside, and where you will die there shall I be laid to rest as well.” If you would like to read the book of Ruth, The Mothers Circle national rabbi, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, published a translation that you can purchase here.
  • Flowers and Decorations: Traditionally, Shavuot was an agricultural festival. In our present era, we recognize this aspect of the holiday by bringing the outdoors inside on Shavuot. Synagogues and homes are often decorated with greens and flowers.

Shavuot Resources for Kids:

  • As a way to honor the anniversary of when the Jewish people received the Torah, you might want to give your children an age-appropriate Torah of their own. These plush stuffed Torahs can be a fun way for younger children (ages 2-6) to participate in the holiday.
  • To teach your children about the history and observance of Shavuot, you might try reading your children an age-appropriate book about the holiday. Consider the following options:

Barbara Diamond Goldin and Anik McGrory, Mountain of Blintzes: A Story for Shavuot. Gulliver Books, 2001
This is an adaptation of a traditional Jewish story about Shavuot. As the children of a large family find the resources to provide blintzes for the holiday, they learn about Shavuot, cooperation, and creativity. Written for children ages 5-8.

Sylvia A. Rouss and Katherine Janus Kahn, Sammy Spider's First Shavuot. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2008
This book is part of the ‘Sammy Spider’ series and provides an explanation of Shavuot for younger children. Written for children ages 4-8.

Shavuot Resources for Parents:

  • The Parent Page of the Union for Reform Judaism’s website offers a PDF overview of Shavuot. This document includes clear background information and activities. Click here to download it.
  • In Shavuot for Kids: A Pajama Party with Ice Cream, author Ken Bresler comments on the important role of children in the holiday and offers fun suggestions of how parents can engage children in the celebration of Shavuot.

Recipes for Shavuot:

  • If you want some new food ideas for celebrating Shavuot (in addition to cheesecake and blintzes), check out Aaron Kagan's article "Beyond Blintzes: A Culinary Tour of Shavuot" for symbolic recipes from Tunisia to the Baltic Sea.
  • This article from provides additional background on Shavuot and includes holiday recipes (including some that are lactose-free).