I’ve often heard (and many rabbis lament) that Shavuot is the only major Jewish holiday many Diaspora Jews have never heard of or ever celebrated.

If you are one of these newbies to the holiday, its origins and its practices, you’re not alone. To see if you fall into this category, take this little quiz.

On Shavuot, Jews mark:

  1. The new year of the trees.
  2. The anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
  3. The day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.
  4. The anniversary of Kristallnacht.
  5. The day of the year Jews brought their first fruits to the Holy Temple.

For starters, the two-day holiday (celebrated just one day in Israel) begins this year after Shabbat on Saturday, May 19, and ends at nightfall on Monday, May 21. Shavuot means “weeks” in Hebrew, arriving seven weeks after Passover, and concludes the counting of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover. More widely known, it celebrates the moment some 3,330 years ago when the Israelites interrupted their wanderings in the wilderness long enough to stand together at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, amid thunder and lightning, they were given nothing less than the secret power—God’s living laws in the form of the Torah—that would guide and propel their descendants into becoming the longest-running religion on Earth.

For Moses, brokering the giving of the Torah was the high point in an illustrious career as G-d’s right-hand man. For those recently freed slaves, the revelation at Sinai was a chance to experience G-d directly, when they agreed unanimously that “we will do and we will hear.”

The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, and marks the wheat harvest in Israel. The Torah teaches us to bring the first fruits of our harvest to G-d on Shavuot, but since the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Jews have had nowhere to bring these fruits. There is little else in the Torah to guide our celebrations, except from refraining from work. Note: Tying the holiday to the giving of the Torah was added after Second Temple days.

There are, however, quite a few age-old (and some newer) traditions for celebrating the holiday:

  • All-night (or at least late-night) learningTikkun Leil Shavuot (“Repair of Shavuot night”), instituted by the mystics of Tzfat in the 1500s, is so named because the tradition is to stay up all night learning to make up for our ancestors oversleeping on the morning they were to receive the Torah. After a full night of study, many attend early services and enjoy a communal breakfast before stumbling home to bed. Families whose kids need their sleep often hold late-night Jewish storytelling parties.
  • Cheesecake, blintzes and other dairy delights. This beloved tradition (at least for the lactose-tolerant) reflects the Israelites’ 40-year trek to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Another connection: Jews compare the words of Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey.
  • An extra charitable deed or act of kindness. Based on the command the Torah gives us (Vayikra 23:22) to leave the corners of our field unharvested so the poor and the convert can come and take it at night (a Jewish sensitivity: gleaning in the dark, they won’t be embarrassed by their situation).
  • Decorate homes and synagogues. Some fill their homes with greenery for the holiday, as do some synagogues.
  • Celebrate converts. This honors Ruth, the most notable Jew-by-choice, whose dramatic story we read on Shavuot. Ruth, destined to be the great-grandmother of none other than King David, was known for her commitment and for stating: “Your people will be my people, and your G-d my G-d.”

Reform

Celebrating the receiving of the Torah is one reason that Reform and Conservative congregations have long scheduled their confirmation ceremonies for teens on the holiday. “The fact that our young adults confirm and affirm their connection with Torah and Jewish identities at this time is fitting,” says Rabbi Benjamin David, senior rabbi at Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J. “It’s especially powerful since they are now more mature than when they were bar and bat mitzvahs and able to embrace Judaism more as adults.”

Shavuot also gives an opportunity for Jews to learn together, says Rabbi David. A case in point: For the first time this year, his congregation will be learning late into the night at a local diner with members of two other synagogues.

“The story of Ruth reminds us to welcome the other and the Jewish imperative of social justice,” he says, “and creating a safe place and insisting on human dignity for everyone.”

Conservative                                                                                   

One up-and-coming theme among Conservative congregations is a focus on celebrating the natural world. So says Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “At some congregations, they march around the shul with baskets of produce as a way of re-enacting the bringing of the bikkurim, the ‘first fruits,’ and at others, they learn at their Tikkun Leil Shavuot about the Jewish theme of protecting our world. But there is a greater emphasis now on the environment.”

Rabin also notes that the book of Ruth resonates with Conservative Jews. “Ruth is both part of a tribe, the Moabites, singled out as the enemy, and yet is seen as the paradigm of the act of choosing Judaism so much so that the messiah is destined to come from her. That Torah can have internal contradictions and still be divine is a core tenant of how Conservative Jews tend to see Torah.”

Orthodox

At synagogues like Beth Joseph Congregation in Phoenix, AZ teens and adults turn out for all-night learning, followed by early services the next morning. “In order to satisfy their spiritually we know we need to satisfy them physically,” says Rabbi Harris Cooperman, who directs development at the Phoenix Hebrew Academy and is one of some eight teachers of a wide range of Torah topics that night. As for the snoring that sometimes greets his talks, he takes it in stride. “It’s a normal human function,” he says. “The main thing is for them to be able to function the next day and be in shul for the Ten Commandments. If they can function enough do that, it’s great.”

Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston is offering some creative spins on the late-night learning, with some classes leaving enough time to switch out so both mom and dad get a chance to learn, other classes just for women and still others scheduled for the daytime so congregants can sleep and be refreshed and ready to learn, plus all-night learning for the hearty breed of teens. “We have a diverse menu for our diverse membership,” he says.

Chassidic

Besides staying up all night long learning Torah (fueled by equal parts cheesecake and coffee), many observant Jews also emphasize the importance of involving children in the Shavuot festivities. “That’s because, before G-d agreed to give the Torah to the Jewish people, He required guarantors,” says Rabbi Mendel Bluming, co-director of Chabad Shul of Potomac, Md., with his wife, Sara. “The Jews offered their children as guarantors that we’d treasure the Torah and make it our guide in life. And that’s why we honor the children and make sure they’re in synagogue to hear the Ten Commandments.”

Grownups have plenty to learn from the small guarantors, adds the rabbi. “They have an openness and trust that can easily be lost to cynicism as we grow older,” he says. As a reward for this pure faith “and to show the sweetness of Torah,” the kids who come to the Chabad House can expect ice-cream in 10 colors, one for each commandment, and a “mountain” of toppings.

Women and girls also light candles to usher in the holiday on both the first and second evenings of Shavuot. On the second day of Shavuot, the Yizkor memorial service is recited.

Despite the different emphasis and traditions, in many ways Shavuot is a “surprisingly trans-denominational holiday,” says Rabbi Sara Sapadin, an adjunct rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El on New York City’s Upper East Side. “When you really look at it closely, you will see that we all celebrate the giving of the same Torah and in many of the same ways.”

(By the way, the correct answers to the question above are both numbers 3 and 5).

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Classic Cheesecake

1 cup graham-cracker crumbs

3 Tbsp. sugar

3 Tbsp. butter, melted

5 pkg. (250 g each) brick cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. flour

1 Tbsp. vanilla

1 cup sour cream

4 eggs

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Mix crumbs, 3 Tbsp. sugar and butter; press onto bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake 10 minutes.

Beat cream cheese, 1 cup sugar, flour and vanilla in large bowl with mixer until blended.

Add sour cream; mix well.

Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing on low speed after each just until blended. Pour over crust.

Bake 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until center is almost set. Run knife around rim of pan to loosen cake; cool before removing rim.

Refrigerate overnight or for at least 4 hours.

(Recipe courtesy of Kraft Foods)