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Shavuot 101

Like many Jewish holidays, Shavuot is, in part, an agricultural celebration. Shavuot marks the first harvest. In ancient times, we would have traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem with our best produce and livestock to sacrifice to God as a sign of our gratitude and our humble acknowledgment that a successful harvest relied on more than just our hard work.

In addition to the agricultural significance, Shavuot represents a milestone in the annual reenactment of our spiritual journey. On Passover, we celebrate the birth of Judaism with our liberation from slavery in Egypt. After the Israelies cross the sea of reeds, they journey south to Mount Sinai to receive Revelation. On Shavuot, we transport ourselves to that moment when our ancestors stood at the foot of the mountain in awe and wonder entering into our sacred covenant with the Divine.

A highlight of services on Shavuot is reading the Ten Commandments on Shavuot morning. Many people choose to stand for this Torah reading—emphasizing its particular importance. We also read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. This unique scroll in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) focuses on a Moabite woman, Ruth, who demonstrates a sincere desire to be a part of the Israelite community. Ruth is depicted as a person of profound integrity, kindness, and loyalty. Her efforts are rewarded and she is not only embraced as a member of the Israelites, but also becomes the great grandmother of King David. We look to her as the paradigm for our modern conversion process.

On Erev Shavuot, in eager anticipation of receiving Revelation, we stay up all night long studying. This earnest immersion in learning is called Tikkun Leil Shavuot. To give us energy for these all-night study sessions, we eat delicious dairy foods like blintzes, ice cream, and cheesecake. Though the origin of the connection between Shavuot and dairy foods is unclear, some see it as a metaphor for the Torah. Just as milk is sweet and nourishing, so too is Torah.

Ten Facts about the Ten Commandments

1. In Hebrew, the Ten Commandments aren’t actually called Ten Commandments (Aseret Hamitzvot)…

Instead, we call them the Ten Utterances (Aseret Hadibrot).

2. In the actual Torah text, there isn’t a clear delineation as to each commandment…

It is unclear that there are even ten commandments in total.

3. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants number the commandments differently…

You can change the order of the Commandments by clicking on the header row in this table.

Commandment Jewish Catholic Protestant
I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: 01
You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness… 02 01 01 & 02
You shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God 03 02 03
Remember Shabbat and keep it holy… 04 03 04
Honor your father and your mother… 05 04 05
You shall not murder. 06 05 06
You shall not commit adultery. 07 06 07
You shall not steal. 08 07 08
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 09 08 09
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. 10 14 10

4. The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah…

First in Exodus 20 and then again in Deuteronomy 5. They are almost identical with the exception of the instructions around Shabbat:

Exodus 20:8-11 Deuteronomy 5:12-15
(8) Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. (9) Six days you shall labor and do all your work, (10) but the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. (11) For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (12) Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as Adonai your God has commanded you. (13) Six days you shall labor and do all your work, (14) but the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your donkey, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. (15) Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Adonai your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

5. To account for the discrepancy between these two versions, the rabbis tell us that God caused us to hear two different words at the same time…

The 16th-century poet Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, who composed Lekha Dodi, captures this idea in the first verse: “Shamor vezakhor bedibur ehad – ‘Observe’ and ‘Remember’ in one utterance.”

6. If you want to experience what it might have been like for two different words said at once…

7. The first four commandments are about our relationship with God…

The last five commandments are about our relationship with other people. The fifth commandment, To honor your father and mother, is a transition between these two sections.

8. The Jewish community didn’t stop counting at 10…

We have a total of 613 commandments!

9. One midrash describes revelation as a marriage ceremony between the Jewish people and God…

Mount Sinai is suspended over us like a huppah and the ten commandments are like our ketubah.

10. Followers of Mel Brooks argue that there were originally 15 Commandments