4 Traditions That Define Shavuot in Israel

Touring Israel - shavuot in israel may 2015 photo by zachi dvira
Harvesting wheat in Israel

Shavuot, one of the three pilgrimage holidays to Jerusalem in the Jewish calendar, is one of the more peculiar holidays. It has multiple names – “Shavuot” refers to the counting done from Passover to Shavuot (shavuot means weeks), “Bikurim” refers to the bringing of agricultural offerings to the Temple and “Matan Torah” refers to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

It is a one-day holiday in Israel (two in the Diaspora) and is packed with seemingly random traditions that leave something for everyone. Here are the main customs that define the celebration of Shavuot in Israel these days:

1. Celebrating Israel’s agricultural bounty

Touring Israel - israeli produce Dana Friedlander
Israeli produce

For many Shavuot is about celebrating Israel’s agriculture. It was this time of year that Jews would bring an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem from the first wheat harvest. Kibbutzim and moshavs host agricultural festivals on Shavuot and an “offering” of Israeli produce is brought to the president of Israel in Jerusalem – a modern-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

2. Staying up studying Torah all night

torah photo from wiki commons by yigal shragian ???? ??????
A Torah scroll

A story is told that the Israelites overslept on the morning they were to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. In order to right this wrong, many people stay up all night as a “tikkun” – reparation.

There are hundreds of study programs throughout Israel. Jerusalem is a particularly popular place to spend Shavuot with dozens (if not hundreds) of learning programs, including many in English.

3. Praying at dawn at the Western Wall (and the beach)

kotel at night wikicommons by mali koch ??? ???
The Western Wall at night

The Western Wall is definitely the place to be at dawn of Shavuot. Hundreds of people convene to pray. At the exact minute when the sun rises, a united voice arises as people recite the ancient prayer “Shma Yisrael.”

And the second best place to be at that time is the beach in Tel Aviv where people assemble for a spiritual prayer experience on the beach.

4. Dressing in white and eating tons of dairy

Touring Israel - carmel market cheese wikicommons Yehudit Garinkol
Cheese in Carmel Market, Tel Aviv

It isn’t entirely clear why people dress in white on Shavuot or eat dairy. One theory is that once the laws were given on Mount Sinai, the people could no longer eat meat until they began preparing it according to the new laws they’d just received. And so meanwhile, as they celebrated the giving of the Torah, they feasted on dairy.

Still don’t get it?

This year Shavuot falls on Saturday, May 23, 2015 at night and ends the next day after sunset.

If you’re still having trouble figuring out what this holiday is all about, try watching this cute video that ties it all together:

Photos by Zachi DviraDana Friedlander, Yigal Shragian, Mali KochYehudit Garinkol


Deena Levenstein

Deena Levenstein is a writer and social-cultural entrepreneur in Jerusalem. She creates and hosts events and runs "Things to do in Jerusalem," a Facebook group of handpicked cultural events in the city. In her spare time she blogs at

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