Ask A Rabbi: What’s Shavuot, and Why Do So Few Jews Observe It?

“I’m currently dating a Jewish man. I’m not Jewish and didn’t grow up in any particular religious tradition. Jeff grew up in a synagogue with a bar mitzvah, even if he isn’t so religious now. After Jeff and I starting dating, I began reading more about Judaism. As often happens, I ask Jeff about the different Jewish holidays and traditions. When I asked him about Shavuot, he didn’t really know much about the holiday, other than most people he knows don’t observe it. So what is Shavuot, and why do so few Jews seem to observe it?”

For American Jews, Shavuot is easily the least-celebrated major holiday. This year Shavuot falls on Memorial Day, which shares one major similarity with Shavuot: it’s not widely observed. So what is Shavuot, and why is it not more widely observed among Jews? Jeff’s experience of Shavuot is common among American Jews. Sukkot has the sukkah, a focal point for getting together under the stars in a beautiful, natural setting. Passover, of course, has the seder—the ritual meal that sociologists tell us over 70 percent of Jews participate in each year. These rituals create family memories and traditions that make them familiar even to Jews who don’t consider themselves particularly religious.

Shavuot has no similar family ritual. Originally a Jewish harvest festival, today Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. While in Israel the harvest feature still resonates, Shavuot observances today focus around the story of Revelation, the receiving of the Torah. Just as the Israelites waited during the night to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, today people gather at late-night study sessions and snack on cheesecake and other dairy treats. The Reform movement, recognizing this connection to Torah, long ago instituted confirmation ceremonies to occur on Shavuot. This also gave people a reason to personally attend services on Shavuot.

While Shavuot lacks a family connecting ritual, it is all about families, particularly about our diverse families today. It’s a tradition to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot; Ruth, a Moabite woman, married into a Jewish family. When her husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, tells her to find a Moabite husband. Ruth refuses, saying: “Do not beg me to leave you, and to return from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where thou die, will I die.” Ruth returns with Naomi to Bethlehem, where she marries Boaz, her husband’s cousin.

Ruth is considered in Jewish tradition to have converted to Judaism, even though she undergoes no conversion rituals. What is remarkable in this ancient text is that with her first husband, she is welcomed and loved by her Jewish in-laws. It is only after the death of her husband, when she has the option of staying in her home country, that Ruth formally pledges herself to the Jewish people.

This ancient text is a lesson to those of us who are Jewish to warmly embrace those from other backgrounds who marry into our families, both those who convert, as well as those who do not. Perhaps this is why the ancient rabbis teach that this story exists to teach us to practice chesed, or steadfast kindness. So while Shavuot may not have a major family ritual associated with it, it does contain family values we can all embrace.

For couples and families who maintain more than one religious tradition, InterfaithFamily offers resources and community.