If you only know one thing about Shavuot, it's probably that people eat dairy-laden treats to celebrate it. That's definitely an important (and delicious) part of Shavuot, but before we get to the cheesecake of it all, there are a few other things to know about this holiday.
Shavuot actually commemorates two separate events: the harvest of early summer and the presentation of the Torah, the holy text of Judaism, to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Rabbi Yael Rapport of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City tells Refinery29 that this latter observance has become more significant to the holiday over time. "It’s taught in midrashim (our ancient storytelling tradition) that every Jew, from the young to the old, from the leaders to the water-carriers, every Jewish soul that ever was or will be, was present in that moment at the foot of Mount Sinai to accept and commit themselves to this gift," she says.
Nowadays, Shavuot is viewed as an opportunity for Jewish people to learn about their religion and identity — and celebrate it. According to Rabbi Rapport, people often get together the night before Shavuot for a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a gathering where they study the Torah as a group, exchanging insights on the text into the wee hours.
On the day of Shavuot, people attend special synagogue services and, yes, enjoy those aforementioned sweet dairy confections. Rabbi Rapport says that the exact snack (be it a blintz, kugel, or cheesecake) varies from region to region, but dairy remains the focus of the food. "We don’t have any hard and fast halachah (Jewish laws) around why we eat dairy or even that we should eat dairy," she says. Nevertheless, the tradition has stuck — but we doubt anyone's complaining.
Rabbi Rapport says communities will also use this as an opportunity to recognize the young Jewish people among them and those who converted to Judaism. These groups were the most recent to commit themselves to their Jewish faith (either by converting or studying for their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah).
And that's what lies at the heart of Shavuot celebrations: accepting the word of God, just as the Israelites were believed to have done at Mount Sinai.