Shavuot History

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It was during the rabbinic period, as well, that the festival of gladness became the culmination of a long period of sadness. The weeks of counting the omer were a semi-mourning period. Among the reasons for this was the legendary belief that 12,000 of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples had died in this period. Some historians believe this period was associated with the Hadrianic persecutions that occurred after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (second century C.E.) against Roman rule in Palestine. There may also have been sadness connected with the destruction of the second Temple (70 C.E.) when the people were no longer able to bring the omer offering to the Temple.

The 33rd day of counting the omer, Lag B'Omer--"lag" equals 33 in Hebrew--was an interruption of the period of sadness. The legend had it that the disciples ceased dying on that day.

It was in the mystical work, the Zohar, that the omer period was viewed as the "courting days of the bridegroom Israel with the bride Torah." As of the 16th century C.E. there is recorded data for the practice of studying Jewish sacred literature for the entire first night beginning Erev Shavuot. This custom, called "Tikkun Leil Shavuot" (preparation for the evening of Shavuot), is an old one, but was there is no conclusive evidence for it before the Safed kabbalists (mystics) headed by Isaac Luria.

Because of the Shavuot connection with the giving of Torah, a few hundred years ago the Eastern European practice began of introducing young children, between the ages of three and five, to Torah study at this time. They were given cakes, honey, and candy during the initiation in order that they would associate Torah with sweetness and joy. Another modern practice associated with Shavuot was Confirmation. The Reform movement, in its early years, believed that 15 or 16 was a more appropriate age than 13 for an initiation ritual for Jewish learning. Shavuot was considered the perfect time to confirm young people into lifelong study of Torah. Many Reform congregations still conduct Confirmation at Shavuot. Other movements have also adopted this practice.

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