Word "Shavuot" over background of trees and windows.

Holiday Traditions, History & Celebrations

The Evolution of Shavuot

Over the centuries, Shavuot’s significance and traditions have changed, reflecting the values of Jews at particular times in history. 

The holiday originated as a Shalosh Regalim, or pilgrimage festival, during which Jews during the First and Second Temple periods (around 586 BCE and 70 CE) would travel to Jerusalem bringing harvest foods. It wasn’t until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans that Shavuot was rebranded, as the Jews could no longer bring their harvest to the Temple. Instead, it became what we know it today as a celebration of receiving the Torah, which holds the laws of the harvest. 

Black and white photo of confirmation students and their teacher.

In the 19th Century Shavuot remained a celebration of the Torah in most Jewish communities but evolved in American Reform synagogues. This change came in light of the growing popularity of “biblical criticism” that questioned the applicability of ancient texts to modern life. This created hesitancy among many liberal Jews towards celebrating the Torah, giving birth to a new form of Shavuot adopted by many American Jews. In many Reform congregations, Shavuot became a celebration of learning centered around Jewish children completing confirmation, an alternative of Jewish learning that included girls, unlike the traditional Bar Mitzvah ceremony. During these Shavuot celebrations, children would carry flowers around their synagogues to uplift the passing of Jewish values to subsequent generations. 

In the 20th century, American Reform movements returned to many traditional customs they had previously questioned, mainly due to increased immigration of Jews committed to these traditions. While confirmations continued, Reform synagogues adapted Bar Mitzvahs to include girls too. Today, most modern Jewish communities continue to celebrate Shavuot as a commemoration of receiving the Torah.