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May 18th, 2010
02:58 PM ET

Explainer: What’s Shavuot? Hint: It starts tonight

At sundown tonight, Jews will begin to observe Shavuot – a holiday that commemorates when the ancient Israelites at Mount Sinai were given the Torah, Judaism’s founding texts.

The holiday comes seven weeks after Passover, signifying when the Israelites escaped Egypt, where they had been slaves. After wandering in the desert, led by Moses, they came upon Mount Sinai. And with the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, Judaism officially began.

The custom on Shavuot is to gather with community members and study Torah throughout the night. It is also traditional to eat dairy foods, like blintzes, cheese and cheesecake. Many say this is because the Israelites had been promised “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Shavuot is also one of Judaism’s three agricultural festivals. It marks when the first harvests were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem.

It is also customary to read the Book of Ruth during Shavuot, writes Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs, in a contribution he made to the site MyJewishLearning.com.

As way of background, Ruth was a Moabite who lost her husband and then followed “her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, into the Jewish people with the famous words ‘whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God,’” Isaacs wrote.

Ruth, often considered the first convert to Judaism, came to Israel around Shavuot, Isaacs said, and her embracement of Judaism parallels the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah.

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Faith • Holidays • Judaism

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.