Essence of Sivan

This “Essence” is taken from the Sourcebook for Leaders, written by Rabbi Rachel Gartner and Barbara Berley Melits, for Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! This experiential program was created by Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies to strengthen the Jewish identity and self-esteem of adolescent girls through monthly celebrations of the New Moon festival. The program is now available through Moving Traditions.

Fast Facts

Sivan is the third month of the Jewish calendar.

Sivan comes at the same time as the secular months May/June.

The mazal (constellation) for Sivan is Gemini, the teomim (twins). We can think of the twins as symbolizing the two identical “tablets of the covenant” given to Moses during the month of Sivan.

Tradition teaches that it was on Rosh Hodesh Sivan that the Israelites “camped at the foot of Sinai” in preparation to receive the Torah (Exodus 19:6). The verb used for “camped” in Exodus 19:6 is in the singular. It is taught that at the moment the Israelites determined to receive the Torah, they were united in heart and mind like a single person. Sivan’s symbol of the twinstwo distinct human beings sharing one wombcan represent the harmony that comes when people celebrate their differences while coming together to work for a common, higher goal, such as receiving and following the Torah.


Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) falls on the sixth day of Sivan (and on the seventh of Sivan for those Diaspora communities that observe two days). In biblical times, Shavuot marked the end of the grain harvest (which began with the bringing of the Omer on Pesakh), and was called hag ha’katzir (The Harvest Holiday). The ritual ushering in of the new agricultural season—the bringing of the first fruits of the land to the Temple—was also celebrated on Shavuot. From this practice Shavuot gets its third name, hag ha’atzeret (The Holiday of the First Fruit Offering).

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Shavuot’s association with agricultural rites became obsolete. The rabbis began to connect Shavuot with the Revelation on Mount Sinai which, according to the Torah, took place in Sivan. Today Shavuot celebrates the giving and receiving of the Torah.

Shavuot Customs

Studying Torah all night long! It is a kabbalistic tradition (coming from the sixteenth-century mystics of Safed) to stay up the entire (first) night of Shavuot studying Torah. Known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, this all-night study session is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the study of Torah. Tradition teaches that the skies open up during this night for a brief moment, and God favorably answers all prayers. The kabbalists also think of Shavuot as the moment when God and Israel wed; the Torah is the ketubah (marriage contract) or written affirmation of the covenant between them.

Chanting the Ten Commandments On Shavuot it is customary to chant the Ten Commandments with a special trope (manner of chanting Torah). The Ten Commandments are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 with minor differences:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside Me.

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them ….

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God ….

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy ….

Honor your father and mother ….

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife: you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Reading Megillat Ruth (The Book of Ruth) Megillat Ruth tells a story of a relationship of great love, loyalty, and devotion, which develops between the two heroines of the story, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. It is customary among Ashkenazic (Western European) Jews to read Megillat Ruth during the morning services of Shavuot because:

  • Like Shavuot, Ruth’s story takes place during harvest time.
  • Ruth converts to Judaism, which is similar to our acceptance of Torah on Shavuot.
  • Tradition teaches that King David, Ruth’s great, great grandson, was born and died on Shavuot.

The Story of Ruth

Our story begins in the Land of Israel, during the period of the rule of the Judges, leaders of the Jewish People who preceded the Kings. The first characters we encounter in this story are Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Machlon and Kilyon.

Elimelech, Naomi, and their family move to Moav in order to escape the effects of a famine that has broken out in the Land of Israel. Elimelech then dies, leaving Naomi alone with her two sons. As they grow up, each of her sons marries a Moabite woman. One marries Orpah, and the other marries Ruth. After ten years living in the land of Moav, both of Naomi’s sons, Machlon and Kilyon, die, leaving the women without husbands or children.

News comes from Israel that the famine has lifted. Naomi decides to return to her home in Israel. Her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, tell Naomi that they want to remain with her and return to her land. Naomi discourages them, telling them that they should live their lives fully and not follow this aged woman. She feels that she no longer has anything to offer them.

Orpah eventually decides to leave, but Ruth will not be dissuaded. She says to Naomi, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you  for wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lie down, I will lie down. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Naomi and Ruth arrive home in Bethlehem. The townspeople hardly recognize Naomi. She says to them, “Don’t call me Naomi (meaning pleasantness), call me Mara (meaning bitterness) because God has made my life bitter.” (Ruth 1:20)

Once settled in the land, Ruth offers to become a gleaner, picking up grain behind the cutting crew in the fields. When Ruth chooses a field to glean in, by chance she chooses the field of Boaz (a relative of Naomi’s).

One day, Boaz arrives in the field and his attention is drawn to Ruth. He learns of her identity, and because he has heard of her loyalty to Naomi and the Israelite people, he invites her to remain in his field until the end of the harvest.

Ruth returns to Naomi and informs her of where she has been working. Naomi explains that Boaz is an eligible kinsman to reclaim the family land and to wed Ruth, and she instructs Ruth on how to invite him to become her husband.

Boaz is pleased that Ruth came to him and he tells her that he will work to reclaim the property of Naomi’s family and to marry Ruth. Boaz arranges for the necessary permission to acquire the land from a closer kinsman and to marry Ruth. At the city gate, a group of people gather together as witnesses to the marriage and bless the couple. The people give blessings to Ruth that she should be like Rachel and Leah.

At the end of the story, Ruth and Boaz have a son whom Naomi loves like her own child. The women of the town tell Naomi that her new grandson, Obed, will watch over her in old age, and that Ruth, her beloved daughter-in-law, is better to her than seven sons.

Decorating the synagogue and our homes with roses and fragrant greenery. This custom derives from many different midrashim connecting the events at Sinai to spices and roses. One midrash says that as each commandment was given, the world filled with the fragrance of spices.

Eating Torah (well not exactly!). In many European towns young children were first introduced to Torah and Hebrew on Shavuot. It was customary to dab honey on the tablets upon which Hebrew letters were written; as their teachers taught, kids would lick the honey. Passages from Torah were also written on honey cake and eggs. When the lessons were finished, kids were given the cake and eggs to eat. The cake was made with a lot of honey and milk, as it is written: “Honey and milk are under your tongue.” (Shir HaShirim 11:4)

Affirming our commitments: confirmation. In keeping with the emphasis on learning and on accepting Torah on Shavuot, many synagogues hold confirmation ceremonies on Shavuot.

Fabulous Females

This month’s fabulous females are Naomi and Ruth whom we read about in Megillat Ruth (see above).

Naomi endures many hardships in her life and she moves from joy and abundance to sorrow and emptiness and back to joyful abundance. Her story reminds us that when we let true friends accompany us, we can make it through even the most painful turns in life’s journey.

May we learn from Naomi to accept the love that we are freely offered, trusting in our own worth.

Ruth inspires us to pursue Torah and Jewish learning and community with devotion and enthusiasm. Her story reveals that great things come when we follow our hearts, and when we give love freely and fully.

Naomi and Ruth’s story teaches us that even when things seem desperate, we should stay hopeful and keep trying.


It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. This custom may come from the verse in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs): “Honey and milk are under your tongue,” which can be understood as comparing the Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey. Another traditional explanation for this custom is that when the Israelites first received the laws of kashrut, they realized that all their pots were unkosher from having been used to eat forbidden meats, and so they ate dairy food until they were able to make their pots kosher. Try some new cheeses on Shavuot, and indulge in ice cream and other sweet and creamy desserts!

Since Shavuot is a harvest festival, in Israel there is a tradition of eating the first fruits of the season. We suggest doing the same.


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