On all three Regalim [Pilgrim Festivals], the Torah commands us not to do any work (a negative precept) and to rejoice (a positive precept). The three days prior to Shavuot, Sivan 3, 4 and 5, are called the three days of "Hagbalah" (restriction):
"And you shall set bounds for the people" (Exodus, 19:12).
These are days of sanctification and preparation for receiving of the Torah. The seventh of Sivan, the day following Shavuot, is called Isru Hag, the same as for all three Regalim. In the Diaspora it is celebrated as the second day of the festival - the additional day of the Diaspora.
Shavuot abounds in customs:
Tikun Leil Shavuot - a Night of Vigil and Study for Shavuot
It is customary to remain awake through the night of Shavuot and to read chapters from the Torah, the Mishnah, the Gemara and the Zohar. A special book, known as "Tikun Leil Shavuot", was drawn up for this purpose.
This custom has its source in the Midrash, which relates that the Israelites were neglectful in receiving the Torah, since they slept on the night preceding the giving of the Torah and Moshe Rabbenu had to awake them frequently.
This 'piyut', (liturgical poem), recited prior to the Torah reading on Shavuot, as a kind of opening to the actual Torah reading, is read only in Ashkenazi communities. It was written by Rabbi Meir, the son of Rabbi Yitzhak Nehorai, who was hazan [cantor] of Worms in the eleventh century.
The piyut, written at the time of the Crusades, describes how the Jews were persecuted in the Diaspora and killed for the sanctification of G-d's name, but did not desert their faith in the Lord of the Universe who had taken them as His chosen people.
Shabbat Kallah - Sabbath of the Bride
In Sephardi communities, the Shabbat before Shavuot is called "Shabbat Kallah". The Torah is likened to a bride, and the Jewish people to a bridegroom coming to meet his bride. Thus the poets composed wedding songs and instituted a special version of a "ketubah" (marriage certificate) that is read out in the synagogue, when the Sefer Torah [Torah Scroll] is taken from the Ark, just as the "ketubah" is read under the wedding canopy.
This Shabbat is widely celebrated in Jewish communities. The synagogue service is followed by dancing and refreshments.
Green Plants on Shavuot
On Shavuot it is customary to decorate the home and the synagogue with flowers and green plants. The Aggadah relates that when the Torah was given, Mount Sinai suddenly burst into flower and was covered with trees, flowers and grass. Spring is the time of new blossoms, and thus we honor the holiday with symbols of the season.
However, the green plants symbolize above all the custom of bringing first fruits from the seven species characterizing Eretz Israel.
Bringing First Fruits- Bikkurim
This custom derives from the offering and the shew-bread that were brought to the Temple and the Priests. As far back as the first man who tilled the soil, Cain, a need was felt to thank G-d for the crop in the field and the blessing in the garden.
The bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem was a unique event. Tens of thousands went up to the Holy City. Those who came from nearby brought fresh fruits, while those who came from afar bore dried fruits and olive oil in place of the first fruits of the previous year: olives, and honey - from the first fruits of the previous year's dates.
The procession of those bearing baskets of fruits went up to Jerusalem, preceded by an ox - a symbol of strength helping the farmer in his work. The ox's horns were gilded and it wore an olive wreath on its head. Alongside the ox went the pipers and the dancers, and when the convoy reached Jerusalem, it was welcomed by all the city dignitaries and all the tradesmen.
When the Temple was destroyed, the bringing of the first fruits was abolished. Nonetheless the custom has remained of bringing a gift of the first fruits of the garden and the field to the rabbi or to the head of the community.
In Israel first fruits are brought to the Jewish National Fund, which redeems them with money set aside for building the land.
Special Shavuot Foods
As on every holiday, special foods are also eaten on Shavuot. It is customary to eat dairy foods, since the Torah is the source of life for all, just as milk is for the suckling child. Further, cows and goats have an abundance of milk in this season, and many delicatessens can be prepared from milk. Some people bake tall cakes in memory of the giving of our Torah on Mount Sinai. Others eat a great deal of fruit, in particular the seven species of Eretz Israel.
Other customs include:
A pilgrimage to King David's tomb,
Visits to the tombs of Sages and pouring water [libation];
In Israel special attention is paid to: the mitzvot of the Shemittah [sabbatical] year, "kilayim" (mingled seeds), and gifts to the poor, which are closely related to the laws of working the land, and thus to Shavuot.