Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are the three major festivals of the Jewish year. They are also known as the three pilgrimage festivals because during the time of the Temple all Jewish people were asked to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for these festivals.(Source: Jewish tradions).
From The Complete Story of Shavuot by NISSAN MINDEL:
SEASON OF THE GIFT OF OUR TORAH
On the sixth day of Sivan (it was on the day of Shabbat), in the year 2448 after Creation, God gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. The Feast of Weeks, on the sixth and seventh of Sivan, commemorates this great event.
THE FEAST OF WEEKS
This name is given to this festival because it is celebrated after the end of the seven weeks of the her, the counting of which begins on the second night of Passover.
THE FEAST OF HARVEST
In the land of Israel this was the season of the harvest, especially the wheat harvest. The first offering of the new harvest was made in the form of two loaves of wheat bread.
The Feast of Weeks marked the beginning of the season of the offering of the "first-fruits," at the time when the Temple, the Holy Sanctuary, stood in Jerusalem. The festival is so named also because of the offering of the "two loaves" which were called the "first fruits" of the wheat harvest.
Jewish Traditions on Shavuot By THE SOUTH AFRICAN JEWISH BOARD OF DEPUTIES
'"THERE was thunder and lightning, a dense cloud on the mountain and a cloud trumpet blast till all the people in the camp trembled . . . And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and Moses went up . . ." Thus Exodus 19 describes how our forefathers received the two Tablets of the Law. When did this great event take place?
The fact that Shavuot is also called The Feast of Weeks, gives us an indication, for, according to our tradition, the great day in our history took place Seven Weeks from the second day of Passover. We begin to celebrate the festival of Shavuot on the evening of the fifth day of the month of Si van, and observe it for two days — the sixth and seventh day of Sivan. (In Israel, Shavuot is observed for only one day.)
A JOYOUS FESTIVAL
Shavuot is a holiday of great rejoicing. It commemorates the time when the Lord gave the Ten Commandments (Asereth Hadibroth), also known as the Decalogue to Moses, to the children of Israel, and through them to all future generations of mankind. Engraved on the Two Tablets there were ten short commandments — only 120 Hebrew words — yet in those 120 words lay the foundation upon which all laws of human decency, of justice and mercy towards our fellow men is based.
THE FIRST FIVE COMMANDMENTS
The first Five Commandments, which were written on the First of the Two Tablets, deal with the duties of man towards his God:
1. I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt . . . We are commanded to believe in the existence of God, for did He not lead Israel out of bondage into freedom? Having taken us under His wing, He has a claim to our gratitude, loyalty and obedience.
2. Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me . . . There can be no other God besides God, the Second Commandment tells us. Here then was born the The Synagogue on Shavuot pure idea of God as one all-powerful Spirit, more powerful than we can imagine. This belief in one God is the most important principle of Jewish teachings.
3. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain . . . Only with great reverence should His Name be mentioned, and never spoken lightly.
4. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy . . . Throughout the centuries up to the time this Commandment was, men, women and animals toiled day after day for their whole lives without ceasing. Can you therefore imagine what a boundless boon to all mankind this day of rest has been? And what a revolutionary idea this was to the Greeks and Romans — that a slave, too, should enjoy each seventh day as a day of rest! Is it not thrilling to learn that thousands of years ahead of all other peoples, the dumb beasts of burden should have been taken into consideration to such a degree that they should be mentioned in this Fourth Commandment, and a Law laid down to enable them to rest for one day out of every seven?
5. Honour thy Father and thy Mother . . .On earth, it is our parents who work for us, give us food and shelter, and protect us with their loving care. Our duties of respect and gratitude to our parents stand close to the duties we have towards the Almighty, who is the Protector of all men.
THE SECOND FIVE COMMANDMENTS
These Five Commandments deal with our duties towards our fellow men. Each Commandment begins with the words: "Thou shalt not . . . " They appear to be simple basic rules, yet in obeying them there lies the difference between the jungle with its wild beasts and decent human society. These Five thou shalt not's . . . which teach us how to behave towards others, in turn act as a protection for ourselves. The two principles: "Do not unto others that which thou wouldst not they should do unto you" and "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" contain the entire essence of the Five Commandments that were written on the Second Tablet.
ZEMAN MAT A N TORATENU — THE TIME OF THE GIVING OF THE LAW
According to the teachings of the Bible, that moment when our ancestors accepted the Ten Commandments and pledged themselves to live according to them, was the climax of the drama of being delivered from slavery into freedom. For this reason the Lord led the children of Israel out of Egypt and performed miracles on their behalf —in order to give into their safekeeping His Ten Commandments, upon which the whole of our Torah is built.
The whole of the Bible, however, contains many more than Ten Commandments. In fact, there are a total of 613 (six hundred and thirteen) precepts, dealing with every phase of our life.
SHAVUOT IS ALSO A HARVEST FESTIVAL
Spring and Harvesting are reasons for celebrating among the peoples of all lands. Naturally, it was no different in ancient Palestine. Shavuot marked the completion of the grain harvest. During Passover, the farmers began reaping their barley crops, which were followed by the harvesting of wheat. This busy period ended seven weeks later with the holiday of Shavuot. From all parts of the land, Jewish farmers of ancient Palestine travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem, bearing gifts of the first fruits of their soil. This is called Bikkurim. It was a token of gratitude to the Almighty for His goodness and His bounty.
A PILGRIMAGE FESTIVAL
Shavuot is one of three festivals when particularly the men had to assemble in Jerusalem. (Pesach and Sukkot are the other two.)
IN MODERN ISRAEL
In Israel to-day Shavuot is still the joyous harvest festival it was in ancient times. All over the country, in every city and village, children, garlanded with leaves and flowers, walk in processions, carrying their offerings of fruit. In the town hall or city square they deposit their gifts, and dance, act and sing the story of Shavuot. Since Shavuot is both a joyous religious festival and a gay harvest festival, the synagogue is on this day brightly decorated with green branches and flowers.
It is the custom of orthodox Jews to stay up the whole first night of Shavuot in the synagogue in order to read and study selections from the Books of Moses, the Prophets and the writings of the Rabbis. These extracts from the Bible, Mishnah and Talmud are called Tikkun Shavuot.
A beautiful hymn called Akdamoth is read during the morning service on the first day. This hymn was written by Rabbi Meir, the Cantor of Worms, in the eleventh century. It is a very important poem describing the greatness and majesty of Almighty God.
After Akdamoth, portions of the Bible are read: Chapters 19 and 20 from Exodus, telling of the bringing forth of the children of Israel out of Egypt in order to entrust them with the Holy Laws. And when the Cantor reads the Ten Commandments out aloud, the whole congregation rise to their feet and remain standing until the end of this portion.
THE BOOK OF RUTH
In keeping with its character as a harvest celebration, the story of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavuot before the reading of scripture.
The story of Ruth is a picture of farm life in ancient Palestine, filled with the breath of summer and sunlight, and reapers busy harvesting in the fields. Against this charming background, there unfolds the story of the young beautiful Moabitess Ruth, who accepts the Jewish faith by saying to her mother-in-law those simple, moving words: "Thy people are my people, and thy God is my God." Thus a poor widowed girl came to Palestine and became the happy wife of the wealthy farmer Boaz. It is of interest to remember that Ruth and Boaz had a son, whom they called Obed. Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of David.
INTRODUCING CHILDREN TO THE TORAH
Since Shavuot celebrates first and foremost the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people have always considered this festival as the most suitable time to introduce the Torah into the lives of their children. In the Middle Ages it was customary for a little boy who was about to become a student, to be wrapped in a prayer shawl and carried to the Synagogue by the Rabbi, parents and friends. Here for the first time in his young life, the Ten Commandments were read to him from the Scroll of the Torah. From there the little chap was taken to the Cheder, where he was given a slate on which the following sentence from the Bible was written — in honey: "The Law that Moses commanded us, is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob."
As the boy repeated each word, his friends and relatives showered him with gifts of fruit and sweets. The honey and sweetmeats are all a symbol of the sweetness that came into the lives of the Jewish people with the acceptance of the Torah.
SHAVUOT AT HOME
There is a festive air at home during Shavuot. On the evening of both days mother lights the candles and father recites the Kiddush. It has become customary to eat milk foods during Shavuot—dairy dishes such as milk soups, cheese buns, blintzes and" latkes. By preparing these dishes, mother helps to add a special character to the festival of Shavuot at home.