In the Torah portion of Bamidbar, it tells of a census used among each tribe in the nation of Israel in order to gather a strong military. One designated leader from each tribe conducted the census and all of the total numbers from each tribe are listed. The final count totaled to six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty eligible men from all of the tribes. The Levites, however, were not included and were not designated to take part in the war; rather, they were assigned the task of overseeing the Tabernacle, including the assembling and disassembling of it when on the move, and transporting it.
A census was then conducted of the Levites as well as the first-born Israelites. For every individual firstborn Israelite more than Levites, five shekels were given to the priest in order to redeem them from a certain service. Moses and Aaron were also told to take a census of the Kehat family in the tribe of Levi in order to designate specific tasks to them; they were mainly assigned the role of transporting each holy element within and surrounding the Tabernacle, which was to be covered in blue wool by the Kohanim, priests.
This Torah portion appropriately precedes the festival of Shavuot as we have been counting up to this holiday from Passover, in a similar manner that the Israelites counted for the census. What is this holiday of Shavuot? What is this ultimate moment that we have been awaiting with much anticipation?
Shavuot is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the anniversary of God giving the Jewish people (the Israelites) the Torah and the beginning of the nation of Israel committing to following the laws of the Torah. This holiday, which is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, is celebrated on the sixth day of Sivan, the third month in the Hebrew calendar. The date was determined based on the seven-week counting cycle, known as Sfirat HaOmer (the counting of the Omer) that follows the festival of Passover. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are meant to be a time of preparation and a longing to celebrate the receiving of the Torah.
There are several customs intricately linked to the festival of Shavuot. There is a custom to stay up all night on Shavuot studying Torah known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, correcting the night of Shavuot. This custom originated as a way to rectify the past, as according to tradition the Israelites overslept and were unprepared for the receiving of the Torah. Another major custom on Shavuot is to eat dairy food; there are many reasons as to why dairy food is consumed. Some literature claims that before the receiving of the Torah, there were no laws regarding kashrut and animal slaughter. While other literature suggests that the Torah is compared to the sweetness of milk.
Among Ashkenazi Jewish communities it is common to publically read, before reading the Torah, liturgical poems, known as Akdamot. In Sephardic communities this custom is not practiced, but other poems are included in the evening prayer service. In all congregations, Megillat Rut, the book of Ruth, is recited as it relates to the harvest season, which is also celebrated on Shavuot. The story of Ruth describes how she, like the Israelites awaiting the Torah, desired to be close with God, with the Jewish people, and with Torah.