Jewish Holiday: Shavuot

By: Amy J. Kramer

Shavuot: Pentecost, Festival of Weeks

The holiday of Shavuot is observed on the sixth day of the third Hebrew month Sivan. For those living in the Diaspora, Shavuot is also observed on the seventh day of Sivan.

Shavuot takes place in the Spring, generally in late May or early June.

Shavuot is the holiday Jews universally accept as the day when G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah following Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai. However, nowhere in the Torah is the holiday of Shavuot actually linked to Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.

Instead, the Torah refers to Shavuot as an agricultural festival. It marked the transition between the barley harvest, which was brought to the priest in the Temple in Jerusalem on the sixteenth of Nisan and the start of the wheat-ripening season, which began the first week of Sivan.

The Torah refers to Shavuot as Hag ha-katzir, (Exodus 23:14-19) the feast of the harvest, as Hag Hashavuot, the festival of weeks, and as Yom ha-bikurim, (Leviticus 23:9-22) the day of first fruits, when farmers brought their produce to the Temple as an offering.

Shavuot is the second of the shalosh regalim, the three annual pilgrimage holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when Jews from all over Israel and beyond converged onto Jerusalem to celebrate and bring temple offerings.

The Torah commands that Shavuot be celebrated exactly seven weeks after the second day of Pesach, the day of the first Omer, the early barley harvest offering. This explains the name Shavuot – Hebrew for weeks, or as it’s known in Greek, Pentecost, meaning fiftieth day.

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your G-d, offering your free will contribution according as the Lord your G-d has blessed you”

Kabbalists saw in the number seven the concept of the sefirot, the spiritual spheres that surround the heavens and G-d. The number 49 is also symbolic of the 49 gates of impurity from which the ancient Israelites were released as they left the land of Egypt.

According to a very old tradition, the period between Pesach and Shavuot is also a season of mourning. Marriages are not performed, hair is not cut and live music is not played or heard. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.

One tradition suggests that since this period was preparatory to receiving the Torah, these days were set aside for serious reflection and study. Therefore, frivolous activities were put on hold.

The most widely accepted explanation is that a mysterious plague cost the lives of many of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the Roman period. On the thirty-third day of the Omer, the mysterious plague stopped. This is why Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer, is observed as a special, though minor Jewish holiday, when marriages, haircuts and live music are permitted.

In Israel, Lag Ba’Omer is also observed as the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Kabbalistic Book of Mysticism called the Zohar. A yahrzeit is the anniversary of a person’s death. Large numbers of people visit his grave in the city of Meron to commemorate the day each year. He is believed to have died on Lag Ba’Omer in the middle of the second century. It is interesting to note that Jews commemorate the Yahrzeit, rather than birthdays of its departed loved ones and sages as a reminder that it is not as important to celebrate the birth of those who pass away as it is to reflect on their life’s accomplishments.

Other Jewish holidays during the Omer:

Yom Ha-atzma-ut: The proclamation of the birth of the modern State of Israel was made on the fifth day of Iyar, 5708 (May 14,1948) the twentieth day of the Omer.

Yom Hazikkaron: Yom Hazikkaron or Remembrance Day, is a day of deep morning. It honors those who died in wars defending the land of Israel. Yom Hazikkaron is observed the day preceding Israel’s Independence Day.

Yom Hashoah: Today, the twenty-seventh of Nisan, which falls on the twelfth day of the Omer, was set aside in 1951 by the Israeli Knesset or Parliament as Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah, Day of the Destruction and Heroism, known today as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yom Yerushalayim: On June 7, 1967, equivalent to the 28th of Iyar, Israeli armed forces established control over the old city of Jerusalem and reopened Jewish access to the Western Wall, which the Arab rulers had denied. The Western Wall is the only remnant of the Jewish Temple. It was built by King Hadrian as a retaining wall and fortification for the Temple Mount.

Observance of Shavuot In Temple Times

The Jewish philosopher, Philo, (c.20 B.C.E.-c 50 C.E.) who lived in Alexandria, and Flavius Josephus, (c.38 C.E.-c. 100C.E.) the Roman Jewish historian, wrote about the Jewish pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Philo wrote that multitudes of Jews from countless cities converged on the temple at each festival. Some came by land and others by sea, from east, west, north and south.

“We hear of pilgrims from many cities in Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East amazed to hear their languages spoken, through the miraculous gift of tongues when they gather in Jerusalem for Pentecost,” wrote Philo in Acts (2:1-10)

Babylonia, which probably had the biggest Jewish population outside Israel, supplied the largest flow of pilgrims. Pilgrims traveled in caravans, setting off from towns inside and out of Israel. Obviously, not every Jew was able to travel to Jerusalem three times a year, so groups of district representatives known as the Ma’amad were organized.

The Mishnah, in Tractate Bikkurim, paints a lively picture of what it was like to travel to the Temple for the holiday of Shavuot.

At the rise of morning an official says: “Rise and let us go up to Zion to the House of the Lord our G-d.” An ox walked before them, its horns covered in gold, and with an olive crown in its head. The challil, (flute) was played before them until they reached the vicinity of Jerusalem. Upon coming close to Jerusalem, they sent word ahead and decorated their bikkurim (offering). The important officials went out to meet them… and all the tradesmen in Jerusalem stood before them and greeted them: “Our brothers, the men of such and such a place, you have come in peace.”

The flute was played before them till they reached the Temple Mount. Even King Agripas took the basket on his shoulders and carried it until he reached the courtyard. When the pilgrims reached the courtyard, the Levites sang: “I will exalt You, O G-d, for You have saved me and You have not rejoiced my enemies before me.”

With the basket still on his shoulder, the Israelite read a Parsha, or chapter, from the Torah: “I have told the Lord your G-d this day, that I have come to his land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us. My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there and he became there a great, mighty and numerous people. And the Egyptians harmed us, and they afflicted us and they put hard labor upon us, and we cried out to the Lord, the G-d of our fathers and the Lord heard our voice, and the Lord took us from Egypt with a strong hand… and G-d brought us to this place, and G-d gave us this land, and a land flowing with milk an honey. And now, I bring the first fruits of the land which you have given me, O G-d.”

After completing the entire parsha, the Jew placed the bikkurim basket by the side of the altar, bows and departs.

The High Priest then acts on behalf of the people as a whole, presenting before the altar the special Shavuot wave-offering – two loaves of bread made of wheat, the first products of the Spring wheat harvest that begins just as the barley harvest comes to an end. Thus, Shavuot in the days of the Temple celebrated the bounty of the spring harvest season.

So, how did this primarily agricultural festival become so intrinsically linked to the revelation at Mount Sinai?

Post Temple Times

Our rabbis explain that the nature of Shavuot began to change following the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Without the Temple, neither of the two agricultural rites of Shavuot could be observed. Instead, references to Shavuot Temple offerings were limited to prayers made in the Synagogue’s Shavuot services.

With the Temple destroyed, Shavuot needed a spiritual dimension. And, since the Jewish calendar is fixed, and Shavuot was already set aside as a holiday, the focus of the holiday began to shift to Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah, which, the Torah records, took place in Sivan, the month of Shavuot.

Unlike Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot doesn’t have obvious, visible symbols like a sukkah or a Passover seder. However, there are several customs associated today with Shavuot. For instance some communities decorate synagogues and homes with branches, plants and flowers, reminiscent of the flowering of Mt. Sinai before Matan Torah. (Exodus 34:3)

Families make it a point to serve dairy foods on the holiday, a symbol of the land of Israel flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). Many adults and even children (who are old enough) stay up well into the night to study Torah, a kabalistic custom known as tikkun leil Shavuot.

In addition, two important religious scrolls are read on Shavuot: The Book of Ruth, the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman, who voluntarily chose Judaism and because of her kindness, became the great-grandmother of King David, who is said to have been born on and died on the day of Shavuot.

Ruth’s story is also read on Shavuot because it takes place during the barley and wheat harvests of Judea, which ties in with the agricultural nature of Shavuot. From the Book of Ruth we learn of the laws of pe’ah, leaving the corners of a field unharvested, and leket, leaving behind individual stalks that fall from the bundles that can be collected by the poor.

We also read from a book called Akdamot, written in Aramaic by Rabbi Meir ben Isaac of Worms, Germany of the eleventh century, which describes what it will be like during the days of the Messiah.

In some conservative and reform congregations in the United States today, confirmation exercises are still held on Shavuot. This is consistent with the theme of accepting G-d and the Torah into our lives.

And finally, many Jewish schools throughout the Diaspora begin a child’s Jewish education on Shavuot. The custom is said to have its origins in medieval times, when a young child was brought to the classroom for the first time. Letters of the Hebrew alphabet were covered with honey or candy, fulfilling the Hebrew verse, “How pleasing is Your word to my palate, sweeter than honey,” (Psalm 119:103).