Shavuot Or Pentecost: Jewish Or Christian?

My dear readers, even though we still have one installment left for Judah, I have to pause my biblical drawing and to say a few words about Festival of Shavuot which we will be celebrating in a couple days. We will complete Judah’s biblical portrait in the next post.

 

Shavuot in the Torah

15 ‘And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. 16 Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord[1]

This is our main Scripture for dating Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks, one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. The Torah doesn’t provide a specific date for this Festival, linking its date directly to that of Passover. The word Shavuot means “weeks” and the festival of Shavuot marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. As you’ve just read, the Torah prescribes the seven-week counting “after the Sabbath”; since the previous verses in this chapter of Leviticus speak of the Pesach feasts: the Passover, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits, we understand that counting starts from some Sabbath during the Passover. However, no exact specification is given as to which Shabbat is referred to, therefore different interpretations and consequently different dates for Shavuot have been suggested and celebrated over history. “While the book of Joshua (5:11) suggests that the earliest practice understood mimacharat hashabbat to refer to the ‘morrow’ of the first day of Pesach, a usage confirmed by the Septuagint, Josephus and Philo”,[2] the different groups of the Second Temple period, understood it differently: for instance, “the Qumran community understood the allusion to be to the first Shabbat after Pesach”[3].

Today, Shavuot is held on the 6th of Sivan, fifty days after the second day of Passover. It is one of the three major annual feasts in the Biblical calendar. The synagogue readings for this holiday include Exodus 19-20: Moshe’s ascent of Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments. Why? What does Shavuot commemorate in Jewish tradition?

 

Shavuot in Jewish tradition

In Exodus 19:1 we read that the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai “in the third month”. The third month after the Exodus is Sivan; since this was also the month of Shavuot, the rabbis deduced that God gave the Torah on Shavuot. Thus, in Jewish tradition, Shavuot came to be understood as commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses—Chag Matan Torah — חג מתן תורה. The earliest references to this reinterpretation date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. The word Shavuot, שבועות , became an additional proof, since it can also be read as “oaths”: on that day, God swore eternal faithfulness to Israel, and Israel became God’s people. Today, it is widely accepted that the Torah was given by God to the Jewish people on Shavuot. In this sense, every year on the holiday of Shavuot the Jewish people see themselves as renewing this experience —renewing our acceptance of the Torah.

Shavuot in the NT

The Bible also says: “count fifty days”, which is why, in the New Testament, the name for the holiday is usually translated as “Pentecost”. Did you know that Shavuot and Pentecost are two different names for the same Festival? Therefore, the events of the first two chapters of the book of Acts must be seen against the biblical background. For instance, when in Acts 1:4 Jesus commanded his disciples not to “depart from Jerusalem,” we would better understand this command if we remember that Shavuot is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, when all the Jews were supposed to be in Jerusalem: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths.” (Deut. 16:16)

As we are reading Acts 2:

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  (Acts 2:1-3) –

We  have to remember  that the Feast of Weeks—Shavuot—forms the background of this event and that by the first century the festival was already associated with the covenant made with Moses. We would then understand that it was certainly no coincidence that the descent of the Spirit is described on the day of Pentecost, and we would be able to see these beautiful and profound parallels between God giving His Word and giving His Spirit. On both occasions, Shavuot becomes the day when the Heaven is opened and God Himself claims His people. The “noise like a violent storm” in Acts 2 definitely echoes the thundering from Exodus 20:18, and the fire of Acts parallels the fire of Exodus. In Midrash Shmot Rabba, we have this commentary on Exodus 20: “One voice was split into seven and they were divided into seventy languages.”[4]. Hillary Le Cornu and Joseph Shulam quote an even more amazing midrashic sentence: “The voice went out and was divided into seven voices and from seven voices into seventy tongues, so that all the nations will hear. And every nation heard the voice in its own tongue and was amazed.”[5]. It seems that Luke consciously builds these parallels and describes the events of Acts 2 in terms of a “second Sinai”, thus, Jesus’ command to the Apostles to wait in Jerusalem might also be understood as a hint that, as God’s Word was given on Shavuot, God’s Spirit will also be given on Shavuot.

 

[1] Lev.23:15

[2] Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p.55

[3] Ibid, p. 56

[4] Exodus Rabbah, 28:6

[5] Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p. 60

 

f you like  my articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  through my page on this blog,  https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/   

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

You might also be interested in:

Join the conversation (6 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. Lita Minor

    Today is the 49th day of counting the omer. Seven weeks of abiding in what His Word says, a time of rehearsal anticipating the Jubilee, when His people will be set free and the land returned to its rightful owner… His Word was given to all of us who believe.

  2. Ken W

    Tremendously work and detail. The study of Judah is fascinating. Certainly has lead to a deeper appreciation for the language and historical setting. Thank you

  3. Alana

    Great, Julia!
    As a Messianic pastor, specially appreciate it
    Alana

  4. Nick

    Thanks Julia for this! I am convinced that proper interpretations of Judaism and Christianity will result in a congruent world view that make past conflicts pale.
    Nick

  5. Judith Sharon

    Is it not also interesting to note the 3000.
    Exodus 32:28 And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.​

    Acts 2:41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.​
    Romans 5:20 Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound

  6. Jane Catherine

    Dear Julia,
    I am a student of Torah and identity. I’ve been enlightened by your posts though I’ve many questions about the Hebrew and Jewish thoughts or philosophies. I would like to know your thoughts about these.

    Thank you.

    Jane