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.
We looked at this Scripture in our last post – the main Scripture for dating Shavuot, the Feast of the Weeks, one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. Surprisingly, the Torah doesn’t provide a specific date for this festival, instead linking its date directly to that of Passover. There are several names in the Scriptures for this festival – for example in Exodus 23:16, when the Lord speaks of three annual feasts, He calls Shavuot Chag HaKatzir, Feast of the Harvest. But the word Shavuot means “weeks”, and the festival of Shavuot, first of all, marks the completion of the seven-week counting period – the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, as we saw last week. We also spoke about different understandings of the words: ‘from the day after the Sabbath’ – whether they refer to Sunday, the first day of the week and the day after the weekly Shabbat, or the second day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. There have been different views in different groups throughout the history – but today, the second view is most widely accepted and Shavuot is held on the 6th of Sivan, fifty days after the second day of Passover. What does Shavuot commemorate in the Jewish tradition?
Traditional Jewish understanding
In Jewish tradition, Shavuot came to be understood as commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Why? 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, Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah. The earliest references to this interpretation date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Gradually, in Jewish tradition it became מתן תורה חג the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The word Shavuot שבועות itself provides 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.
It is now 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. Thus, each Festival in the Jewish calendar is associated with a major historical event and a major religious theme. “Pesach, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, has creation as its theme, the creation of the Jewish people; the theme of Shavuot is revelation; and the theme of Succot, associated with the forty years of wandering culminated by entering the Promised Land, is redemption.” These three major themes – creation, revelation and redemption – are very important and present in different aspects of Jewish life, but they are most evident in the three Biblical Festivals.
As you might expect, the synagogue readings for this holiday include Exodus 19-20: Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments. However, there is an additional special reading for Shavuot: the book of Ruth, Megillat Ruth, is also read at this Festival. Why? The first and traditional explanation is because the story of Ruth is the story about a harvest. Secondly, Ruth and Naomi came to Beth-Lehem around the time of Shavuot; and thirdly, there is a legend that Kind David died on Shavuot, and Ruth was a great grandmother of David. “In addition,” David Stern writes, “since it tells about the joining of the Moabite woman Ruth to God’s family, it gives a remez (“hint”) about the future aspect of God’s work on earth, the joining of Gentiles to God’s people, the Jews, through the Messiah Yeshua.” I agree that the choice of this book for Shavuot was absolutely prophetic, but I would like to offer some additional thoughts here.
The Festival of Shavuot is described in the Torah in a very prosaic, very mundane way, as Chag HaKatzir, Feast of the Harvest. However, it became the day when Heaven was opened and the physical, visible reality was transformed at His touch. This happened both in Torah and in the New Testament—at Mount Sinai and in Jerusalem—on both days, God’s reality shone through the earthly, mundane, visible circumstances. Heavenly reality filled the Earthly, and the stories that seemed earthly and mundane, became filled with Heaven.
Now, there are many things we could say about the book of Ruth, but for me personally, one of the most amazing things about this book is the seemingly huge gap between the mundane and the heavenly: for Shavuot, for the ‘Day of the Open Heaven,’ we read this story with harvest, and threshold, and many other almost technical details. Yet, as this story unfolds, the gap starts to disappear: like in a doubly-exposed roll of film with its images overlapped, we start seeing God’s reality beginning to show through the prosaic visible circumstances. Once again, the story that seemed earthly and mundane, becomes filled with Heaven – and in this sense, the book of Ruth is a perfect match for the Shavuot reading.
Let me finish this article with some meaningful Hebrew insight. We all know Ruth’s famous words: “wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” She says these words in the very first chapter of the book, when she decides to remain with Naomi, while the second daughter-in-law, Orpah, turned back. The Hebrew word I want to show you here, I believe explains the difference between these two women – between the one who went and the one who did not.
In English, Ruth 1:18 reads: “When she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, then she left speaking unto her.” This “steadfastly minded” (sometimes translated as “determined”) translates a Hebrew word מִתְאַמֶּ֥צֶת – to make an effort. In the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as in some English versions, it is the same word that we hear from Jesus in Luke 13:24: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door.” To join God’s people, to walk God’s path, requires conscious effort, and Ruth made this effort while Orpah, with all the good intentions she had, didn’t make the effort. That’s why we read the book of Ruth – and not the book of Orpah – on Shavuot.
 David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1995 – p.219
 Ibid. p. 220
 Ruth 1:16
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