Shavuot

 

Shavuot  in the Torah

1‘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].

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? Moreover, we find in the Scripture other names for this festival. For instance, in Exodus 23:16, when the Lord is speaking of three annual feasts, He calls Shavuot Chag HaKatzir, Feast of the Harvest.

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. 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 Moshe. 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 giving the Torah. The earliest references to this reinterpretation date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. 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.

So 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[4]. 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.


Megilat Ruth

As you might expect, the synagogue readings for this holiday include Exodus 19-20: Moshe’s 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. But I really believe there is more to it, and that the choice of this book for Shavuot was absolutely prophetic.

Just think of it: 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. It 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 story 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 this 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 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.

 

Next time, we are going to discuss Acts 2 –Shavuot in the New Testament –and we will talk more about the Book of Ruth as well.

[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] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1995 – p. 219

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:

Three Plus Four: Leah

By Julia Blum

Three Plus Four: Rebecca

By Julia Blum

Join the conversation (29 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. Matthews Ameh

    Hi Julia, this is another of your rich and insightful articles. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Karen

    Thank You for all these.. I have learned many things..

  3. Mrs. Betty Koth

    My comment : Very informative information & mentioning The Book of Ruth.
    It reveals the clear line of Geneology to our Savior.

  4. Mrs. Betty Koth

    Dear Julia Blum;
    I so appreciate the truths you bring to us.
    Thank you that I can receive them in my E.Mail.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Betty. Really appreciate your kind words and so glad you enjoy these emails.

  5. michel angeloni

    ola muito boa tarde amo os estudos desse blog leio todos e me enriqueco grato e shallom.

  6. Janice Kennedy

    Janice Kennedy

    Thank you for a very informative article.I have both a Jewish calendar and an English one my English one
    bought in WH Smith’s lists Shavuot[feast of weeks]first day on Wed,May 31st.The Christians celebrate
    Whit Sunday[also call it Pentecost on Sunday June 3rd this year.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Janice. It’s really great you have both calendars. It is very important for the Christians to remember that Pentecost of Acts 2 is not some new “Christian” holiday, but the Biblical Festival of Shavuot.

  7. David Meyer

    Thank you for reminding us. So sad this day to be observed, Chag Hakatzir or Pentecost, does not appear on calendars.

    Chag Sameach

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, David, I definitely agree: it is really sad that the Biblical Festivals don’t appear on regular calendars. Maybe you can get either Jewish or Messianic calendar, in addition to the regular one? It will definitely be there.

  8. Gytree

    Dear Julia,
    These nuggets are really very educational. Many, many thanks for the education, have learned so much about the Jewish festivals.

    Gytree

  9. Martie Erasmus

    Thank you for this very interesting information. Very informative and well explained

  10. Joel A Haynes

    Julia, Thanks for another great study. In Luke 24:44 Jesus speaks of how He fulfilled what was written about Him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. We can tie the Passover to His death. But the other two feast are there fulfillment in Jesus’s live here on earth? i.e. tied to His birth or starting His ministry or some other events.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Joel, thank you for your kind words.I do believe that Jesus was born on Succoth (if you are interested , you can read my article on this blog, “When was the silent night?” ). Passover, as we all know , is the time of His death. As for Shavuot, – since the events of Acts 2, as you undoubtedly know, happened on Shavuot , I believe that this is the fulfillment of this feast. I am going to talk about it in my next post, in a few days. So- stay tuned!