This lesson is designed to give the reader a better understanding of Shavuoth’s historical development and its relevance to our Congregation today.
Shavuoth, the Festival of Weeks, comes on the sixth day of the Hebrew month, Sivan. It is the second pilgrimage festival which occurs exactly seven weeks after the second day of the Passover. Shavuoth commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and the offering of the first fruits of the spring harvest.
Historical Background: Agricultural Origins
The ancient Israelites were an agricultural people and many of their festivals had roots that evolved around nature and farming. Such is the case with Shavuoth. Shavuoth, which means “weeks,” is a festival that came at the conclusion of the seven-week period of the grain harvest in early spring.
The actual beginning of the grain harvest was marked by the sacrifice at the sanctuary of the omer (i.e. the first sheaf of the newly cut barley). Then, fifty days later at the close of the harvest period, two loaves of bread that were baked from the wheat of the new crop were offered as a sacrifice to God (this offering was a token of thanksgiving to God for making the land fertile enough to produce food).
According to Deuteronomy chapter 26 and versus 1 through 11 and chapter 16 versus 9 through 12, Shavuoth is also a time to commemorate the exodus from Egypt and to thank God for providing land “flowing with milk and honey”. As pointed out above, it is customary during Shavuoth to eat bread (leavened) baked from the new wheat. Leavened bread symbolizes freedom, which is a product of one’s own land. Traditionally dairy products and honey are also eaten as a reminder of God’s promise to the Children of Israel that He would give them land flowing with milk and honey. It is a time to remember that we were in bondage and that God brought us unto freedom.
Shavuoth, unlike other Jewish festivals recorded in the Bible, is the only festival in which a specific month or date is not given. Consequently, its dating has been the center of many debates. The Bible does not state the day on which Shavuoth should be observed. It only says that it should be celebrated fifty days after the offering of the omer, the first sheaf of the barley harvest, which was to be offered on the “morrow after the Sabbath.” Thus, various groups with their respective interpretations have observed Shavuoth on different days. For example the Sadducees, the party of conservative priests, interpreted the scriptural reference to mean that the omer was to be offered the first Sunday of the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread. Thus, Shavuoth would fall on the seventh Sunday after the Passover. The Ethiopian Jews observe it on the twelfth of Sivan. They interpret “the morrow after the Sabbath” to mean the next day after the final day of the Passover. The Pharisees have a third interpretation. They interpret the word Sabbath, not as the seventh day Sabbath, but the day of rest which occurs on the first day of the festival (Feast of Unleavened Bread). Accordingly, it became necessary for the Pharisees to offer the omer on the sixteenth day of Abib; Shavuoth, thus, coming on the sixth day of Sivan. Eventually, the Pharisean interpretation became the standard, which is almost universally practiced today.
New Focus: The Giving of the Torah
Shavuoth retained its character as a nature festival longer than any other Jewish holiday, but over time it began to lose its significance as it played a minor role in the life of Israel. Eventually, Shavuoth lost its original meaning and took on a new, historical significance and new spiritual content. Although there is no consensus among scholars when this change came about, its timing is perhaps after the Bible was written. Thus, Shavuoth became a festival of the giving of the Torah, of God revealing himself on Mt. Sinai, and the Day of Revelation. This change of emphasis became feasible, because it is stated in the Bible that the Israelites entered the desert of Sinai in the third month (i.e., Sivan) after leaving Egypt. Through the association with the giving of the Torah, Shavuoth attained a greater importance and became an exalted and spiritual festival rather than an agricultural one.
In our Congregation today, Shavuoth represents the coming from darkness to light of the Children of Israel when they received God’s laws and statues. It was the beginning of Israel’s spiritual life when God declared them to be His Chosen people, a different and distinctive nation to keep His laws and statues.