Shavuot: The Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits
Shavuot Quick Facts
- Hebrew Meaning of Shavuot: “Weeks”
- Transliteration: Shavuos
- English Name: Pentecost; also known as the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Harvest and the Feast of Firstfruits
- Western Calendar Month: May/June
- Jewish Calendar Date: Sivan 6–7
- Duration: One day in Israel; traditionally two days in the Diaspora. Some Diaspora Jewish communities celebrate only one day.
- Established: In biblical times. See Exodus 23, 34; Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 26
Note: Sections of this article adapted from David Brickner and Rich Robinson, Christ in the Feast of Pentecost (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008).
Purpose of Shavuot
Shavuot concludes the counting of the Omer, a seven-week period that falls after Passover. The Feast of Weeks is so called because it takes place after this seven-week interim; it is also known as Pentecost, which in Greek means “Fiftieth” (i.e., the fiftieth day after Passover). In current practice, the readings and practices of Shavuot largely pertain to the giving of the Law rather than the offering of firstfruits (see below).
Among less Orthodox Jews, Pentecost doesn’t claim as much attention as some of the other Jewish holidays. Although the Bible names the Feast of Pentecost as one of the Shalosh Regalim (“solemn feasts”), it may seem to some like the poor stepchild of all the Jewish holidays. It is one of the “top three” Jewish holidays (as indicated by the fact that it required a special trip to Jerusalem), yet it remains the least understood and the least celebrated of them all. “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).
Origin of Shavuot
Shavuot was a way for our people to offer their best to the Lord. In Exodus, God commands His people: “The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 23:19a; 34:26). Further instructions regarding this offering of firstfruits (grain) are outlined in Scripture in Deuteronomy 26:1–4:
And it shall be, when you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground, which you shall bring from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. And you shall go to the one who is priest in those days, and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket out of your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.
Following the presentation of the firstfruits or “wave loaves,” Jews would recite a prayer of supplication, describing the bondage of their ancestors in Egypt, their deliverance and their dependence on God, who brought them to “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). Jews were also required to give of their harvest to any poor dependents on Shavuot (“the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow”), so that the holiday served as an occasion for mercy and social equality.
How Shavuot is Observed
In Jewish tradition, Shavuot came to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the focus on the Feast of Firstfruits diminished. Later customs were not merely efforts to add a historical connection; they were attempts to replace something that had been lost. For example, the beautiful passage in Deuteronomy that describes the Pentecost worship experience—in which the firstfruits offering was so central—could no longer be enacted. Focus on the Torah became preeminent in the absence of the agrarian society, the Temple and accompanying rituals.
So although there is no clear biblical basis for the association of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah, there are still good reasons to celebrate the Torah on Shavuot. (Interestingly, in some Christian traditions the two have been long connected.)
One scholar has written that it is “customary to start the evening services of the first night later than usual. This is to satisfy the implication of Leviticus 23:15, i.e., we count seven complete weeks; therefore we wait to make sure that the forty-ninth day has been completed.” In other words, the later-than-usual service is a precautionary measure to make sure that all seven weeks of Omer have been counted out in full and haven’t been shorted.
As Shavuot has come to represent the sanctity of the Torah, many Jews spend the first night of Shavuot in study of the Scriptures. “It was an ancient custom for Jews to remain awake for the entire first night of Shavu’ot to study Torah. The Zohar ascribes this custom to particularly pious Jews (Emos 98a).”
Special Shavuot Synagogue Readings
- Torah portion: Exodus 19:1–20:23
- Maftir: Numbers 28:26–31
- Haftarah portion: Ezekiel 1:1–28, 3:12
- Torah portion: Deuteronomy 15:19–16:17
- (If on Shabbat, Deuteronomy 14:22–16:17)
- Maftir: Numbers 28:26–31
- Haftarah portion: Habakkuk 2:20–3:19
The book of Ruth is often recited in full during Shavuot, as is the prayer of supplication from Deuteronomy 26 (“A wandering Aramean was my father . . .”). Some congregations recite the Yizkor memorial prayer in honor of departed parents, as Shavuot hearkens back to our ancestors.
Psalm 67 is traditionally recited on Shavuot because it is composed of forty-nine words.
Ashkenazi Jews often recite the Akdamut, a poem written in Aramaic by Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nehorai of Worms, Germany. The poem of praise, written in Aramaic in the form of an acrostic, opens: “Were all the skies parchment and all the reeds pens, all the seas inks and everyone a scribe, God’s grandeur still could not be near spelled out.”
Traditional Shavuot Customs and Folklore
Milk and honey have long been associated with Shavuot, probably because of God’s promise that the Israelites would make their home in a land flowing with milk and honey. Other explanations have been offered to explain this custom. One claims that meat is associated with barbarism and therefore to be shunned during Shavuot, which is associated with the holiness of the Torah. Another cites a line from the Song of Songs, as representing the sweetness of God’s Word: “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Whatever the reason, many Jews celebrate the first day of Shavuot by preparing beloved dairy- and honey-based foods like blintzes and kugel. It’s a happy occasion for everybody (except the lactose intolerant!).
Shavuot is also a day when children are introduced to the study of Torah, and when small children learn the aleph bet; often they are given honey and sweets so that God’s Word tastes even sweeter!
Shavuot in the New Testament
The second chapter of Acts takes place in Jerusalem during Shavuot, here called by its Greek name of Pentecost (since the New Testament was written in Greek). There would have been large crowds present who had come to bring the “firstfruits,” or the first of their crops, to the Temple, as required on this holiday. A few incidents are recounted that link the story in Acts to traditions surrounding Shavuot.
First Shavuot Tradition:
Shavuot was not the only holiday of firstfruits. It eventually became known as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. There was a popular legend that before God gave the Torah to Israel, he first offered it to the other nations of the world in their own languages. For various reasons, they all declined to receive the Torah, except for Israel who eagerly received it.
The story recounted in Acts 2 tells how the disciples of Jesus were gathered in Jerusalem when a sound like wind came through their house, while something looking like tongues of fire appeared over them. As the disciples began to speak:
Now there were dwelling [that is, staying there for the holiday–Pentecost] in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)
If the legend about the giving of the Torah was known in the first century, it must have made many people think the legend was coming to life. After all, the wind-like sound and the tongues of fire were reminiscent of the thunder and lightning that accompanied the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Some may have thought, could God be speaking in a similar way once again—especially on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Torah to Israel?
Second Shavuot Tradition:
King David was born and also died on Shavuot. Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus, quotes from Psalm 16 saying:
“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke [in Psalm 16] of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact (Acts 2:29-32).
If this tradition was in place in the first century, Peter was taking what was on the minds of many people to make his point about the Messiah. This is always the thrust of the New Testament: Jesus is intimately connected with the hopes, dreams and traditions of the Jewish people.
During this festival when the people thanked God for giving them grain and for giving them His law, the Lord gave the Spirit of life (Acts 2:1-4). Jesus rose from the dead the first day after the Sabbath during Passover (Matthew 28:1-10). The firstfruits offered to God in ancient times anticipated the fuller harvest to come. The resurrection of Jesus anticipates the bodily resurrection of His people first promised under the old covenant (Job 19:25-27) and in the new covenant: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:20-23). Christ is the firstfruits of those who will be raised from the dead and His resurrection fulfilled the Feast of Firstfruits.
Shavuot Spiritual Application
There is an old American spiritual, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The jubilant chorus of the song—“We shall go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”—is inspired by a rather obscure verse from the Book of Psalms: “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6). The psalmist may be referring to Shavuot, which was a time for reaping the harvest to the glory of the Lord. Shavuot was a day of rejoicing when the ancient Israelites gave to God what was rightfully His: the firstfruits of the harvest.
Bringing the first of the crops was an important way for the Israelites to show gratitude to God and trust for His provision for a good harvest to come. Pentecost was a time to express tangible thanks for the basics of life, and to emphasize that God was the ultimate Giver.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11; see Luke 11:3). Perhaps that prayer was a meditation throughout the year as He saw worshippers streaming to Jerusalem with their baskets of firstfruits.
Although we no longer offer our literal firstfruits to God, we still have common ground with our fellow Jews on this holiday in seeking to offer our best to the Lord.
We also join our people in honoring the Torah and the Lord’s regard for his people. As followers of Yeshua, we recognize the importance of the divinely authored Law that the Lord gave to Moses, and join the Jewish community in celebrating the giving of the Law and hungering after knowledge of God’s Word. We also recognize that the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible expresses a hope that we see fulfilled in the redemptive work of Yeshua. The scriptural message of Shavuot is one that we can carry with us: we are to give our best to the Lord rather than withholding from Him what is rightfully His.
Have you read the Torah lately? Think you know everything about the Torah but have only ever skimmed it? We encourage you to give it a good read this Shavuot, to spend a night hunched over your Bible in study to come closer to understanding God’s relationship with his people and the Law he administered to them.
Listen to a song for Shavuot, The Vineyard Song, sung by the Liberated Wailing Wall. At least we think it’s a song for Shavuot, because it has a Shavuot-ish theme (vineyards, harvest). And if you don’t agree with the message, you might at least like the music.
- Cf. Leviticus 23:17: “You shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven; they are the first fruits unto the LORD.” Leaven is usually forbidden in sacrifices, perhaps because it suggests corruption and even sin. The presence of sin in the two loaves may be a statement that even the fruit of our labor is tainted by sin; or it may simply represent that God wanted not only the raw materials but the product prepared by human hands.”
- While the Bible doesn’t give us the specific date when the Law was given, it is not at all unreasonable to believe the giving of the Law converged with this feast.
- See Charles Souvay, “Pentecost (Jewish Feast),” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, retrieved May 5, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11661a.htm): “An entirely new significance, never so much as hinted at in Scripture, has been attached by the Jews to the feast: the Pentecost is held to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai… This view [is] admitted by several Fathers of the Church.”
- Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1979), 149.
Jewish Holidays 2018
Note that in the Jewish calendar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day:
More Articles about Shavuot
- Weak on the Feast of Weeks or Whatever Happened to Shavuot? by Rich Robinson
- Celebrating Shavuot With the Mishpochah
- Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks
- Shavuot Customs
- Reversing the Curse of Babel by David Brickner
- A Story for Shevuoth by Jean Zeller