The Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits
Note: Sections of this article adapted from David Brickner and Rich Robinson, Christ in the Feast of Pentecost (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008).
Though various Christian denominations commemorate Pentecost, many forget that it was a Jewish holiday before the Church was established. The name Pentecost comes from the Greek word for 50, but the Jewish name is Shavuot (meaning weeks or sevens).
Shavuot concludes the counting of the Omer, a seven-week period that falls after Passover. It’s known as the Feast of Weeks because it takes place after this seven-week interim. 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 yield 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).
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.
Even in early times, a diversity of opinions existed about the date of Shavuot. There were two major schools of thought on the interpretation of the Leviticus 23 text. The Sadducees interpreted “Sabbath” in verse 15 to mean the literal seventh day of the week, so that the barley sheaf was to be offered on the first Sunday of Passover or the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Then Shavuot would always fall on the seventh Sunday after Passover. The Pharisees, however, interpreted “Sabbath” not literally as Saturday, but figuratively, as the day of rest to be observed on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That would be the fifteenth of the Jewish month Nisan, regardless of what day of the week it was. Based on this interpretation, the barley offering would be made on the sixteenth of Nisan, and Shavuot would come seven weeks later, on the sixth day of the month Sivan, on whatever day of the week it might fall. As long as the Temple stood and the Sadducees were in charge, their view prevailed. Today, however, the date of Shavuot is based on the generally accepted interpretation of the Pharisees.
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 a`nd 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).”
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.”
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 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?
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.
For believers in Yeshua, Shavuot becomes an archetype of what happened seven weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection of Yeshua. Because of the great power displayed in the upper room at Pentecost, some regard this day as celebrating the advent of the Holy Spirit. Yet that was not quite the case. We read in John 20:22 that the risen Christ breathed on each of the disciples and filled them with the Holy Spirit weeks before Pentecost!
The event of Pentecost was the “birthday” of the Church—the welding together of Spirit-filled disciples into one organism—the living body of Christ. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit moved upon each of the disciples to bring about the united story of the Church. Just as the giving of the Law at Sinai formed the constitution of the spiritual commonwealth of Israel, so the visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples signaled the constitution of the spiritual community of faith in Christ. In the first case, Israel was brought together by the law (rules of constitution), in the latter, believers in Christ were bonded together not by rules, but by the Holy Spirit within them.
The entire spring religious season of Israel, from Passover to Pentecost, speaks of God’s plan to harvest a holy people for Himself. First, Yeshua died as the perfect, sinless sacrifice. Then, He arose and became the firstfruits from the dead as described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:20. Seven weeks after the resurrection, the dynamic manifestation of the Holy Spirit among the early Jewish believers became the catalyst for many to put their faith in God’s Messiah. The Jewish pilgrims at Jerusalem who heard and received the good news of salvation joyfully brought it back to their native lands. There, it was received by Gentiles as well as by other Jews, and the Church became established abroad.
Thus, the inclusion of the Gentiles completed the symbolism of the wave offering, where the High Priest offered two loaves of fine wheat flour baked with leaven. Centuries before it came to pass, the two loaves of the wave offering symbolized the Body of Messiah made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Though the loaves were made of fine wheat flour, they contained leaven, a symbol of sin. That speaks of the fact that the Church, though refined (cleansed by the blood of Yeshua’s sacrifice), still retains the human sin nature until that day when She will be presented as the Bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle.
Today, Pentecost should speak to us of the sowing of gospel seed and the harvest or ingathering of saved souls—redeemed people to become part of the Body of Christ. God wants such a harvest from every kindred, tribe and nation. As we celebrate the birthday of the Church, we would do well to contemplate the fact that our primary purpose is to proclaim the gospel. As we, God’s people, remain faithful to this task, the harvest will grow.