Shavuot: a five-minute overview
Celebrating the Harvest
Shavuot (also pronounced Shavuos) means "weeks". The Greek translation is Pentecost, meaning “fifty,” because it falls fifty days after Passover. It is also known as Hag-Shavuot (Feast of Weeks ? Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10), Yom-ha-Bikkurim (the Day of the Firstfruits – Numbers 28:26) and Hag ha-Kazir (the Harvest Feast ? Exodus 23:16).
For the Israelites, the beginning of the grain harvest was the sacrifice in the Temple of the omer, the first sheaf of newly-cut barley. Fifty days later (seven weeks), at the close of the total grain harvest, two loaves of bread were offered. The bread offering was called “the firstfruits of the wheat harvest.”
For centuries Shavuot was a joyous thanksgiving festival in which Israel expressed her dependence on God’s provision in the land. However, God commanded this celebration to be observed in the Temple, and when that holy place was destroyed in 70 A.D., Shavuot had to take on new meaning or be lost as a Jewish holiday.
Adapting to the times
After many calculations and great deliberation, the ancient rabbis surmised that God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai and gave the Law (Torah) to Moses on the Day of Shavuot (Pentecost).
They pointed to Exodus 19:1: “In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.” The description of the feast in the liturgy, therefore, is zeman nattan toratenu, “the time of giving of our Torah.” Shavuot is now celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Law.
In modern Israel, some of the harvest festivities have been revived. In the month of Sivan (May-June) the farm settlements (kibbutzim) celebrate with songs, dancing and theater performances.
In worldwide Jewry, it’s customary to adorn the synagogue with green plants and flowers because Sinai was green at the time the Torah was given.
In Jewish homes we traditionally eat dairy products. Why? The Torah is compared to milk. Also, according to one commentary, after receiving the Torah, the people were so tired and hungry that they couldn’t wait to cook any meat so they hastily prepared a meal of dairy products.
It is also customary to read the Book of Ruth because:
- The events took place at harvest time (Ruth 2:23 ).
- Ruth was the ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:17), who, according to tradition, was born and died on Shavuot.
- Ruth chose to identify with the Jewish people and the God of Israel and her loyalty is considered symbolic of Israel’s loyalty to the Torah.
The portion of the Torah read on the first day of Shavuot is the account at Sinai in Exodus 19.
The festival fulfilled
But the Law was only part of God’s plan. It showed us how short we fall of God’s standards, and how we need a savior. That Savior, Jesus, came through the Jewish people . . . but His salvation is for all who will receive Him.
Jesus reiterated the Abrahamic Covenant to His disciples by saying that they were to become a blessing to the nations of the world. They were to go out and bring even the Gentiles into God’s Kingdom! (Matthew 28:19-20.)
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the beginning of the new harvest was marked by the first fruits offering of the newly-cut barley sheaf. That symbol became a glorious reality in the New Testament when Jesus rose from the dead. He became the first-fruits of the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20).
Before ascending to heaven, Jesus commanded His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they would receive God’s promise . . . the power to become Jesus’ witnesses throughout all the earth.
It is no coincidence the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples on the Feast of Pentecost. Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest became part of the harvest . . . a harvest of hearts, as thousands gladly received the message of salvation. The Holy Spirit not only empowered the disciples to fulfill Jesus’ command to be His witnesses throughout the earth, but He empowered believers from various nations, as He still does today, to live and love as the community of God.