God commanded the Israelites to appear before Him three times a year in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem . This dramatically preserved the memory of the three significant periods in their early history in which God proved he was the Savior and Redeemer of His people.
Passover (Pesach) celebrated the deliverance from Egyptian bondage and was symbolized by the offering of the Passover lamb. Pentecost (Shavuot) celebrated the firstfruits of a new harvest and was symbolized by the offering of two wave loaves of newly harvested wheat. Tabernacles (Sukkot) celebrated the end of Israel ‘s wandering in the wilderness and entrance into the Land of Promise , symbolized by the building of lightly constructed booths.
Shavuot (also spelled Shavuos) means weeks.” The Greek translation is Pentecost meaning “fifty” because it falls fifty days after Passover. The Biblical names for the festival are: “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 ).
Grain harvest in the Mid-East is a time of great joy and festivity. It occurs at the most beautiful season of the year, early summer, when the land is fragrant with various trees, plants and flowers.
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.”
This was a joyous time for the Jewish people. The Mishnah (a rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures) describes the preparations. The villagers first assembled in the large town of their district and then proceeded together, carrying baskets of their first ripe fruits to the Temple where they were welcomed with song by the Levites ( Temple priests).
For centuries Shavuot retained its character as a thanksgiving festival in which Israel expressed her dependence on God’s provision in the land. However, Shavuot was observed only in the Temple , and when this holy place was destroyed in 70 A.D., Shavuot had to take on new meaning or be lost as a Jewish holiday.
RABBINIC TIMES – THE DIASPORA
When the Jewish people became dispersed throughout the nations, a new dimension was added to the Shavuot celebration . 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.” Whether or not this was a correct interpretation, Shavuot is now celebrated as the birthday of Judaism!
CELEBRATING SHAVUOT IN 1979
The agricultural association no longer had much meaning after the Temple was destroyed and the people were dispersed from the land. Additionally, there were no Biblical ceremonies connected with the giving of the Torah since the declaration of the holiday was post-Biblical. What customs remain today and how is Shavuot celebrated?
In modern Israel , attempts have been made to revive some of the harvest festivities. In the month of Sivan (May-June) the farm settlements (Kibbutzim) celebrate with songs, dancing and theater performances.
In worldwide Jewry, for the celebration of the giving of the Torah, it is customary to adorn the synagogue with green plants and flowers because Sinai was green at the time the Torah was given.
In the Jewish home it is customary to eat dairy products, for the Torah is compared to milk. Also, according to one explanation, after the receiving of the Torah, the people were so tired and hungry that after returning to their tents, they couldn’t wait for the long preparation of kosher meat so they rushed to eat whatever dairy products were available.
The Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue at Shavuot for several reasons:
- The events took place at harvest time (Ruth 2:23 ).
- Ruth was the ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:17 ), who, according to tradition, died on Shavuot.
- Ruth desired to identify with the Jewish people and the God of Israel.
- Ruth’s loyalty was 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 (Exodus 19:20 ,26).
JESUS ä? THE TRUE REASON FOR CELEBRATING SHAVUOT
“And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” ? Genesis 12:2-3
The Abrahamic Covenant reveals the purpose of God to provide through the nation of Israel a Savior and Redeemer. “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”
This is the great promise fulfilled in Abraham’s Seed, Jesus the Messiah!
In Israel ‘s early history, separation from the nations (or Gentiles) had preserved her from following the practice of pagan idolatry. God called the Israelites to be a separate people, a chosen people, a people of the covenant, a people of the Law, a light to the nations.
But then that which was meant to be a means to an end became an end in itself. Through the centuries, the spirit of God’s statutes was lost, and a strangling legalism imprisoned the people.
Jesus reiterated the Abrahamic Covenant to His Jewish 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.)
This element of surprise continued for Peter and the other disciples even after Jesus’ resurrection and for seven weeks (50 days) until Shavuot (or Pentecost).
Jesus, before ascending to Heaven, had commanded His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they would be given the Holy Spirit.
“And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.”
“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.”
“And they were allfilled with the Holy Ghost. ? Acts 2:5,l,4a
Three thousand people gladly received the message of salvation and this, then, was the birthday of the Church!
In the Old Testament, the beginning of the new harvest was marked by the 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 ).
To complete the harvest symbolism, the two wave loaves ultimately found their reality in the Church composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers!