Definitions

Shavuot

Shavuot

[Seph. Heb. shah-voo-awt; Ashk. Heb. shuh-voo-ohs, -uhs]
Shavuot [Heb.,=weeks], Jewish feast celebrated on the 6th of the month of Sivan (usually some time in May) in Israel and on the sixth and seventh days in the Diaspora. Originally an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the winter grain harvest (which began at Passover), Shavuot later commemorated the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. See Pentecost.

See H. Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (1938, repr. 1970).

Shavuot (or Shavuos, in Ashkenazi usage; Hebrew: שבועות, lit. "Weeks") is a Jewish holiday that occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (late May or early June). Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It is one of the shalosh regalim, the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer.

The date of Shavuot is directly linked to that of Passover. The Torah mandates the seven-week Counting of the Omer, beginning on the second day of Passover and immediately followed by Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks is understood to express anticipation and desire for the Giving of the Torah. On Passover, the Jewish people were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.

In the Bible, Shavuot is called the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot, , ); Festival of Reaping (Hebrew: חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir, ), and Day of the First Fruits (Hebrew יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim, ). The Mishnah and Talmud refer to Shavuot as Atzeret (Hebrew: עצרת, a solemn assembly), as it provides closure for the festival activities during and following the holiday of Passover. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Christians gave it the name Pentecost (πεντηκόστη, "fiftieth day").

Karaite Jews believe that this always falls on a Sunday, "Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord." . Sunday is the First Day of the week, the "morrow" after the "sabbath". Mainstream Jews, however, follow the teaching of the Talmud which teaches that in this particular case, the "Sabbath" refers to the first day of Passover (which can be any day of the week) and not particularly Saturday. See 'Counting of the Omer' below for further explanation.

According to Jewish tradition, Shavuot is celebrated in the Land of Israel for one day and in the diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Reform Jews celebrate only one day, even in the diaspora.

Connection with the harvest

Besides its significance as the day on which the Torah was given by God to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (; ). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest, just as the eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles) was the concluding festival of the fruit harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot ().

Ceremony of Bikkurim

Shavuot was also the first day on which individuals could bring the Bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem (Mishnah Bikkurim 1:3). The Bikkurim were brought from the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8). In the largely agrarian society of ancient Israel, Jewish farmers would tie a reed around the first ripening fruits from each of these species in their fields. At the time of harvest, the fruits identified by the reed would be cut and placed in baskets woven of gold and silver. The baskets would then be loaded on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who were led in a grand procession to Jerusalem. As the farmer and his entourage passed through cities and towns, they would be accompanied by music and parades.

At the Temple, each farmer would present his Bikkurim to a kohen in a ceremony that followed the text of . This text begins by stating, "An Aramean tried to destroy my father," referring to Laban's efforts to weaken Jacob and rob him of his progeny (Rashi on Deut. 26:5)—or by an alternate translation, the text states "My father was a wandering Aramean," referring to the fact that Jacob was a penniless wanderer in the land of Aram for 20 years (ibid., Abraham ibn Ezra). The text proceeds to retell the history of the Jewish people as they went into exile in Egypt and were enslaved and oppressed; following which God redeemed them and brought them to the land of Israel. The ceremony of Bikkurim conveys the Jew's gratitude to God both for the first fruits of the field and for His guidance throughout Jewish history (Scherman, p. 1068).

Modern observances

Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than the traditional festival observances of abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals. However, it is characterized by many minhagim (customs) that have taken on the force of law in traditional Jewish circles. A mnemonic for these customs is the letters of the Hebrew word acharit (אחרית, "last"). Since the Torah is called reishit (ראשית, "first"), the customs of Shavuot highlight the importance of custom for the continuation and preservation of Jewish religious observance. These customs, largely observed in Ashkenazic communities, are:

  • אקדמות – Akdamot, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services
  • חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese
  • רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services
  • ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery
  • תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.

On the Gregorian calendar, Shavuot usually falls around late May or early June. In 2007, Shavuot was on Monday, May 28. In 2008, Shavuot was on Monday, June 9, beginning at sunset the evening before.

Akdamut

Akdamut (Aramaic: אקדמות) is a liturgical poem extolling the greatness of God, the Torah and Israel that is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. It was composed by Rabbi Meir of Worms, whose son was murdered during the Crusade of 1096. Rabbi Meir was forced to defend the Torah and his Jewish faith in a debate with local priests, and successfully conveyed his certainty of God's power, His love for the Jewish people, and the excellence of Torah. Afterwards he wrote Akdamut, a 90-line poem in Aramaic which stresses these themes. The poem is written in a double acrostic pattern according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, each line ends with the syllable "ta" (תא), the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alluding to the endlessness of Torah. The traditional melody which accompanies this poem also conveys a sense of grandeur and triumph.

Sephardim do not read akdamut, but before the evening service they sing a poem called Azharot which sets out the 613 Biblical commandments. The positive commandments are recited on the first day and the negative commandments on the second day.

Dairy foods

Dairy foods such as cheesecake and blintzes with cheese and other fillings are traditionally served on Shavuot. One explanation for the consumption of dairy foods on this holiday is that the Israelites had not yet received the Torah, with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals). As the food they had prepared beforehand was not in accordance with these laws, they opted to eat simple dairy meals to honor the holiday. Some say it harks back to King Solomon's portrayal of the Torah as "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11).

Book of Ruth

There are five books in Tanakh, that are known as Megillot (Hebrew: מגילות, "scrolls") and are publicly read in the synagogues on different Jewish holidays. The Book of Lamentations, which details the destruction of the Holy Temple, is the reading for Tisha B'Av; the Book of Ecclesiastes, which touches on the ephemeralness of life, corresponds to Sukkot; the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) retells the events of Purim; and the Song of Songs, which echoes the themes of springtime and God's love for the Jewish people, is the reading for Passover.

The Book of Ruth (מגילת רות, Megillat Ruth) corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot both in its descriptions of the barley and wheat harvest seasons and Ruth's desire to become a member of the Jewish people, who are defined by their acceptance of the Torah. Moreover, the lineage described at the end of the Book lists King David as Ruth's great-grandson. According to tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot (Sha'arei Teshuvah to Orach Hayyim, 494).

Greenery

According to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit. Greenery also figures in the story of the baby Moses being found among the bulrushes in a watertight cradle when he was three months old (Moses was born on 7 Adar and placed in the Nile River on 6 Sivan, the same day he later brought the Jewish nation to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah).

For these reasons, Jewish families traditionally decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. Some synagogues decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah, as Shavuot is mystically referred to as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the Jewish people) to the chuppah (Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (God); the ketubbah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Eastern Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubbah between God and Israel as part of the service.

All-night Torah study

The custom of all-night Torah study goes back to 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, then living in Ottoman Salonika, invited his Kabbalistic colleagues to hold a night-long study vigil, in the course of which an angel appeared before them and commanded them to go live in Eretz Yisrael. According to a story in the Midrash, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead, but they overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this flaw in the national character, religious Jews stay up all night to learn Torah.

Any subject may be studied, although Talmud, Mishna and Torah typically top the list. In many communities, men and women attend classes and lectures until the early hours of the morning. In Jerusalem, thousands of people finish off the nighttime study session by walking to the Kotel before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan there. The latter activity is reminiscent of Shavuot's status as one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, when the Jews living in the Land of Israel journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In keeping with the custom of engaging in all-night Torah study, the Arizal, a leading Kabbalist of the 16th century, arranged a special service for the evening of Shavuot. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot ("Rectification for Shavuot Night") consists of excerpts from the beginning and end of each of the 24 books of Tanakh (including the reading in full of several key sections such as the account of the days of creation, The Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Shema) and the 63 chapters of Mishnah. This is followed by the reading of Sefer Yetzirah, the 613 commandments as enumerated by Maimonides, and excerpts from the Zohar, with opening and concluding prayers. The whole reading is divided into thirteen parts, after each of which a Kaddish di-Rabbanan is recited when the Tikkun is studied in a group of at least ten Jews.

This service is printed in a special book, and is widely used in Eastern Sephardic, some German and Hasidic communities. There are similar books for the vigils before the seventh day of Pesach and Hosha'ana Rabbah.

The Spanish and Portuguese Jews do not observe this custom.

Confirmation

Reform Jewish synagogues will typically hold celebrations of Confirmation for tenth graders on the evening or morning of Shavuot. The holiday falls around the end of the school year and the giving of the Ten Commandments naturally fits into the theme of continued Jewish learning.

Dates in dispute

Since the Torah does not specify the actual day on which Shavuot falls, differing interpretations of this date have arisen both in traditional and non-traditional Jewish circles. These discussions center around two ways of looking at Shavuot: the day it actually occurs (i.e., the day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai), and the day it occurs in relation to the Counting of the Omer (being the 50th day from the first day of the Counting).

Giving of the Torah

While most of the Talmudic Sages concur that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan; R. Jose holds that it was given on the seventh of that month. According to the classical timeline, the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sinai on the new moon and the Ten Commandments were given on the following Shabbat (i.e. Saturday). The question of whether the new moon fell on Sunday or Monday is undecided (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 86b). In practice, Shavuot is observed on the sixth day of Sivan in Israel and a second day is added in the Jewish diaspora (in keeping with a separate rabbinical ruling that applies to all biblical holidays, called Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galiyot).

Counting of the Omer

The Torah states that the Omer offering (i.e., the first day of counting the Omer) should begin "on the morrow after the Shabbat" (). The Talmudic Sages determined that "Shabbat" here means simply a day of rest and refers to the first day of Passover. Thus, the traditional counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover and continues for the next 49 days, or seven complete weeks, ending on the day before Shavuot.

According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g. if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday).

The Sadducees and Boethusians, however, disputed this interpretation. They contended that "Shabbat" really did mean "Shabbat," or Saturday. Accordingly, they reckoned the seven weeks from the day after the first Shabbat during Passover, so that Shavuot would always fall on a Sunday.

This interpretation was shared by the second-century BC author of the Book of Jubilees, and was motivated by the priestly sabbatical solar calendar of the third and second centuries B.C., which was designed to have festivals and Sabbaths fall on the same day of the week every year. On this calendar (best known from the Book of Luminaries in 1 Enoch), Shavuot fell on the 15th of Sivan, a Sunday. The date was reckoned fifty days from the first Sabbath after Passover (i.e. from the 25th of Nisan). Thus, Jub. 1:1 claims that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah "on the sixteenth day of the third month in the first year of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt".

Karaite Judaism today continues to follow the interpretation that the Counting of the Omer begins on the Sunday after the first Shabbat during Passover, and thus celebrates Shavuot on a Sunday.

Similarly the Christian feast of Pentecost, which falls on the fiftieth day counting from Easter, is always on a Sunday (except among the very large number of Evangelicals and Messianics who celebrate it 50 days after Passover).

Critical scholarship

The Book of Jubilees describes the celebration of Shavuot in pre-Mosaic times. In Jub. 6:15-22 and 44:1-5, the holiday is traced to the appearance of the first rainbow on the 15th of Sivan, the day on which God made his covenant with Noah. The covenant renewal feature of Shavuot is thus attributed to this first covenant. Subsequently, it was observed by Noah until his death but revived again by Abraham (Jub. 15:1), and after Abraham's death it was forgotten again until Moses restored it once more.

Qumran scholar Gabriele Boccaccini has suggested that the 1,290 and 1,335 days of point to the observance of Shavuot in a restored Israel, as reckoned by the priestly solar calendar. These durations are exactly 30 and 45 days longer than the 3½ years mentioned in and . The period of 3½ years amounts to 1,260 days in the priestly solar calendar because the equinoxes and solstices count as markers of the seasons rather than monthly days (1 En. 74:11, 75:1, 82:4). The blessings expected at the end of the 1,335 days pertain to the resurrection to "everlasting life" mentioned a few verses earlier and this is the reward to those who refused to forsake the covenant unto death (, , ), while those who forsook the covenant face "everlasting contempt".

Boccaccini sees the 3½ years as ending at the spring equinox (equinoxes and solstices were important markers of the seasons in the solar calendar), to be followed by 30 days to complete the 1,290 days (the month of Passover), and an additional 45 days to reach the 15th of Sivan, the purported day of Shavuot. For those who refused to forsake the covenant, this would be the day the covenant would be renewed and the expected blessings would be realized.

References

Sources

  • Kitov, Eliyahu (1978). The Book of Our Heritage, Vol. 3: Iyar-Elul. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers Ltd. ISBN 0-87306-154-3.
  • Scherman, Nosson ed. (1993). The Chumash. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd. ISBN 0-89906-014-5.

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