Shavuot History

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In all likelihood, then, Shavuot was not celebrated until after the first Temple was built. It is speculated that Shavuot was probably the most difficult of the pilgrim festivals to observe since it fell in the middle of the growing season. Nevertheless, the historian Josephus (first century C.E.) describes large attendance in Jerusalem for Shavuot, and the Mishnah--in the section known as bikkurim--depicts the bringing of first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem as a gala affair. The Book of Jubilees--which is part of the apocrypha, works considered for but not ultimately canonized in the Bible--adds an additional reason for celebrating Shavuot: to commemorate and renew the pact between God and Noah when God promised never to flood the earth again

wheat fieldOne of the historical controversies surrounding this festival focused on the problem of when to begin counting the omer. The Torah said to make the omer offering (and thus start counting) "on the morrow after the Sabbath" of Passover. The dispute was over what "Sabbath" meant; a festival day or the Sabbath. The Sadducees, one of the main sects of Judaism during Second Temple times, believed that Sabbath meant the first Saturday in Passover. The pharisaic interpretation that came to be accepted by the sages was that Sabbath meant a day of rest, and referred to Passover itself. The counting thus began from the second evening of Passover, and continued for 49 days. The 50th day was Shavuot.

In the rabbinic period, the sages focused on Exodus 19:1, which stated that "on the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt…they entered the wilderness of Sinai." By this calculation, the Israelites were at the foot of Mount Sinai on the first of Sivan. They therefore received Torah on the sixth of Sivan, the day of Shavuot. By linking Shavuot not merely to an agricultural harvest, but also to the day of reception of Torah, the festival became much more powerful and significant. It is as a festival marking the "birthday of the Torah" that Shavuot is primarily viewed today.

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