Shavuot History: From the Bible to Temple Times

The nature of the festival changes over the course of time.

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The modern concept of Shavuot developed in the exilic times and became canonized in the post-destruction period. The non-canonical books mentioned in this essay also emphasize the shift in the perception of Shavuot. What was originally an agricultural festival was transformed into a celebration of God's revelation to Israel. Excerpted with permission from Every Person's Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

The first thing that one notices with regard to Shavuot in the Bible is the absence of a substantive name for the holiday. Shavuot has several designations in the Bible. The Book of Exodus 23:16 designates it as "Hag HaKatzir"--theFestival of the Harvest-- which identifies the holiday with an agricultural season. The Book of Numbers 28:26 designates it as "Hag HaBikkurim"-- the Festival of the First Fruits, which specified the time on which the custom was to offer first fruits.

The same verse also mentions the name by which the holiday is commonly known today--Shavuot--the Festival of Weeks. This name is not descriptive of the character and substance of the holiday. Rather, it is a chronological tagn that addresses itself to the time lapse between Passover and Shavuot, thus emphasizing the relationship and interdependence of the two holidays.

Passover, in addition to its historical phase commemorating the end of Egyptian slavery, also was a spring festival linked to the beginning of the spring harvest season. The agricultural aspect of the holiday began on the second day of Passover and the ritual of the omer, the offering of a sheaf of barley, the earliest of the new cereal crops, marked the harvest season. The grain ripened 50 days later, thus the beginning of the harvest was marked on Shavuot with the offering of first fruits. This concluded the celebration of the grain harvest, which had begun on the second day of Passover.

Two distinct biblical Shavuot rituals were given symbolic expression. The first ritual provided for the bringing of the wave loaves of bread ("lechem tenufah"), which were to be baked from the new crop of wheat (Leviticus 23: 17). Thus one expressed his or her gratitude to God for the new crop.

The second ritual was the bikkurim, the choicest first fruits, which were required to be brought to the Sanctuary beginning with Shavuot. A special recitation is mentioned in the Bible that accompanied the presenting of the first fruits to the priest, "And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him, 'I told God that I came into the land that God swore to our ancestors to give us'" (Deuteronomy 26:3). By this statement, the bearer of the bikkurimaffirmed that God had kept His promise to the patriarchs that their children would be brought back to the Holy Land.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.