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.

After the presentation of the basket to the priest, the bearer of the bikkurimrecited as follows: "A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt… and the Egyptians dealt ill with us and afflicted us…and we cried to God, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voices…and God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with signs and wonders. And God has brought us into this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." The biblical text includes the injunction, "And you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and to your house, you and the Levite and the stranger that is in the midst of you" [Deuteronomy 26:5-11]. Thus the wandering of Jacob and the enslavement of the Children of Israel are given as the background for the joy, which followed the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.

In the course of time, a new theme was added to Shavuot, namely the commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This celebration originated in the exilic period of Jewish history. After the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, sacrificial rites and the bikkurim ritual involving bringing first fruits to the Temple were abolished. Unlike the other two pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot and Passover, both of which had distinctive rituals, the festival of Shavuot had none. The festival gained a new contemporary motif when the rabbis linked Shavuot with the theophany at Mount Sinai, when God revealed His will to Moses and the children of Israel. Chapters 19 and 20 of the Book of Exodus describe the wondrous experience of God revealing His will atop Mount Sinai. This section includes the Ten Commandments, which are read aloud as the congregation rises during synagogue services on Shavuot.

The earliest source to indicate a link between Shavuot and the Sinai experience was the post-biblical Book of Jubilees, written in the first century before the Common Era. This book is a parallel to the Book of Genesis and parts of Exodus. In it, an elaborate account of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, as well as the legend of the observance of Shavuot by Noah and the biblical patriarchs, are quoted from the Book of Jubilees [Jubilees 6:15-21, 22:1].

Yet another reference to Shavuot appears in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, in which Tobit's feast is turned into mourning [Tobit 2:1-6].

In yet another Book of Apocrypha, the Maccabean warriors, heroes of the Hanukkah story, observe the feast of Weeks [II Maccabees 12:29-32].

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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.