Shavuot History: From the Bible to Temple Times

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

Print this page Print this page

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].

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.