Redemption Comes at Sinai

Passover and Shavuot are part of one spiritual journey.

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Shavuot is one of the least understood of all the major Jewish holidays. While everyone knows what Passover is all about and how we celebrate it, for many, the significance of Shavuot remains unclear.  As a result, this important holiday sits unnoticed, observed by far fewer Jews than the more popular Passover.

The Eighth Day of Passover

The truth is, Passover and Shavuot are actually two parts of the same whole; two holidays inextricably connected to one another through spirit and time. Where's the connection?  In the simplest sense, the very name of Shavuot gives it all away.  Most Jewish holidays have names that reference their times or most noteworthy practices: on Sukkot we sit in sukkot, on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) we atone for our sins, etc.  The name Shavuot , however, betrays nothing of the holiday's own function.  Instead, it links it to the prior holiday--emphasizing that this holiday is celebrated a certain number of weeks (in Hebrew, shavuot) after Passover.

This connection is very significant, going far beyond a simple accounting of days. Throughout the Talmud, the rabbis use the word Atzeret (meaning stop), to refer to the holiday of Shavuot, and not the word Shavuot itself.  Why would that be?  A look at another "Atzeret" sheds some light. The festival of Shemini Atzeret (the assembly of the eighth) occurs the day after the seven-day fall holiday of Sukkot. While Shemini Atzeret feels like just another day of Sukkot, it is in fact an entirely different holiday.  Tied inexorably to Sukkot by its placement and its name, however, Shemini Atzeret serves as a conclusion the week-long holiday.

In the same vein, Shavuot (Atzeret), can be considered the "eighth day" to the seven-day holiday of Passover. This notion of Shavuot acting as an eighth day conclusion to Passover takes true, practical form in our counting of the Omer. From the second day of Passover onward, we count days in groups of seven to form weeks, and we count weeks until we’ve reached a total of seven. After these 49 days we celebrate Shavuot, which is seen as the eighth "day" following the groups of seven which began on Passover. The counting of the Omer seeks to continuously remind us that the true conclusion of Passover is yet to come. In fact, Nachmanides (Leviticus 23:36) even goes so far as to equate the days of the Omer to Hol Hamoed, the intermediate days between the beginning and end of a festival.

What meaning does Judaism give to the number eight?  In mystical thought, seven is considered to be the number that represents "teva," or the natural order of things: for instance, a week has seven days and there are seven years to the agricultural shmita (sabbatical) cycle. Since eight is one number greater than seven, it has come to represent "limalah min hatevah," or the supernatural. Some recognizable supernatural eights include Chanukah, a holiday of eight days commemorating a public miracle, and brit milah (circumcision), done on the eighth day to signify a covenant between the Jewish people and God that transcends the natural order.

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Rami Genauer is a writer living in Washington, DC.