Shavuot

Shavuot

Leviticus 23.15-22 gives us the instructions concerning the Feast of Shavuot. The passage in Leviticus calls this holiday First Fruits because we bring our firstfruits as an offering to the L-rd. But it is known in modern days by the name Shavuot. This is a Hebrew word meaning “weeks”. Shavuot falls seven weeks after the second day of Passover. This makes Shavuot to be fifty days from the beginning of Passover. This is where the Greek name, Pentecost, for this feast comes from. This holiday celebrates three things:

  1. The harvesting of wheat in Israel.
  2. The ripening of the first fruit in Israel.
  3. The giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

The first two are the reasons given in the Torah. This is a harvest holiday. In ancient times the harvest of grains began on the second day of Passover with barley. An Omer (a biblical measurement) was brought as a thanksgiving offering. Forty-nine days were then counted until Shavuot. This custom is known as The counting of the Omer. After seven weeks the wheat, last grain to ripen, would be harvested. Thanksgiving was given to G-d for His provision of the harvest.

The bringing of the first fruit as a thanks offering is also commanded in Leviticus. This is one of the three pilgrimage festivals in which Jewish people traveled to Jerusalem. The rabbis tell us how the firstfruits were selected. The farmer would go into his field or vineyard and seeing a fig, cluster of grapes or pomegranate that was ripe, he would tie a thread around the fruit and say, “This shall be among the bikkurim.” The Torah tells us to bring seven kinds of fruit on this holiday. Each of them is given special significance.

  • Wheat: It is considered one of the most basic of man’s group. From it man makes bread with which to sustain himself.
  • Barley: It was and is still an important group in Israel. It requires less water than wheat and is considered poor man’s food because it is not as tasty as wheat. It also represents provision for man’s basic needs.
  • Grapes: The 12 spies brought back a cluster of grapes. They symbolize the abundance of the land. Grapes also are used to produce wine. Wine is a symbol of joy.
  • Figs: Figs were also brought to Moses by the 12 spies proving once again the fruitfulness of the land. In Scriptures figs are also a symbol of fertility.
  • Pomegranate: Another fruit brought back as a sign from the land of Canaan. The blossoms of the Pomegranates were used to adorn the sheaves of grain brought as an offering on Shavuot. The clothes of the priest were decorated with pomegranates as well.
  • Olive: The olive tree is one of the oldest in Israel. The olive branch is a symbol of peace since the times of Noah. Also the oil was used to light the menorah in the temple and is symbolic to us as Messianic Jews of the anointing of the Ruach haKodesh.
  • Dates: One Midrash declares “A righteous man will flourish like a date palm.” This is because this is a very versatile plant. The dates are eaten or used to make honey. The branches are used to make roofs and the fibers are used to make rope.

In ancient Israel there would be a long procession winding its way through the streets of Jerusalem. People would be carrying baskets filled with these seven things. Today this practice has been revived in Israel. Children will march with their baskets among beautifully decorated floats. The fruits are sold and the money given to the Jewish National Fund.

Counting the Omer is a command also given in Leviticus 23. This period was a significant time for the ancient Israelite farmer. The period between Passover and Shavuot was a time when a dry, hot wind would come across the land. The Hebrew word for hot wind, chamsin comes from the Arabic word for fifty because this phenomenon occurred so frequently during this fifty day period. The wind could destroy the crops. Traditional thought says that the right portions of rain, wind and sun during this period were a gift from G-d for observing His commandments. So, this was a period where the farmer was reminded of His source, G-d. Also, it made the counting of the Omer a reminder to be faithful to observe the commands of G-d.

So, these were days of tension. But they were also days of anticipation. Each farmer looked forward to Shavuot and going to the Temple to present his offering. It is said that one should count the days as a bride and groom count down the days towards their wedding day.

The blessing that is said is:

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu bimitzvotav, vitzivanu, al sefirat ha omer.
Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the universe whose mitzvot add holiness to our lives and who gives us the mitzvah of counting the Omer.

Next, the day itself is counted,”Today is the x day, which is y weeks and z days of the Omer.”

The day is counted in the evening after sunset.

Shavuot has the fewest distinct practices associated with it. In ancient Israel it was the ascension to Jerusalem. However, today that is not practiced. Today it mainly associated with the giving of the Torah. This is the third reason for celebrating this holiday. It is not a reason given to us in the Hebrew Scriptures, but was later added by the rabbis. Another name for Shavuot based on this practice is Zeman Natan Toratenu, “The time of the giving of our law.”

Some other customs associated with this holiday include:

Tikkun Leil Shavuot – Preparation of Shavuot. This is the custom of studying Torah all night. This is because tradition says that the ancient Israelites slept on the night before Moses received the law and this was a mistake. They should have been awake in anticipation of it. So, today Jewish people gather together to study Torah all night to make up for this mistake.

Another custom is eating dairy dishes. Here are some traditional reasons given for this.

  1. Because the law was given on Shavuot with the new dietary restrictions. Since the laws separating meat and milk were new, only dairy products are eaten to avoid breaking one of the new laws.
  2. The numeric value of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, is 40, the number of days Moses was on the mountain.
  3. Milk represents the infancy of the Jewish people and the fact that the nation was birthed at Mt. Sinai according to tradition.

Another tradition is to decorate our homes and synagogues with greenery and flowers. This points to the agricultural nature of the holiday. Another tradition says that when the law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the desert blossomed, actually exploded with flowers. Therefore, we decorate our homes and synagogues in honor of this.

The Book of Ruth is read because it contains an agricultural background. Also, Ruth is considered to be an inspiration because as a Gentile she embraced the Torah and became part of the Jewish people.

Messianic Significance:

  1. We rejoice once again that G-d has given us His Word.
  2. The milk products also that the Word is like milk (1 Peter 2.2). We need the word to survive.
  3. We recognize that G-d is indeed our source just like the ancient Israelite farmer.
  4. We celebrate the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) that took place on Shavuot in Acts 2. G-d chose this holiday to pour out His Spirit.


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