Shavuot: A Multi-Faceted Celebration
The history and theology behind our Jewish holidays can be found most clearly in the panoply of names that the Jewish tradition has used to identify them. The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is no different. From its agricultural roots during Biblical times to modernity, its many names tell a story and teach us how we should feel, act, and connect to God during the festival.
Shavuot gets it most recognizable name from a few mentions in the Bible, most notably Exodus 34:22-23. Appearing in a list of important ritual laws dictated during the giving of the second set of tablets, Shavuot stands as one of three important festivals. God tells Moses, “You shall observe the Festival of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the God of Israel.”
Traditionally, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot were festivals during which pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem to perform specific sacrifices to God. These sacrifices were unlike others during the year primarily because of the joy one was commanded to bring when performing them. We read in the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall rejoice before Adonai your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst,” (Dt. 16:11). As the text states, the whole community was tied to this ritual. It was a place to see and be seen by others. [Ironically, this is why traditionally those who were blind were exempt from bringing sacrifices (M. Chagigah 2a)]. The beauty of the community coming together around these sacrifices may be one reason the rabbis referred to the holiday primarily and simply as Atzeret, the gathering.
Additionally, the Exodus text points to an important feature of the holiday; Shavuot traditionally was an agrarian holiday that marked the first wheat harvest. These agricultural ties may also be one important reason we read the Book of Ruth during this holiday. There, Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem during the beginning of the barley harvest, and the agricultural backdrop becomes a central motif of the story. Ruth and her future husband Boaz meet in the field and, according to some interpretations she seduces him on the threshing floor. Although the agricultural background of the holiday lends itself to the names Chag HaKatzir, (Exodus 23:16), the Harvest Festival, and Yom Habikkurim (Num 28:26), the Festival of First Fruits, it doesn’t explain adequately how we ended up with a spring holiday called Chag HaShavuot, the Festival of Weeks.
To understand this particular name, we need to look back to the Book of Deuteronomy (16:9-10). There we read, “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks (Chag HaShavuot).” The holiday of Shavuot is so named—less for what it symbolizes than to mark the culmination of a seven-week period beginning when the barley grain reaches maturity and ending at the wheat harvest. For our ancient ancestors, this 49-day period was precarious; as the wheat crop began to mature, no one knew whether drought or blight might destroy it. One explanation for the emphasis on the counting of weeks might be the joy of our ancestors when, at the conclusion of the counting, they found that their crops had not failed.
During the rabbinic period, an additional meaning (and name) found its way into the story of Shavuot. Our siddur refers to the holiday as Z’man Matan Torah, the time of the giving of the Torah. The rabbis came to this conclusion about the timing of Shavuot by reading the account of the giving of the Torah in the book of Exodus, “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai” (19:1). Since the rabbis knew that the Passover marking the Exodus from Egypt happened in the middle of the month of Nissan, they were able to count approximately a month and a half (or three moons) between the Exodus and the Jews entering Sinai. Then, adding a few days of preparation before the giving of the Torah, chronicled later in Chapter 19, it was natural to presume that the Torah was given on Shavuot itself, which occurs on the 6th day of the month of Sivan.
To mark this facet of the holiday, we read the account of the giving of the Torah each Shavuot evening. Additionally, we study—many of us all night—as a way to place Torah at the center of the holiday. We call these all-night study sessions Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Another explanation for these all-night study sessions lends a bit a humor to the practice. When Israel was to receive the Torah, they overslept. We read in Shir HaShirim Rabbah, “Israel slept all that night, because the sleep of Shavuot is pleasant and the night is short” (1:57). Noticing that the Israelites were not present, God and Moses began to rouse them. According to this midrash, the thunder and trumpets we find chronicled in Exodus 19, actually were cosmic alarm clocks. Today, to avoid falling asleep on the day that marks the receiving of the Torah, we stay up all night studying.
Whether we call the 6th of Sivan Chag HaShavot, Atzeret, Chag HaBikkurim, Chag HaKatzir, or Z’man Matan Torah, its name is less important than acknowledging that the holiday has a rich and storied history. Each name describes just one aspect of the festival. Today, the holiday’s various components and their associated names come together into one whole to color this ancient festival and give us many entry points to connect to it.
Rabbi Marc Katz is newly ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He will begin as the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY, on July 1. Rabbi Katz was a RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant from 2006 to 2007.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.