On Some of the Meaning and History of Shavuot
By Avital Plan, SF BJE
Torah and Flour
Shavuot celebrates a climactic moment in Jewish history, the revelation at Sinai -
the giving and receiving of the Torah. Like most Jewish holidays, it also
celebrates an agricultural season: the harvest of wheat. Curiously the most
important moment in the life of the culture is attached to the most important
moment in the life of an agrarian society for whom bread was the stuff of life.
Bread is revered in Jewish tradition, which considers it a symbol of both material
and spiritual sustenance (The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, Ellen Frankel
and Betsy Platkin Teusch).
The Names of the Festival
Shavuot has many names reflecting development of this festival, some are:
From the Bible
SHAVU'OT – weeks
Seven weeks you shall count, from the time the sickle is first put to the standing
grain (barley), and you shall observe the feast of weeks (Deuteronomy 16)
CHAG HAKATZIR - the festival of (wheat) harvest
And the feast of harvest, the first fruit of your labor, which you saw in the
( Exodus 23)
BIKURIM - first fruit
And on the day of the first fruit, when you bring a new meal offering [from the
newly harvested wheat] to God in your feast of weeks..(Numbers 28)
From the Mishna
ATZERET - an ending of a period or a gatheringAt four times of the year the world
is judged: at Passover for grain, at Atzeret for the fruit of the tree.. (Rosh
From the Siddur, prayer book
MATAN TORAH - the giving of the Torah
You have given us with love holidays for gladness and festive seasons for joy,
this Feast of Weeks, the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah…in
remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.
In its early stages, Shavuot had no set date and corresponded to the ripening of
barley. As soon as it ripened, seven weeks were counted and Shavuot was
celebrated. In the days of the Temple, the high priest would raise two loaves of
leavened bread in the name of the whole community as a ritual of blessing for the
new wheat harvest, therefore Shavuot is referred to as the festival of the two
breads. The Mishna describes the pilgrims making their way to the Temple laden
with baskets of harvest. “And the ox walks before them, its horns covered with
gold and a wreath of olive branches on its head, and the flute plays before them
until they come close to Jerusalem” (Mishna, Bikurim 3) Each family would
bring offerings according to its own means, first fruit of the seven species: wheat,
barley, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives. First fruit was brought
anytime between Shavuot and Sukkot as they ripened.
The Counting of the Omer
The seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot were filled with anxiety for the
farmer. The fate of the wheat harvest that is dependent on the right conditions of
wind and rain is being determined during this time. As often happens, traditional
rituals and meanings developed which were influenced by the same somber
mood. The period of the sfira, counting, is associated with memories of Rabbi
Akiva's trials and during these weeks, customs of mourning, including abstaining
from weddings, are observed.
A covenantal Festival
It is usually thought that Shavuot did not become a celebration of the covenant, the giving
of the Torah at Sinai, until the rabbinic age, but there are passages in the Bible that point
to such a celebration already in biblical times. One of them is: “So they gathered
themselves together at Yerushalayim in the third month ... And they entered the covenant
to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul” (2
Chronicles 15, 10-12)
The Pharisees who already in Second Temple days emphasized study, prayer and the
reinterpretation of Torah as main ways of observance (in lieu of Temple offerings) firmly
connected this day to what they held dear, the written and oral Torah. It was important for
them, says Arthur Waskow that everyone in every generation stands at Sinai. Shavuot has
become connected to Pesach, to the climactic event of the exodus - the giving of the Torah
at Sinai – and is referred to by the sages of the Mishna and Talmud as Atzeret.
The Oral Torah and Matan Torah
The elevation of the Torah, written and oral, is then at the heart of Chag Matan Torah,
both of them says the midrash were given at Sinai. The process of interpreting the Torah,
adapting it to life as each generation knows it, is revered by the sages. The multiplicity of
meanings to be found within the Torah verses is described in many ways. Here are three
midrashim on that theme.
"Is not my word like ... a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" (Jeremiah 23,9).
As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield
many meanings. (Sanhedrin 34A.)
"And all the people saw the voices" ... How did the voice come out for Israel ...
each one according to their strength (Tanchuma, Shemot 25)
There are six hundred thousand meanings in the Torah.
- Issac Luria (600.000 were present at Sinai. Luria’s words are quoted in Gershom
Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism.)
Midrash, the process of interpretation of Torah, which has been thriving in many forms
and for thousands of years, reaffirms the covenant, supporting infinite bonds between the
text and those who engage in it. Shavuot, following the 16th century Lurianic tradition, is
celebrated with an all night study called Tikun Leil Shavuot.