Summary: a Jewish harvest festival that also commemorates the giving of the Torah
2018 Date: 19th – 21st May (sunset to sunset)
Celebrated by: Jews
Linked Holidays: Pesach / Passover, Sukkot (Judaism), Pentecost (Christianity)
Background and Theological Significance
Shavuot (in Hebrew, שבועות), literally meaning the Festival of Weeks, is one of the most important religious festivals within Judaism. It originated as a celebration for the wheat harvest in the land of Israel, but later developed into a festival to commemorate the giving of the Torah to the Hebrew peoples at Mount Sinai. Shavuot is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, alongside Pesach and Sukkot, when the ancient Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship G-d. These three annual festivals are based on a scriptural mandate given in the Torah; ‘Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread (Pesach) … You shall observe the festival of harvest (Shavuot) … You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year (Sukkot) (Exodus 23:14-16). Shavuot always takes place 49 days after Pesach, which gives rise to its name due to the time difference being exactly seven weeks (‘a week of weeks’). These two festivals marked the beginning and end of the seven-week grain harvest in Israel, of which the harvesting of wheat was traditionally the last.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, the sacrificial rites and offerings of Shavuot were no longer possible. The festival then took on an additional significance; that of G-d giving the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai following the Exodus from Egypt. Although there is no biblical link between the days of Shavuot and the gifting of the Torah, it has taken on a great significance across the Jewish world and remains the most important commemoration of the festival for most modern Jews.
An additional significance of the festival of Shavuot is its connection with the Christian festival of Pentecost. According to the Book of Acts, the apostles were in Jerusalem celebrating Shavuot when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. The name ‘Pentecost’ is in fact from the Greek term ‘pentēkostē’ meaning ‘fiftieth’ and was used to refer to the celebration of Shavuot many centuries before the time of Christ. The early Church initially celebrated Pentecost as a Christianisation of Shavuot, but over time the festivals moved apart both in date and ceremony, and today have little in common with each other.
Shavuot is also known as the Festival of Weeks or the Day of the First Fruits. In ancient Israel, Shavuot marked the end of the seven-week grain harvest and the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, a ritual counting of each of the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. The Jewish peoples would journey to the Temple in Jerusalem to make offerings and give thanks to G-d for the harvest. Two loaves of bread made from the harvested wheat crop were offered, as well as baskets of the first fruits from the field (known as ‘bikkurim’). This was to show gratitude to G-d for bringing forth sustenance from the land, as well as to give thanks for his guidance of the Jewish people throughout history.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the offering of the first fruits was made redundant. Unlike Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot had no other distinctive rituals, so the rabbis developed a theological link between the Festival of Weeks and G-d’s gift of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. This theme has been developed over the centuries and has become the most important aspect of the festival for Jewish people today.
The Festival of Weeks has always been held on the 6th Day of Sivan in the Hebrew calendar, to correspond to the celebration of Pesach starting on the 15th Day of Nisan. This makes Shavuot a moveable celebration in the Gregorian calendar, and it can fall anywhere between the middle of May and the middle of June in any given year. In Israel the festival only lasts for one day (6th Day of Sivan), whereas for Jews in the Diaspora it is celebrated over two days (6th-7th Days of Sivan), normally from sunset to sunset as is the Jewish tradition.
In ancient times the festival was marked by an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to make offerings of the first fruits of the fields at the Temple in Jerusalem. There were no other Torah requirements other than the general rules of religious observances, such as abstention from work and special prayer services. However, since the destruction of the Temple the celebration of Shavuot has developed many customs and traditions that have come to characterise it in the Jewish community.
Reflecting the importance of the revelation of the Torah to Moses, many modern Jews will hold an all-night Torah study on the first night of Shavuot. This is due to the claim in the Midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Torah) that the Israelites overslept on the day when the Torah was due to be given, and the all-night study is an atonement for this! It is also common to read the Book of Ruth, as the events in the narrative take place around the time of the harvest. Homes and synagogues are often decorated with flowers and greenery, and special services are held in which parts of the Torah read, and a liturgical poem called the ‘Akdamut’ is recited. It is also traditional to celebrate Shavuot by eating dairy products, such as cheesecake and blintzes. These observances show how much the celebration of the Festival of Weeks has changed over the centuries. It has evolved from a harvest festival to a commemoration of the gifting of the Torah, and now brings these together with a keen sense of Jewish culture. Shavuot remains one of the principal celebrations in the Jewish year and demonstrates the strength and resilience of their religious faith and identity throughout history.