From the evening of Tuesday June 3 through the evening of June 5, Jews will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which in most of Jewish life today is focused on the revelation and acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai.
During the next weeks, the Shalom Report will be suggesting ways to enrich what has become a somewhat forlorn festival in the Jewish calendar.
And since Shavuot became transcribed in Christian tradition into Pentecost, perhaps Christians as well as Jews might learn from reexamining this holy day. (More about Pentecost below.)
The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.” Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.
In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest. The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.
On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple — two loaves of wheat bread –— regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered.
This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.
Then the People Israel was severed from the land and from its ability to bring earthy offerings of foods of the Land of Israel to the Temple. During the same crisis when the People was deprived of its original, indigenous sacred relationship with the Earth, it was introduced to an alternative form of sacredness. From Hellenistic philosophy, it became clear that adept use of words could make connection with the Divine. And words could be carried from place to place, land to land.
So spiritual leadership was redefined. It was handed to a meritocratic lineage of men skilled in words –- the Rabbis.
In accordance with this profound transformation, the Rabbis redefined Shavuot –— as no longer the celebration of spring wheat, but the anniversary of Revelation of the Word.