Shavuot – the joyful holiday
by Petra van der Zande
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“When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settle in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name…” Deuteronomy 26:1-3.
“Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the first fruits of the wheat harvest and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.” Exodus 34:22.
Shavuot in general
The Hebrew word for Shavuot means “weeks” and refers to the counting of seven weeks from the second day of the Pesach (Passover) holiday. This period is called the “Counting of the Omer”. It’s the only Pilgrim festival of which the Bible doesn’t give a specific date on which to celebrate.
A direct link between Pesach and Shavuot
Pesach and Shavuot are linked together, not only because of the barley and wheat harvests. During Pesach the Israelites were freed from Egyptian bondage, and during Shavuot they accepted the Torah given to them at Mount Sinai. There they became a nation committed to serving God.
Different names of Shavuot
• Chag Shavuot (Festival of Weeks)
• Chag ha Katsir (Reaping holiday)
• Yom ha Bikkurim (day of first fruits)
• Pentecost (Greek for 50)
In Israel, Shavuot is celebrated only for one day - on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan; Jews abroad celebrate it for two days. Christians always celebrate Pentecost on the 7th Sunday after Easter.
History of Shavuot
About seven weeks after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai. 40 years later, upon their arrival in the Promised Land, Shavuot became connected to the grain harvest. Harvest time, beginning with the barley harvest during Pesach, and ending with the wheat harvest at Shavuot, was always a season of gladness.
When the Israelites lived in the Promised Land, the farmers brought their first fruits to the Tabernacle in Shiloh. During the first and second Temples, they brought their baskets to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bikkurim (first fruits) had to be brought from the “seven species” – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.(Deuteronomy 8: 7,8)
When the first fruit appeared, the farmer would tie a reed around the fruit and declare, “this is a first fruit”.
When the time came to go up to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, the rich people placed their fruits in golden or silver baskets, while the poor used baskets from peeled willow-shoots. Carts pulled by oxen were heavy laden with the baskets. The horns of the animals were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers.
People came from all over the country and first traveled to appointed cities, where a local assembly-head was responsible for the pilgrims. In order not to become ritually unclean, people didn’t enter the houses but slept in the streets. At dawn, as a group the pilgrims set out towards Jerusalem. They danced and sang, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD,” (Psalm 122:1)
The Jerusalemites welcomed the pilgrims with, “Our brothers from …, welcome and peace to you!”
Upon entering the city, the pilgrims would joyously sing, “Our feet are standing in your gates, o Jerusalem!” (Psalm 122:2).
Now carrying the baskets on their shoulders, (even the king had to carry his own basket), the people presented their offerings to the priests. Rich and poor stood side by side and rejoiced in all the good things the LORD their God had given to them and their households.
When the pilgrim presented his basket to the priest, he had to recite, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deuteronomy 26:5) The fruits became property of the priest and Levites, who represented the “firstborn” sons of the Israelites.
The Hebrew word “Bikkurim” has the same root as “bechor” – first born. The first of everything belongs to God – man and animal alike. Israel was God’s “firstborn”, and in recognition of His ownership of the land and His sovereignty over nature, the first grain and fruits had to be offered to God.
In the Temple, the Levites ground the wheat into fine flour, from which leavened “twin loaves” were baked and eaten by the priests. This was the only time that leaven was used, for all other grain offerings had to be sacrificed and burned unleavened.
During Shavuot not only trumpets but also flutes were being played before the altar. “At your times of rejoicing… you are to sound the trumpets over your bu7rnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God….” (Numbers 10:10)
Shavuot after the destruction of the Temples
The main emphasis shifted to the anniversary of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. Because the first fruits could not be offered anymore, rabbis suggested replacing it with charity.
Shavuot and the Book of Jubilees
The Book of Jubilees, also called the “lesser Genesis” – Leptogenesis, and is parallel to Genesis and parts of Exodus. Between 1947 and 1956, 15 Hebrew Jubilee scrolls were found at Qumran. They were probably written between 135-105 BC, and well known by early Christian writers and rabbis.
The book of Jubilees associates the Festival with the Covenant and Torah (Moses) and the Covenants God made with Noah and Abraham as an offering of first fruits.
Today, Oriental Orthodox churches still consider the Jubilees an important part of the Bible. The book traces the first Shavuot to the appearance of the first rainbow – the day God made a covenant with Noah.
Other apocrypha books, Tobit and II Maccabees also mention the “Feast of Weeks”.
Lessons from the book of Ruth
Boaz was a farmer who practiced “leket”- sharing his crop with the poor.
The central theme of the scroll is “chesed” – loving-kindness. We see it in Naomi and Ruth’s relationship with each other, and Boaz’s chesed when he became the kinsman-redeemer.
Each of the three times the word chesed is used in the scroll, it’s directly linked with a blessing from God. Those who perform acts of kindness are rewarded with “redemption from exile”.
Christians and Pentecost
There are many similarities between the different time periods.
1a. While the people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai Moses received the Torah, during Shavuot.
1b. After Jesus’ resurrection, Jews and proselytes gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. (Book of Acts.)
2a. When the Israelites provoked God to anger fire broke out in the camp. Their complaints led Moses to Moses’ choose 70 elders, who prophesied after they received God’s spirit.
2b. 70 nations were known in Judaism during the time when Jews and proselytes were baptized with the Holy Spirit and prophesied in Jerusalem, during Shavuot.
3a. At the end of Pesach (Passover) the priest waved a sheaf of barley to anticipate a greater wheat harvest at Shavuot.
3b. Jesus’ “weave offering” during Pesach resulted in first fruits during Shavuot. Those present in Jerusalem accepted Jesus’ sacrifice as atonement for their sins. A new community came into when those who believed were baptized in water (in Jesus’ Name) and in the Holy Spirit. Those who received the new Covenant were cleansed, forgiven, sanctified and equipped with the Spirit of God.
4a. Exodus 24:8 shows that a covenant was made (“cut”) with a sacrifice.
4b. The “first fruits” that gathered “in Jesus’ Name” broke bread and shared the wine in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice for them during Pesach.
In Acts we read that baptism in Jesus’ name was followed by the baptism with the Holy Spirit. This was fundamental to faith in Jesus, and not linked to a separate movement, as we see it today.
Shavuot – the Feast of Joy!
May we continue to be grateful and rejoice in God’s bountiful blessings towards us, and as a token of our gratefulness, offer Him the first fruits of our lives.
Redeeming Time, by Bruce Chilton
Encyclopedia of Judaism
Vines expository dictionary of OT and NT words
The Tosefta, by Jacob Neusner
Internet – Temple Institute website, Wikipedia, Jewish virtual library
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