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Shavuot

SHAVUOT

SHAVUOT (Heb. שָׁבוּעוֹת; "weeks," Pentecost, "the 50th day"), the festival celebrated on the sixth of Sivan (and also on the seventh outside Israel). The biblical names for the festival are: "Ḥag Shavuot" ("Feast of Weeks," Ex. 34:22; Deut. 16:10); "Yom ha-Bikkurim" ("The Day of the First-fruits," Num. 28:26), and "Ḥag ha-Kaẓir" ("The Harvest Feast," Ex. 23:16). The rabbinic name is "Aẓeret" (rh 1, 2; Ḥag. 2, 4). This word, of uncertain meaning but generally translated as "solemn assembly," occurs also in connection with the day following the Festival of Sukkot (Lev. 23:36; Num. 29:35). This would seem to suggest that, for the rabbis, Shavuot is an additional one day feast to Passover just as there is an additional one day feast to Tabernacles (see Targ. Onk. to Num. 28:26 and pdrk 192a–93a).

History

This feast, one of the three *pilgrim festivals (Deut. 16:16), marked the end of the barley and the beginning of the wheat harvest. According to the critical view, it was probably a midsummer festival in origin and taken over from the Canaanites. It is stated in Leviticus: "From the day after the Sabbath, the day that you bring the sheaf of wave-offering you shall count (until) seven full weeks have elapsed: you shall count fifty days, until the day after the seventh week; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord" (Lev. 23:15–16 and to 21). Leviticus 23:11 states that the sheaf was waved on the day after the Sabbath on the festival of Passover. Thus Shavuot falls 50 days after this day. The *Sadducees (and later the *Karaites) understood the term "Sabbath" in these verses literally; hence, for them Shavuot always falls on a Sunday. The *Pharisees, however, interpreted "Sabbath" as the first day of Passover (which was a Sabbath, "day of rest") so that for them Shavuot always falls on the 51st day from the first day of Passover (Sifra Emor Perek 12; Men. 65a–66a). The *Beta Israel (Falashas) interpreted "the day after Sabbath" as meaning the day after Passover so that for them Shavuot falls on the 12th of Sivan. The community of *Qumran apparently interpreted "Sabbath" as the Sabbath after the end of the Passover festival, and as they had a fixed solar calendar, this "Sabbath" always fell on the 26th of Nisan so that Shavuot always came out on Sunday the 15th of Sivan.

On this festival in Temple times two loaves (shetei haleḥem) were "waved before the Lord" (Lev. 23:17–20). These had to be offered only from the finest wheat, from produce grown that year in Ereẓ Israel (Men. 8:1). Shavuot was associated with the bringing of the *bikkurim, "the first ripe fruits," to the Sanctuary (Ex. 23:19; Deut. 26:1–11). The Mishnah (Bik. 1, 6) states that the period for bringing them was any time from Shavuot to Sukkot. The villagers would first assemble in the large town of the district and would go up together with their first ripe fruits to the Temple, where they would be welcomed with song by the levites (Bik. 3:2–4). In rabbinic times a remarkable transformation of the festival took place. Based on the verse: "In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai" (Ex. 19:1), the festival became the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The description of the feast in the liturgy is "zeman mattan toratenu" ("the time of the giving of our Torah"). The transformation was in accord with a process to be observed in the Bible in which the ancient agricultural feasts were transformed into festivals marking the anniversaries of significant historical events in the life of the people. Both Passover and Sukkot are connected with the Exodus; it was natural to link Shavuot with this event.

It is possible that the Pharisees insisted that Shavuot be observed on a fixed day because they wished to affirm that the festival commemorated the Sinaitic theophany which occurred on the 50th day after the Exodus (following the general Pharisaic belief in an oral Torah reaching back to Moses which the Sadducees denied), and because a purely agricultural festival had little meaning for the town dwellers who made up the Pharisaic party (L. Finkelstein, Pharisees (19623), 115–8, 641–54). If this is correct, the transformation into a historical feast took place before the present era. However, neither Josephus nor Philo refers to Shavuot as "the time of the giving of our Torah," and none of the references in the rabbinic literature to the Torah being given on this day (e.g., Shab. 86b) is earlier than the second century c.e., though there may well have been a tradition far earlier than this. The earliest clear references to Shavuot as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah are from the third century, e.g., the saying of R. Eleazar that all authorities agree that it is necessary to rejoice with good food and wine on Aẓeret because it is the day on which the Torah was given (Pes. 68b).

In some medieval communities it was customary to introduce children to the Hebrew school on Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah. At this initiation ceremony the child, at the age of five or thereabouts, was placed on the reading desk in the synagogue and from there was taken to the school where he began to make his first attempts at reading the Hebrew alphabet. He was then given cakes, honey, and sweets "that the Torah might be sweet on his lips." In many modern synagogues, particularly Reform, the confirmation of older children takes place on Shavuot (see *Bar Mitzvah).

The Laws and Customs of Shavuot

Unlike Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot has few special rituals, and those it does have are late. This is entirely explicable in view of the development of the festival mentioned above. The harvest associations no longer had much meaning once the Temple was destroyed, and there are no biblical ceremonies connected with the giving of the Torah since this motif is post-biblical. In modern Israel attempts have been made to revive some of the harvest ceremonies (see *Kibbutz Festivals). In the synagogue it is customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. Among the reasons given are that the events recorded in Ruth took place at harvest time (Ruth 2:23); that Ruth was the ancestor of David (Ruth 4:17) who, traditionally, died on Shavuot; that Ruth's "conversion" to Judaism is appropriate reading for the festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah; and that Ruth's loyalty is symbolic of Israel's loyalty to the Torah. The portion of the Torah read in the synagogue on the first day is the account of the theophany at Sinai (Ex. 19:1–20:26). In the Ashkenazi rite it is prefaced by chanting the Aramaic *Akdamut hymn composed by Meir b. Isaac Nehorai of Orleans (11th century) in praise of Israel's faithfulness to the Torah. The haftarah for the first day is the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1–2) because of its parallel to the vision of the whole people at Sinai. The haftarah for the second day is Habakkuk's prayer (Hab. 3) because it similarly describes a theophany. This, too, is prefaced by an Aramaic hymn in praise of the Torah, "*Yeẓiv Pitgam," composed by Jacob b. Meir of Troyes (1100–1171). Under the influence of the Kabbalah it became customary to spend the whole of the first night as a vigil in which selected passages from all the Jewish religious classics are read (tikkun leil Shavuot). A less observed custom is to recite the whole of the Book of Psalms on the second night because of the association of the festival with David.

The Torah reading for the first day (Ex. 19–20) includes the *Ten Commandments. Although the Mishnah (Tam. 5:1) states that the Ten Commandments were recited each day in the Temple, the rabbis discouraged their recitation outside the Temple to refute the claims of the "sectarians" that only these, and not the whole Torah, were given to Moses at Sinai (Ber. 12a). During the Middle Ages there were some protests against the practice of standing while the Ten Commandments were read on Shavuot. However the custom for the whole congregation to stand is still followed on the grounds that the talmudic objection to any special significance being attached to the Decalogue cannot apply to congregational reading from the Scroll, since the whole of the Torah is written in the Scroll. The account of the revelation on Mount Sinai is usually sung to a specially solemn tune.

It is customary to adorn the synagogue with plants and flowers on Shavuot because, tradition has it, Sinai was a green mountain; and with trees, because Shavuot is judgment day for the fruit of the tree (rh 1:2). Some authorities disapproved of the custom because of its similarity to certain church rites (see *Ḥukkat ha-Goi). It is a home custom to eat dairy products on Shavuot because the Torah is compared to milk (Song 4:11) and because the law of the first fruits is placed in juxtaposition to a law concerning milk (Ex. 23:19). In some communities it is customary to eat triangular pancakes stuffed with meat or cheese because the Torah is of three parts (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Hagiographa) and was given to a people of three parts (priests, levites, and Israelites) on the third month through Moses who was the third child of his parents.

bibliography:

S. Zevin: Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (19492); C. Pearl, Guide to Shavuoth (1959); Y.T. Lewinsky, Sefer ha-Mo'adim, 3 (19532); H. Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (19664), 86–95.

[Louis Jacobs]

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