Shavuot History

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Shavuot is a festival with a variety of names, each one representing different aspects of the festival. It is the Hag HaKatzir (harvest festival), Hag HaShavuot (festival of weeks) and Hag Habikkurim (festival of first fruits). The Torah describes the biblical festival in all three ways. For example, in Numbers 28:26, the people are commanded to offer a new meal-offering to the Eternal on the “day of first fruits” in the festival of weeks.

shavuot quizThe name “Atzeret” (“cessation” or “solemn assembly”) is used later in the Talmud to reflect how the rabbinic sages viewed the festival as a conclusion to Passover and the subsequent counting period of the omer (when the sheaf offerings were given in the Temple and each of the 49 days is counted). The talmudic rabbis also added the name “zeman matan torateynu” (time of the reception of Torah), which reflected their view of the festival as also having been the time in history when the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai. In post-Talmudic times, the name “Shavuot” came back into use. 

The counting period which began during Passover and lasted seven weeks–a week of weeks–marked the period from the harvesting of barley to the harvesting of wheat (the “first fruits” of the wheat harvest)–the last cereal to ripen–on Shavuot. In Deuteronomy 16:11 it is referred to as a festival of rejoicing. In Exodus 34:22, the people are commanded to make a festival of weeks with the first offering of the wheat harvest. The offerings are not given. However, in Leviticus 23:17, there is a prescribed offering of first-fruit loaves of new meal of two-tenths of an ephah (a biblical measurement), baked with leaven. The loaves were to be waved in the Temple.

In all likelihood, then, Shavuot was not celebrated until after the first Temple was built. It is speculated that Shavuot was probably the most difficult of the pilgrim festivals to observe since it fell in the middle of the growing season. Nevertheless, the historian Josephus (first century C.E.) describes large attendance in Jerusalem for Shavuot, and the Mishnah–in the section known as bikkurim–depicts the bringing of first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem as a gala affair. The Book of Jubilees–which is part of the apocrypha, works considered for but not ultimately canonized in the Bible–adds an additional reason for celebrating Shavuot: to commemorate and renew the pact between God and Noah when God promised never to flood the earth again

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