Shavuot Themes & Theology

The festival of Shavuot transformed from a purely agricultural into a historical and religious holiday. Originally mentioned in the Torah as a harvest festival, over time it took on new meanings so that now–like the other pilgrimage festivals–Shavuot has an agricultural, a historical, and a religious significance. These meanings contain a number of themes, such as: counting and marking time, a period of sadness leading to a time of explicit joy, and the mystical idea of marriage between God and Israel.

 The themes are reflected in the numerous names for the holiday. The agricultural is apparent in “Hag HaKatzir” (Harvest Festival) and “Yom HaBikkurim” (“festival of first fruits“); the marking of time is apparent in “Shavuot” (“festival of weeks”) and “Atzeret,” a name from the Talmudic period meaning a cessation of something or a solemn assembly; the historical and religious is apparent in “Zeman Matan Torateinu,” the time of the gift of Torah.

Shavuot is a festival that marks the end of counting (sefirah) that began on the second evening of Pesach (Passover). This span of time bridged the barley and wheat harvests when people were supposed to bring offerings of both to theTemple. The agricultural origin of the festival is still remembered and highlighted in the Book of Ruth that is read on Shavuot. The story takes place during the seasonal harvest associated with the holiday. Ruth, a Moabite woman who chose to join her mother-in-law Naomi’s people, is seen as the paradigmatic convert to Judaism. In a sense, she was the first to reject her own ancestral faith and willingly take on Jewish law and tradition. In this way the book reflects both the agricultural as well as the historical significance of the festival.

In post-biblical times, the rabbis calculated that the sixth of the month of Sivan, the day of Shavuot, was the day the Israelites received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Thus, Shavuot became the festival marking the reception of Torah, when the Israelites had experienced Revelation. Shavuot was consequently transformed into a festival that not only had agricultural significance, but also marked the birthday of the covenant between God and Israel. For traditionalist Jews who believe in “Torah min hashamayim” (direct revelation of God to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai), Shavuot marks a specific historical anniversary. All branches of Judaism view the Torah as a divine gift–whether inspired or revealed. Thus, for every Jewish denomination, Shavuot is a festival that highlights the fundamental truth and importance of the moral law of Torah.

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