Shavuot History: Rabbinic Development

Shavuot takes on a new name and meaning.

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Excerpted with permission from Every Person's Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

What is most likely the earliest Talmudic statement on the date of the revelation on Mount Sinai may be found in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat (86b). According to the calculations of the sages, the Jews left Egypt on Friday, the 15th of Nisan. The Torah was given on Saturday, the sixth of Sivan, which was the equivalent of the 50th day of the omer, the day on which Shavuot was permanently fixed in the Scriptures. 

Rabbi Jose, a second century sage, offers a dissenting view. He states that the Jews left Egypt on Thursday, the 15th of Nisan, and that the Law was given on Saturday, the seventh of Sivan. Interestingly, the ecclesiastic calendar of the Book of Jubilees corroborates Rabbi Jose's date of the giving of the Law.

The author of Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 494) points out that the seventh day of Sivan was the equivalent of the 51st day of the omer, one day after the fixed day of Shavuot. Consequently, Shavuot could not mark the anniversary of the Law.

Shavuot in the Talmud

The first step in the development of Shavuot after the exile was the official establishment of the date of the revelation on Mount Sinai. The date indicated by the ancient sages was the sixth of Sivan, which was accepted by the majority of rabbis. One of the first official rabbinic texts to connect the giving of the Torah with Shavuot was a passage in the midrash [commentary], Exodus Rabbah, chapter 31, attributed to Rabbi Meir. Here, mention is made of the "Festival of the Harvest on which the Torah was given to Israel."

An entire talmudic tractate, called Bikkurim, deals with the offerings of first fruits in the Temple. The Mishnah of Bikkurim1:6 states that the period for bringing the first fruits 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. The Mishnah of Bikkurim (chapter 3) graphically describes the scene:

"At the rise of morning an official says, 'Rise and let us go up to Zion, to the House of the Lord our God.' An ox walked before them, its horns covered with gold, and with an olive crown on its head. The halil (flute) was played before them till they reached the vicinity of Jerusalem. Upon coming close to Jerusalem, they sent word ahead and decorated their bikkurim. The important officials went out to meet them…and all the tradesmen in Jerusalem stood before them and greeted them, 'Our brothers, the men of such and such a place, you have come in peace.'

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.