Shavuot History: Rabbinic Development

Shavuot takes on a new name and meaning.

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"The flute was played before them till they reached the Temple Mount. Even King Agripas took the basket on his shoulders and carried it till he reached the courtyard. When the pilgrims reached the courtyard, the Levites sang, 'I will exalt You, O God, for You have saved me and You have not rejoiced my enemies over me.'

"With the basket still on his shoulder, the Israelite read, 'I have told the Lord your God this day that I have come to this land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us. My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there and he became there a great, mighty, and numerous people. And the Egyptians harmed us, and they afflicted us and they put hard labor upon us, and we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and the Lord took us out from Egypt with a strong hand…and God brought us to this place, and God gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, I bring the first fruits of the land that you have given me, O God.' After completing the entire parashah [portion], the Jew places the bikkurim basket by the side of the altar, he bows down and goes out."

The High Priest then acts on behalf of the people as a whole, presenting before the altar the special Shavuot wave-offering, two loaves of bread made of wheat, the first products of the spring wheat harvest that begins just as the barley harvest comes to an end. Thus Shavuot in …[second temple] times celebrated the bounty of the spring harvest season.

The Festival is Transformed

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 they came into the wilderness of Sinai," [Exodus 19:1] the festival of Shavuot became the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Although Shavuot was known in the Bible by several names, including the Feast of the Harvest, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of the First Fruits, the sages added the name "Atzeret"-- withdrawal. In the Torah, the last days of the two other pilgrim festivals (Passover and Sukkot) are referred to as Atzeret to indicate on the seventh day of Passover and on the eighth day after the beginning of Sukkot, there must be a withdrawal from all menial labor.

Shavuot, too, was given the name of Atzeret by the Rabbis so as to emphasize the necessity of abstaining from menial labor on this holiday as well. In fact, for this reason, the sages referred to Shavuot by the name Atzeret almost exclusively. They refused to adopt the theme of "Giving the Torah" in assigning a name to the festival, because in their thinking it would be sacrilegious to limit the celebration of the giving of the Torah to a single day. To them, every day of the year should be considered as a day of receiving the Torah anew.

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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.