Jews and Christians will be celebrating Shavuot and Pentecost on the same day this weekend, in a rare year that the two calendars correspond. Technically, Pentecost is the English name for Shavuot (Hebrew for “weeks”), indicating the fiftieth day after Passover. So, are Jews and Christians celebrating the same thing on this day? Is there anything we can learn from one another that can enhance our own celebrations?
While Jews will complete the counting of the 49 days of the Omer just before Shavuot, the two themes that will be emphasized are the harvest and first fruits (Leviticus 13 and Deuteronomy 26) and the revelation of the Torah at Sinai (Exodus 19-20). For Christians, Pentecost is a feast celebrating the events recounted in Acts of the Apostles 2, the story of the first Shavuot/Pentecost after the death of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to rest on each of the apostles.
While the agricultural aspects of the holiday were deemphasized for hundreds of years, they were reappropriated by early Zionist settlers in the Land of Israel. Poems about working the land and enjoying the fruits of the land were written and set to music, and these became the theme songs of children’s celebrations of Shavuot in the Land of Israel, such as סלינו על כתפינו (“Our Baskets are on Our Shoulders”).
Our baskets are on our shoulders
Our heads are crowned
We have come from the edges of the land
We have brought first-fruits.
From Judea, Judea and Samaria
From the valley, the valley and Galilee
Clear a path for us
First fruits are with us
Beat, beat with hollow drum and flute.
סלינו על כתפינו
מקצות הארץ באנו
,מיהודה, מיהודה משומרון
,מן העמק מן העמק והגליל
פנו דרך לנו
.הך, הך בתוף חלל בחליל
As in many early Zionist songs, sources that traditionally pointed to actions of God or a future messianic figure were reformulated to point to the human efforts of the “new Jews” who worked the land. Here, “clear a path for us” is an allusion to the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 40. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the path of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The mostly secular early Zionists rejected what they saw as a passive attitude of waiting for God to save the Jewish people, and instead advocated (by pen and by action) for human intervention. Thus “clear a path for the Lord,” became “clear a path for us.” Shavuot became a celebration of people and land.
Traditional Jews have emphasized the theme of Torah, revealed by God, and accepted by the people of Israel. The tradition of staying awake all night to pray and study was first developed by the Sixteenth Century kabbalists. How far back were Jews celebrating Shavuot as z’man matan torateinu – the time of the giving of our Torah? According to Exodus 19:1, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai in the third month – the month in which we celebrate Shavuot. Thus there is reason for the rabbis in the Talmud to connect Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai.
In earlier Jewish literature, however, we do not find any explicit connection between Shavuot and Sinai. The book of Jubilees (Third to Second Century, BCE) relates to Shavuot as a time of the renewal of the covenant between God and the people of Israel (Jubilees 6). Because the earliest covenant between God and Israel (as a people) would have been at Sinai, the text in Jubilees seems to support the idea of an early connection between Shavuot and Sinai. However, the text there seems to be more interested in conflating the festival of weeks (Shavuot) with a festival of oaths (sh’vuot). For me, Shavuot was a holiday of renewal of the oath and covenant between God and Israel.
While the Christian text Acts of the Apostles makes no direct reference to covenants or Sinai, it is striking that the story depicts revelation.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)
This is a story about a group of people experiencing God’s presence in a supernatural way, comparable perhaps to the experience of Israel at Sinai, where God appeared with fire and smoke and thunder and lightning (Exodus 19:16-19), just before presenting the people with the Ten Commandments. In the Pentecost story in Acts, God’s presence leaves the apostles able “to speak in other languages.” In other words, God’s Spirit gave them the ability to communicate the new teachings to all kinds of different people, from various lands, without impediment of language.
On Shavuot, when Jews stay up all night and teach and learn Torah, perhaps for us too, the idea is not only to repeat a Torah (teaching) frozen in time, but rather to see ourselves as translators and interpreters who can carry that Torah into new worlds and situations. Indeed, in the well-known argument between Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer found in the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer creatively reinterprets Deuteronomy 30:12. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses comforts the people of Israel and reassures them that they will survive without him. Moses tells them that God’s teachings are accessible to them:
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”
In the Talmud (BT Baba Metzia 59a-b), Rabbi Joshua (mis)reads the words, “It is not in heaven,” to prove that he and the human rabbinical court have the right to interpret the law as they see fit. They believe that this was the process God set in motion at the revelation at Sinai, by bringing the Torah to earth and giving it to human beings.
In a sense then, both Jews and Christians who celebrate Shavuot and Pentecost are celebrating the idea that revelation means God’s words are within each of us, giving us the ability and the responsibility to translate those words to those around us.