Shavuot – Pentecost

SHAVUOT

THE NAME

‘Shavuot’ means ‘weeks’ and ‘Pentecost’ means ‘fifty’ and so the festival is described in the Bible but there are other names:

And the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of thy labors … (Exodus 23: 16)

Also in the day of the first-fruits, when ye bring a new meal offering unto the Lord in your feast of weeks, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work … (Numbers 28: 26)

THE DATE

The Festival of Weeks is a seven-week (50 day) festival, starting when the first sheaf of barley, cut in the new harvest, was brought to the Temple – the ‘first fruits’. It ends when the entire harvest is in and bread can be baked from the newly harvested wheat – the day of the ‘Feast of Harvest’. The date has caused a lot of confusion because obviously the Bible being a book of great wisdom knows there is no way of determining when the first barley will be harvested so lays down no specific date for the start of the festival.

Repeatedly though, it emphasizes the urgency of bringing in the harvest in less than 50 days – speed is of the essence.

Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks.  (Deuteronomy 16: 9)

And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye are come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest unto the priest. And he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you; on the morrow after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. (Leviticus 23: 9 – 11)

And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of waving; seven weeks shall there be complete … and ye shall present a new meal offering unto the Lord. (Leviticus 23: 15 – 16)

For the city people and organizers of the affairs of the Temple (and later rabbis and religious institutions) the arbitrary date for the start of Shavuot due to agricultural influences was unacceptable. They had to draw up a year planner and inform pilgrims of when to come to Jerusalem and linked the date of the waving of the sheaf, to Pesach. With a few exceptions, Orthodox Judaism observes Shavuot on the 6th day of the month of Sivan as determined by the Pharisees. The Sadducees held it to be the seventh Sunday after Pesach and other older traditions have it on the 12th or 15th of Sivan.

The fixing of the date in this manner forced the farmers to lie about the date of the start of the harvest. In the Diaspora, this was of little concern because farming was not a common occupation but in modern Israel, agriculture is an important subject studied even by city children. They know there is a lie, and either lie to themselves or reject the lie, and with it the entire beautiful festival, which could have been meaningful.

Fixing a date for Shavuot forced a break between religion and nature which is now representative of the gap between those with clean hands sitting in a yeshiva and those with dirty hands working on a kibbutz. Because it is so poorly observed, it has become a symbol of the breakdown between the religious authorities and the majority of people in Israel. Maintaining the incorrect date is the rejection by religious people of a practical Jewish State of Israel, based on reality.

SHMITA

The shmita is the seventh year when the land is left to lie fallow and there is no planting and no harvesting. Logically there can be no Shavuot and it would be silly to keep the festival. Keeping Shavuot during shmita shows how badly the festival is misunderstood. It also denies people the important aspect of a rest from the tension of Shavuot.

BACKGROUND

Wheat is the most prized of the grains – it is also the grain most susceptible to disaster and because of its slow ripening the last one to be harvested. It has to be planted and then allowed to grow in soil soaked by soft winter rains. Then the rain must stop and the weather warm up for the wheat to ripen.

The potential for disaster is great during the time of the festival as can be seen from 1 Samuel 12: 17 – 19: Is today not the wheat harvest? I will call on the Lord, and He will send thunder and rain, that you may perceive and see that your wickedness is great …

Modern cultivars are a lot stronger than the wheat of the Bible but back then, even a moderately hard rain, hail or wind could destroy a crop by knocking the stalks over. (Modern crops have their own set of problems.)

The kernels in the older varieties of wheat became loose as the crop ripened. For this reason, the wheat had to be harvested while it was still green. The green stalks were then stacked and hopefully there would be just the right amount of humidity and heat for the ripening to take place.

Rain during the latter stages of the growth period encouraged the growth of fungi and mold (like ergot containing LSD causing ‘St Anthony’s Fire’). It also encouraged a wide range of other insects that could infest and ruin the crop – this was especially a problem for the stacked wheat.

Spring rains after a dry winter cause a change in the ordinary harmless (relatively) grasshopper. It breeds faster, change color, become fearless and gregarious. It becomes a locust swarm. Unfortunately, this happens when late-planted grain crops are at their most vulnerable – March, April May. (The locusts of 1915 ate every morsel of green in the entire Israel and caused famine.)

Many disasters can befall the farmer from the time of the harvest of the first sheaf – the barley – until bread can be baked with the slowest ripening crop – the wheat. The tension made celebration impossible and every day was counted, not as a day, but an additional measure (omer) of grain saved from destruction.

THE FESTIVAL

Few of the original customs remain because it was a ‘working the land festival’ – not something the sages and rabbis knew about.

On the first day the sheaf of barley was waved in the Temple and on the last; two loafs of bread baked from the newly harvested wheat was ‘sacrificed’.

Custom was to take greenery and fruits to Jerusalem and the Temple. Today it involves flower arrangements to show locusts, worms and rot didn’t turn up – a show of health.

A poem called Akdomus based on even older songs is sung: May you, who have heard this song, be privileged to be seated at that banquet, if only you will hearken to the Torah that He gave us. It tells that David was the descendant of Ruth and from his line the Anointed will come and it tells of the great day, the great feast to come. And as David says in Psalm 16: 11, “In Thy presence is fullness of joy“.

THE COVENANT

Shavuot is an affirmation of the covenant and a celebration of all the additional people brought into the covenant and it goes right back to Noah. God promised never again to destroy the earth while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest (Genesis 8: 22). It applies to every Jew as an annual renewal of the covenant God made with Israel – and the giving of the Torah, which forms the acceptance of the covenant by the Hebrews.

 For God made a covenant with you and all Israel; therefore a man shall bind himself by oath to return to the Law of Moses, for in it all things are strictly defined. As for the exact determination of their time to which Israel turns a blind eye, behold it is strictly defined in the Book of the Divisions of the Time into their Jubilees and Weeks. (Damascus Document – Dead Sea Scrolls)

It is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shavuot in this month, once per year, in order to renew the covenant in all respects, year by year. (Book of Jubilees)

It was also the day on which non-Jews formally joined and became part of the covenant

RUTH

The Bible, taken as a whole, is about religion, rulers, prophets, philosophies, laws, great tales and poetry. Amongst all the important words is the Book of Ruth, a simple and fanciful fairy tale with the weeks of the harvest central to the storyline. In its simplicity, it explains the Bible. The Scroll of Ruth is read at the festival of Shavuot and it forms part of pact between God and humankind.

The Book of Ruth was included as scripture to counter the strict and terrible interpretation of the laws, which were imposed by Nehemiah and Ezra.

A curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law (Nehemiah 10: 29) Suddenly intermarriage was prohibited and conversion made almost impossible.

Ruth converts with the simple words: Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. (Ruth 1: 16) There is good reason for the link between the Scroll of Ruth and Shavuot.

LAG B’ OMER

Every day from the first sheaf of barley an omer is counted – one more measure filled with grain. Each is a celebration but it is a tense joy because of the remaining days ahead.

The two most important rituals of the Lag B’Omer part of the festival is the lighting of bonfires and running around in the dark with bows-and-arrows. Quite understandably, the general assumption is the rituals of Lag B’ Omer was pagan in origin. This might possibly be correct but it was given an original explanation in Judaism. ‘Lag B’ Omer means ’33rd measure’ and the festival takes place on the 33rd day of the 50 measures counted between Pesach and Shavuot.

In Babylon and early Judaism the number ’33’ is related to creation and not destruction – so in Kabbalah (the 33 secret levels of creation). The bonfires lit on Lag B’ Omer is therefore a symbol of the creative use of fire – something not common in paganism. (So is the bow-and-arrow a symbol of creativity if linked to the number 33 and not a declaration of war or the celebration of a victory.)

SYMBOLISM

The clock started ticking with Noah, when the first grains were planted. Jacob/Israel was the ‘first fruits’, the first grains – the Jews. The barley, which was harvested first – the start of the ‘festival’. The rest of humanity are the other grains and as the seven weeks go past the harvest becomes more risky and involves more work.

The ‘festival’ ends with the great feast of Shavuot where the evening meal is as described in the book of Tobit (2: 1 – 2) who sat down with his family for the feast of Pentecost, which is the holy Feast of Seven Weeks, with a good dinner and an  abundance of meat. (The meal for lunch is a feast of dairy products.)

An abundance of all foods – the counter to the fasting of Yom Kippur. The joy of the feast is a celebration of the harvest and of a future day when God shall join in the dancing on earth. A day when the company will dine off golden plates – or plastic ‘Hello Kitty’ ones, if they prefer.

About the Author
Gideon Marx is a57 year old Karate teacher with an interest in fighting, weapons and military matters both ancient and new. For the past couple of years he has been writing a tourist guide to the battlefields of Israel. This has led to an interest in the battles of the Bible and the need to make sense of them beyond the 'it was a miracle' level. And that led to the need for a fresh hermeneutics of Bible festivals.
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