Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Shavuot: Unambiguously ambiguous

Shavuot begins at sundown on May 16. Our calendar tells us so, and so did our Sages of Blessed Memory, so it must certainly be so.

Where Shavuot as the Torah describes it is concerned, however, there are no certainties. The Torah is filled with serious ambiguities surrounding Shavuot, including where exactly the event being celebrated — the giving of the Torah — occurred, how the festival is to be celebrated, whether we are celebrating it on the correct date, and whether the Torah really was given on that day.

Regarding location, the Torah places the Shavuot event — whatever that actually was — at Mount Sinai 16 times. Another nine times, however, it says it took place at Mount Horeb. Tradition insists that Horeb and Sinai are synonymous, but in Exodus 17:6 and Exodus 19:2-3 the Torah poses a challenge to that. The first verse tells us that Horeb is in a place called Rephidim; the second tells us that Rephidim is miles away from Sinai, meaning that it and Horeb are separate mountains, set at a distance from each other.

The second ambiguity relates to how to celebrate Shavuot. The Torah’s instructions are cultic only, meaning that they apply only to a time when there is a portable tabernacle (the Mishkan) or a Holy Temple, neither of which are around these days. While the Torah, however, offers home-bound rituals for the other two pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, alongside cultic ones, it offers no home-bound rituals for Shavuot.

On Pesach, as we see in Leviticus 23 (part of this week’s Torah reading), it tells us to eat matzah and it also lays the framework for a seder. On Sukkot, we are told to erect a sukkah outside our homes and to take in hand the Four Species (an etrog, together with a lulav surrounded by willow and myrtle branches). The Torah’s rituals for Shavuot are cultic only.

When to celebrate is Shavuot is the third ambiguity. Pesach, as the Torah tells us this week in Leviticus 23, begins in the waning moments of the 14th day of the first month (Nisan, the seventh month on our printed calendars), and “Chag Ha-matzot” (“the festival of unleavened bread”) begins moments later, as the sun sets and the 15th of the month begins. (Yes, you read that correctly; see Leviticus 23:5-6 for confirmation.)

The Torah supplies dates for every other festival, as well. There is the unnamed festival on the “first day of the seventh month” — we call it Rosh Hashanah, or New Year, despite the fact that Tishrei (our name for the “seventh month”) falls out in the middle of the Torah’s notion of the calendar. This is followed by Yom Kippur on the “10th day of the seventh month,” and Sukkot on the “15th day of the seventh month.”

Yet no date is given for Shavuot. Leviticus 23:15-16 merely says this: “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering seven weeks. They must be complete. Until the day after the seventh Shabbat you must count 50 days….”

Exactly when to bring this “sheaf of elevation offering” and what the meaning is of “the day after Shabbat” go unexplained.

The problem is compounded by Deuteronomy 16:9-10, which says, “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Festival of Shavuot….”

Is the day “when the sickle is first put to the standing grain” the same as “the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering,” and does that occur on “the day after Shabbat,” whatever that means?

Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

We take the reference to “Shabbat” in Leviticus 23:15 to mean what our Sages correctly said it meant: the first day of “Pesach” (technically speaking, Chag Ha-matzot), meaning that we begin the seven weeks of counting on the second day of that festival. Leviticus 23, in fact, supports referring to festivals as shabbatot, so there is logic to this.

Not everyone agreed with the Sages, however, the Torah’s support notwithstanding. The priests of the Second Temple and their supporters took “Shabbat” in that verse literally, and began their count on the first Sunday after Pesach ended (a break in the text between the end of Pesach and Leviticus 23:15-16 allows for that), which means it could fall out on different dates every year (although always on a Sunday). The Karaites celebrated Shavuot on that day, too, and still do (there is a substantial Karaite community in the Los Angeles area, by the way). This year, that would be Sunday, May 23, not Monday, May 17. The Karaites also claim support from the Torah. Shavuot is to begin on the day after the counting of the omer ends, which, according to Leviticus 23:16, is “the day after Shabbat,” which they interpret as meaning on a Sunday.

The community at Qumran—because it considered “sabbath” to mean the first Shabbat after Pesach, not the Sunday after Pesach—always celebrated Shavuot on 15 Sivan (May 26 this year).

Interestingly, Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community also took “sabbath” to refer to Pesach, but it interpreted that to mean all of the festival, and so they would begin to count on the day after it ended. Historically, for the Beta Israel, then, Shavuot would begin each year on 12 Sivan. This year, they would be in tune with the Karaites, but only because their last day of Pesach ended on a Saturday.

That the Torah is silent about why we celebrate Shavuot is the final ambiguity: It has several names for the festival, suggesting that it is exclusively an exclusive and anomalous agricultural festival, but it gives no reason for that, and more important, it never refers to Shavuot in any way as “the festival of the giving of our Torah,” which is how we know it today.

In fact, no one seems to have referred to it that way before late in the Mishnah period, meaning not before well into the second century. That could be because no one associated Shavuot with the giving of the Torah until then. It is possible, in fact, that “the festival of the giving of the Torah” was actually held on the day we call Rosh Hashanah (which may be why Ezra the Scribe read the Torah to the people on that day, according to Nehemiah 8).

The day we call Rosh Hashanah has its own ambiguities, by the way. While the Torah tells us that “in the first day of the seventh month there shall be for you a Shabbat,” it offers no reason for that observance other than that it is “in memory of [the shofar] blast.” The only shofar blast worth remembering when this law was given was associated with the giving of the Torah in Exodus 19. (Of course, this is pure speculation on my part.)

Despite the Torah’s ambiguities regarding Shavuot, however, there should be no question that our Sages were correct. The sixth of Sivan is indeed the date for Shavuot. The chronology of the exodus, as the Torah provides it, allows for no other interpretation. As Exodus 19 states, the Israelites arrive at the foot of God’s holy mountain on “the first of the third month” (the month we call Sivan and which appears on our calendars as the ninth month). On the sixth day — 50 days from the second day of Pesach — God “appears” to all the people, which is worthy of celebration all by itself.

That day is when God begins to set out the rules for His “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (see Exodus 19:6) by pronouncing the so-called Ten Commandments (see Chapter 20) and then continuing with the Sefer Ha-b’rit, the Book of the Covenant (see Chapters 21-23). Then, however, the Torah as we have it itself tells us:

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets, and the Torah and the mitzvah which I have written in order to instruct them.’” (See Exodus 24:12.)

So the Torah as we have it was not given to us on the day we celebrate Shavuot. The process continued from that day through the next 40 years, including being given “in the Tent of Meeting” (see Leviticus 1:1 and Numbers 1:1), and “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho” (see Numbers 36:13).

On the other hand, Shavuot surely is the day on which God began to give us the Torah, which is good enough reason to celebrate the giving of the whole.

A joyous Shavuot to all and may we all spend the first night of the chag in meaningful Torah study.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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