The Secret of Shavuot

                                                                              

                                                                                      By Israel Drazin

 

No Jewish holiday is practiced today as the Bible mandates. Shavuot, called Pentecost in English, is a good example. The current observance of the holiday has no relationship to its biblical ancestor and doesn’t even occur at the same time.[1] Very few people know the truth about this day. Most Jews think Shavuot recalls the day the Torah was revealed to the Israelites. This is not true. This significance was given to the holiday in the middle ages when the holiday had lost one of its original purposes; the sacrifice prescribed for the day was discontinued when the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Additionally, the Bible states that only the Decalogue, called the Ten Commandments even though it contains more than ten commandments,[2] was revealed on a specific day. The Bible states that the rest of the Torah was given during different times during the next thirty-eight years.

 

The Hebrew name “Shavuot” means “weeks,” and the Latin name “Pentecost” means the “fiftieth.” Both refer to the commands in Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:9, 10, and 16; and Leviticus 23:15 and 16, where the Bible tells the Israelites to count seven full weeks after the Sabbath and states that the fiftieth day is Shavuot, when a prescribed sacrifice was to be brought. What, then, is the purpose of Shavuot? Why was this special day instituted? Why were the Israelites commanded to count seven weeks of seven days?

 

The Bible says in Exodus: “You should observe the holiday of Shavuot, as well as the first-fruits of wheat harvest (Passover), and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year (Sukkot).” This verse does not explain what Shavuot is. Deuteronomy writes: “You should count seven weeks, begin to count from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn.” Deuteronomy focuses on “weeks,” that the counting should be of seven weeks. It prescribes that a freewill offering should be brought on Shavuot and it should be a time of rejoicing. It does not tell why the weeks are counted and why the holiday was instituted. Leviticus is more specific: ”You should count from the morrow of the Shabbat from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waiving; seven full weeks; count fifty days until the morrow after the seventh Shabbat; then present a new meal offering unto the Lord.”

 

A controversy arose between the ancient Sadducees, Pharisees, and Christians regarding the meaning of the twice-mentioned “Shabbat” in the verse and the concept of “seven full weeks.” The Sadducees, a word meaning “the righteous ones,” people who upheld the ancient literal understanding of the verse, maintained that Shabbat means the weekly seventh day. Thus, since the “sheaf of waiving” occurred on the first day of Passover, the count began on the day following the next Shabbat, on Sunday. The counting ended on the morrow after the seventh Shabbat of the counting, again on a Sunday. According to them, this is the plain meaning of “seven full weeks,” for a week begins on a Sunday and ends on the Shabbat. This interpretation is consistent with the fact that the Bible requires the counting of weeks, for a week begins on a Sunday. Thus, the Sadducees were convinced that Shavuot always fell on a Sunday, but because in ancient times months began when witnesses saw the first sliver of the moon, and this date varied, the exact date of Shavuot is impossible to predict; it could be any of several days in what was called the month of Sivan when the month received this name around 550 BCE, during the Babylonian exile.

 

The Pharisees, a word meaning “separatists,” disagreed. They insisted that the first mention of Shabbat is the first day of the holiday of Passover. They said that besides meaning the seventh day “Sabbath,” Shabbat means rest, and the first day of Passover is a day of rest. They said that the second appearance of Shabbat, however, has a different meaning, “weeks.” They also contended that “seven full weeks” does not signify “Sunday to Saturday,” its literal meaning, but seven times seven days.

 

Why did the Pharisees develop this seemingly forced interpretation of Scripture? I have seen no answer to this question, and suggest the following. They were bothered by the fact that the Bible gives no date for Shavuot and that Shavuot could occur, as previously stated, on one of three possible dates. By starting the count on the day following the first day of Passover,[3] whose date is set as 15 Nissan, and by establishing when the following two months would start, rather than the usual practice of using witnesses for these months, they were able to set the date of Shavuot as 6 Sivan. They then invented the idea that the Torah – and by Torah, they must have meant the Decalogue – was given on this date, even though the Torah itself doesn’t reveal the date for the Sinai revelation. This, then, is the secret origin of today’s Shavuot. It is not a biblical observance. It is the taking of a biblical day, moving it to a desirable place, and giving it a totally new meaning.

 

Three questions remain: (1) Why did the Bible institute Shavuot? (2) Why did the Torah mandate that the Israelites count seven weeks of seven days? (3) What interesting events occurred that changed the Christian understanding of Pentecost?

 

Seven is an important number in Judaism. The Bible begins with the story of creation, that God created the world in six days and ceased creation (rested) on the seventh. Jews are instructed to observe the seventh day as Shabbat. Among other things, Shabbat reminds the Jew of God, that God created the world, and God gave people certain laws. To emphasize this important lesson, the number seven reoccurs many times in Jewish holidays and practices. I gave examples of well over a hundred usages of the number seven in Judaism in my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.

 

Among the others, I pointed out that seven is used for days (the Sabbath), months (the holiday of Rosh Hashana occurs at the outset of the seventh month), years (the seventh year is the Sabbatical Year), Sabbatical Years (the fiftieth year is the Jubilee Year). What is missing in this constant reminder of the basic teaching is weeks. This was and is the purpose of Shavuot, which is called “weeks” because this is its purpose, the counting of seven weeks recalls the message of seven, that there is a God who created the world and gave commands.

 

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Christian, who were originally Jews who accepted Jesus as a messiah, also observed Shavuot, but gave it its Latin name Pentecost because many of its members did not speak Hebrew. They retained the original Sadducee interpretation that it occurs on a Sunday. But the New Testament Book of Acts 2 states that the Holy Spirit descended upon the remaining eleven apostles (after the death the twelfth, Judas) and Pentecost became “the birthday of the church.” This is remarkably close to the modern Jewish view that Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Decalogue. Christians also call Pentecost Whitsunday because of a tradition that the apostles were dressed at the time of the revelation in white clothes.

 

Interestingly, the famed English explorer Captain James Cooke (1728-1779) saw islands off of the eastern part of Australia and, ignoring the aboriginal names or the aboriginal’s right to the islands and claiming that the islands now belonged to England, named them Whitsunday Islands because he was certain that he saw them on Whitsunday, and this name stuck. Actually he was in error. He saw the islands on Monday.

 

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The new Jewish interpretation of Shavuot led to interesting practices. For example, failing to realize the true meaning of “seven full weeks,” many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is insisting that Shavuot may not begin until the forty-nine days are completed in full. Since Shavuot occurs in the long summer days, they do not sit down to eat the festive holiday meal until after 9 PM, causing problems for their young children.

 

Another example is that they are convinced that the Torah emphasizes the counting of days, rather than weeks, although they don’t know why, and they instituted a blessing thanking God for allowing them to observe this command. They say that if a person misses a day’s count, he should continue the count the next day, but may not say the blessing anymore for the counting that year. There are two versions of this blessing; some say one, some say the other, and some say both.



[1] Readers should not imagine that I am advocating that Jews should not observe Shavuot. Judaism today is not Torah Judaism. It is Rabbinic Judaism. Jews observe the Torah as it is interpreted by the rabbis. I observe Shavuot. The purpose of this article is simply to reveal the historical development of Shavuot.

[2] Scholars differ about the count: eleven, twelve, and thirteen commands. The Torah does not use the term Ten Commandments, but Ten Statements, which is the meaning of Decalogue. Some of the statements have more than a single command.

[3] Actually, the biblical Passover was on 14 Nissan and Chag Hamatzot, the seven day Festival of Matzot, began on 15 Nissan. The only observance of the biblical Passover was the eating of the Pascal sacrifice. When the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and sacrifices stopped, the holiday of Passover ceased to exist. The rabbis solved the problem by starting to call the Festival of Matzot by the name Passover. The siddur, prayer book, continues the ancient practice of calling the festival Chag Hamatzot. The turning of Chag Hamatzot into Passover is another example of today’s Jewish holidays being different than those in the Bible.

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