Many people have wrong ideas about Shavuot. It is almost like the truth was held as a secret.

 

The current holiday called Shavuot is not a biblical holiday

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]

One of the most common misconceptions about Shavuot is that it commemorates the day the Torah was revealed to the Israelites during Moses’s time. However, this belief is not accurate. The Bible only mentions the revelation of the Decalogue, called the Ten Commandments, being revealed at Mount Sinai on a specific day.[2] The rest of the Torah was composed later. The events recorded in the Torah after the revelation occurred after the Israelites left Sinai during the next thirty-eight years.

 

The biblical Shavuot was different

The Hebrew name “Shavuot” means “weeks,” and the Latin name “Pentecost” means the “fiftieth.” Both names are derived from the biblical commands in Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:9, 10, and 16; and Leviticus 23:15 and 16, which instruct the Israelites to count seven full weeks after the Sabbath, culminating in the fiftieth day, Shavuot, when a prescribed sacrifice was to be brought. But what is the significance of this biblical holy day? Why were the Israelites commanded to count seven weeks of seven days? These are the intriguing questions we will delve into.

The Bible says in Exodus: “You should observe the holiday of Shavuot,” but it 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,” and the counting should be seven weeks. It requires offering a sacrifice and states it should be a time of rejoicing. It does not reveal 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.”

 

Different ancient interpretations

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, meaning “the righteous ones,” who upheld the ancient literal understanding of biblical verses, 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 Sunday after the Shabbat. 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 Bible requiring counting weeks, for a week starts 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 the 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 was the first day of the Passover holiday. They said that besides the seventh day referring to the “Sabbath,” Shabbat means rest, and the first day of Passover is a day of rest. However, they said that Shabbat’s second appearance has a different meaning, “weeks.” They also contended that “seven full weeks” does not signify “Sunday to Saturday,” its literal sense, but seven times seven days.

In short, the Sadducees and Pharisees practiced the biblical holiday of Shavuot on different days. Neither practiced the biblical Shavuot as it is today, and the non-biblical modern-day Shavuot occurs on a date neither used.

 

Why did the rabbis later change Shavuot?

There are two reasons. First, the rabbis[3] decreed that sacrifices would cease when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. They felt that sacrifices were only allowed in the temple. As a result, the principal ceremony of the biblical Shavuot ceremony, a sacrifice, ceased.  In developing a new purpose for Shavuot, they also resolved the problem of when the holiday would occur by giving it a date. They were bothered by the fact that the Bible gives no date for Shavuot and that Shavuot could occur at different times each year. This would confuse the people. By starting the count on the day following the first day of Passover,[4] whose date is set in the Torah 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 establish 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 a secret in the sense that most people do not know the origin of the current practice of Shavuot. It is not a biblical observance. It is taking a biblical day, moving it to a desirable place, and giving it a new meaning.

 

Three new questions

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

Seven is a significant number in Judaism. The Bible begins with the story of creation. God created the world in six days and rested (ceased creation) 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 laws. The number seven reoccurs often in Jewish holidays and practices to emphasize this important lesson. In my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, I gave examples of well over a hundred usages of the number seven in Judaism.

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 essential teaching is weeks. This was and is the purpose of the biblical 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.

 

Christians

Christians, 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 of 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 (white Sunday) because of a tradition that the apostles were dressed in white clothes at the time of the revelation.

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

 

Unusual Practices in Judaism

The new Jewish interpretation of Shavuot led to unusual practices because people did not know that Shavuot today is not the biblical Shavuot. For example, failing to realize the true meaning of “seven full weeks” and thinking they are observing the biblical Shavuot, which means seven weeks of Sundays to Sundays, many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah insists that Shavuot may not begin until the forty-nine days are completed in full. Since Shavuot occurs on 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 counting days rather than weeks, although they don’t know why they should count days. They instituted a blessing thanking God for allowing them to observe the command of counting days. 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, making sure they are doing the right thing, 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 the rabbis interpret it. The rabbis understood, based on verses in the Torah, that changes need to be made. I observe Shavuot. The purpose of this article is 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 the Greek word Decalogue. Some of the statements have more than a single command.

[3] The rabbis were scholars who began to function around the time of the temple’s destruction in 70 CE. They were the descendants of the Pharisees. No one was called a rabbi before this time. Hillel and Shammai, who lived at the beginning of the common era, did not have this title. Neither, despite the belief of some Christians, did Jesus.

[4] The biblical Passover was on 14 Nissan, and Chag Hamatzot, the seven-day Festival of Matzot, began on 15 Nissan. What happened with Shavuot also happened with the biblical Passover. 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 prayer book, called Siddur, 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.