Shavuot: The Feast of Weeks

In by Bruce Scott

Shavuot (lit., weeks) is another of the holy convocations ordained by God and given to the nation of Israel. Shavuot was the second of the three pilgrim festivals that all adult Jewish males were required to attend at Jerusalem.

The Feast of Weeks (Ex. 34:22) is also known in Scripture by other names. It is referred to as the “feast of harvest” (Ex. 23:16) because it inaugurated the beginning of the wheat harvest. It is called the “day of the first fruits” (Num. 28:26) because its primary purpose was to bring a designated portion of the harvest, the “first fruits,” into the Temple as an act of dedication to God in recognition of His provision. The festival is also termed in the New Testament as “Pentecost” (lit., fiftieth) [Acts 2:1], signifying the fiftieth day from the waving of the omer (sheaf) of first fruits (Lev. 23:15–16).

Some have separated the act of waving the omer from the Feast of Shavuot and called it a holiday in its own right, the Feast of First Fruits. Although the Christologicals’ reasons for doing so are understandable, there is no textual support for such a separation. Both the so-called Feast of First Fruits and the Feast of Weeks are inextricably linked. While only the latter is designated as a day of “holy convocation,” together they serve as the bookends of one central theme—first fruits. Waving the omer denoted the first fruits of the barley harvest, and waving the two loaves on Pentecost denoted the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Furthermore, these two occasions were divinely bound together by the injunction to count a certain number of days from the first event to the second because Shavuot is not given a fixed date of observance in the Scriptures. It is impossible to know when to observe the Feast of Weeks without taking into account the waving of the omer. You cannot keep the second without keeping the first. Thus, for the sake of this discussion, the Feast of First Fruits and the Feast of Weeks will be examined collectively, as part of the same topic, and together will be labeled Shavuot or Pentecost.

In rabbinical writings, the holiday of Shavuot was dubbed Atzeret (solemn assembly). Just as the Feast of Tabernacles has an extra day of observance—a day of solemn assembly (Lev. 23:36)—likewise the rabbis considered Shavuot to be an extra day or an extension of the Feast of Passover.

Shavuot has also been termed by the rabbis as the Festival of Revelation because it is principally an agricultural holiday and has no memorial significance. Apart from remembering what it was like to be a slave in Egypt (Dt. 16:12), Shavuot does not look back to any historical event related to the nation of Israel, as do the holidays of Passover and Tabernacles. Because they feared that the festival would lose all religious meaning and importance, especially among Jews in the Diaspora, the rabbis chose to tie Shavuot to a meaningful episode in Israel’s history.

The episode they chose was the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Exodus 19:1 states that the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai on the first day of the third month, Sivan. According to rabbinical calculations, God spoke to the people of Israel on the sixth day of the month, the traditional day on which Shavuot is observed. Although it is possible that the two events coincided on the calendar, the Bible does not state or even intimate that the Law was given at Sinai on the traditional date of Shavuot. Even if it did, when God outlined the purpose and practice of the holiday in Leviticus 23 and other passages, He did not indicate that it was associated with the events at Mount Sinai.

Nevertheless, by about at least the second century a.d., the festival of Pentecost or Revelation became known as the day on which God gave the Torah (law or instruction) to the people of Israel. Jewish tradition states that God offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, but only one nation would accept its stringent demands—Israel. Along with the written Torah, it is taught that God also gave the oral Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The oral Torah is composed of all the rabbinical commentaries on the Old Testament that were passed down orally from generation to generation and eventually put into writing. Together they make up the Talmud and other authoritative works.

The importance of the giving of the Law, both written and oral, to the nation of Israel cannot be overemphasized. It is seen not only as the ultimate goal of the redemption at Passover, but is also looked upon as the protecting, binding force of Jewish identity throughout the centuries. As one Jewish writer stated, “Torah is the essence of our unique faith and lifestyle, the material which must be transmitted from generation to generation if we are to remain an eternal nation. Torah is the historical gene which unites the generations.”

(an excerpt from Bruce Scott’s book, The Feasts of Israel)