This weekend, at sundown on 4 June 2022, Jewish communities commence the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Meanwhile, many Christians celebrate, or anticipate, the feast of Pentecost.
The Jewish Festival of Shavuot (shavuot is Hebrew for ‘weeks’) occurs fifty days after Passover. (‘Fiftieth day’ in Greek is pentekoste: ‘Pentecost.’)
Here we explore Shavuot’s themes under four headings: Reaping the Harvest, Giving the Torah, Counting the Days, Pondering the Text. Before reading further, open your Bible to Deuteronomy 16:9-11 and read about this ancient, joyous harvest festival in the Torah.
At its core, Shavuot today celebrates the ‘Giving of the Torah,’ that dramatic event on Mount Sinai (Exodus19-20) from which Moses emerges with the two stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. In the process of translation, the Mount Sinai revelation is spoken of as the giving of the ‘Law.’
Unfortunately, ‘Law’ is often heard in the popular Christian mindset as ‘legalistic,’ restrictive and oppressive, in contrast to a spirit of love promoted by Christianity. But this is a misunderstanding. For the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah at Sinai—the gift of a ‘teaching,’ a spiritual and moral ‘road map’ from God’s very Self—expresses a relationship with a loving God to be joyfully embraced with gratitude and wonder. It is a sign of being called, gifted, entrusted with a divine undertaking.
Join us here as we explore the Jewish festival of Shavuot, and at the same time enliven our appreciation of the Christian celebration of Pentecost.
Reaping the Harvest
Originating as an agricultural feast, Shavuot was celebrated in ancient Israel as the culmination of the harvest period. The harvest began around Passover with the barley crop, and concluded seven weeks (shavuot) later with the wheat harvest. Shavuot involved a pilgrimage to the Temple to offer to God the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest in thanksgiving for the earth’s produce. Note the link here with the Christian feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the ‘first fruits’ of the Spirit’s transformation of the earth, as the redemptive work of Christ continues to unfurl in history and all creation.
Giving of the Torah
In Judaism today, the focus of Shavuot has shifted to thanksgiving for God’s gift of Torah. Rabbinic teachings hold that fifty days after the Israelites left Egypt, God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai. If the Exodus was a physical deliverance, the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai is considered a spiritual liberation changing the course of Judaism forever. On that day, a community of Hebrew refugees was galvanized as a nation, entering a radically new phase in their covenantal relationship with God. Jewish tradition speaks of this event as God’s ‘betrothal’ to Israel, and Shavuot is compared to a wedding day.
Shavuot, then, is the anniversary of the ‘Giving of the Torah’ and ‘the birth of Israel.’ For Christians, Pentecost celebrates the gift of God’s saving presence in Jesus (‘God’s living Torah’), and the birth of the Church.
Counting the Days
In Jewish practice, the fifty days leading up to Shavuot are ‘counted.’ This is known as ‘The counting of the Omer.’ ‘Omer’ refers to a cultic offering of barley, associated with the Jerusalem Temple. Although this died out with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the practice of counting the days continued, the focus now being to anticipate the Giving of the Law. This ‘counting’ of days between Passover and Shavuot highlights the fact that Shavuot is the extension and conclusion of Passover. Similarly, for Christians, Pentecost marks the conclusion of the Easter season.
The ‘counting’ of fifty days in Jewish custom enhances the sense of excited anticipation of Shavuot, likened to a bride and groom looking forward to their special day. Even after having celebrated the events of the Exodus, there is a longing for the ‘something more to come.’ Similarly, even after reveling in the wonder of the Resurrection at Easter, Christians look forward to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Pondering the Text
In greeting Shavuot, there is a Jewish practice of staying up all night reading Torah. Study halls are filled on this night. Come dawn, in Jerusalem, Jews stream to the Western Wall for special prayers. What are some key Torah texts relating to this festival? Exodus 34:18-26, Leviticus 23:9-21, and Deuteronomy 16:9-11 all refer to Shavuot. Exodus 19:1-20:23 recounts the story of Moses and the ‘Ten Words/Commandments.’
‘Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’
The Book of Ruth is also read on Shavuot, telling of the faith of a Gentile woman who converts to Judaism. Although born an ‘outsider,’ Ruth’s choice for the people and land of the Torah is celebrated as a witness to the cleaving to the God of Israel to which every Jew is called. Conversion of the Gentiles (a sign of the dawning of the messianic age) is also a powerful theme for Christians celebrating Pentecost.
Although escaping the notice of many Christians, these scripture texts are part of their own Bible. An awareness of the Jewish festival of Shavuot can stimulate our love for Torah and reconnect us with the depths of our own sacred story.
5 Ways to Celebrate Pentecost
Jewish traditions and Christian life
How can Jewish Shavuot practices influence and inspire Christians in their celebration of Pentecost?
Certainly, we can count the days till Pentecost with holy anticipation, preparing our hearts for
the dramatic liturgical conclusion of the Easter season. Five more suggestions follow.
Bible. The night before (all night if you wish!) pray and reflect on Scripture: the Pentecost story in Acts 2:1-11 as well as from the Old Testament texts that are part of Jewish Shavuot.
Eucharist. Come morning, give thanks. Celebrate the Sunday Eucharist with joy. Remember your Confirmation. Renew your faith commitment, praying that the gifts of the Holy Spirit be activated afresh in your life.
Fire. Christians are familiar with the Pentecost symbol of fire, but perhaps don’t connect it with the lightning flashes and smoking mountain at Sinai. Read the drama of Exodus 19:16-18; 20:15, as well as Acts 2:2-3.
Tongues. In the Jewish midrash it is said that, at Sinai, the voice of the Almighty was heard in seventy languages; i.e., the word of God reaches out to all the earth and its peoples. In what language (and culture) has the Lord’s voice reached your ears?
Festive customs. At Shavuot, Jews decorate with flowers/greenery and include dairy foods (the ‘sweetness’ of Torah) in festive meals. What décor and festive foods might you include in Pentecost celebrations at home? e.g., red tablecloth, candles, ice-cream.
Works consulted: Murray Watson, ‘The Pentecost Before Pentecost’, unpublished article, 2008. Website: jewishencyclopedia.com. The assistance of Br Jack Driscoll’s work is gratefully acknowledged.
© Teresa Pirola, 2010 lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.