6th Sivan 5763 — 6th June 2003

Shavuot (or "Feast of Weeks") at first glance looks like one of the less attractive festivals in the Jewish calendar, at least for Christians. It is based on Holy Scripture alright (Exodus 34:22; Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16), but seems to be a little unmotivated. "You shall observe a Feast of Weeks for yourself" (literal translation): that's it. No reason for this feast is given, and it does not even have its own autonomous date, instead it's based on the date of Passover. And even that is debatable.

At the time of Jesus, a dissent arose between Pharisees and Sadducees about Leviticus 23:15–16 as to when the actual counting of days should begin. The Sadducees started on the first Sabbath after Passover, thus always arriving on what nowadays is Sunday, while the Pharisees started on the second day of Passover, no matter which weekday it was, declaring it to be a Sabbath. (Interestingly, we follow the method of the Sadducees, as do the Samaritans even now.)

But Shavuot is more than just an appendage to Passover. First, it is one of only three big feasts in Judaism where pilgrimage to Jerusalem was mandatory, the other two being Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). Second, even though no reason is explicitly mentioned in the Bible, Exodus 19 gives a good hint (Sivan is the third month of the sacred year). What is celebrated here is nothing less than the Covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments.

Today, Shavuot is indeed the celebration of the giving of Torah and the choosing of Israel. In the service there is a big emphasis on the fact that practical charity is the true fulfilment of the law.

Now, while this is all nice and fine for Jews, why should a Christian care? Because God has this nagging tendency to link his new Testament to the old one. Just as Passover is linked to Easter, so Shavuot is inseparably linked to Pentecost. In fact, "Pentecost" is just the Greek translation of "Shavuot". So in order to fully understand Pentecost, you have to know at least a little about Shavuot.

On Shavuot, the Torah came down on the Jews. [Footnote] And in Jewish tradition, Torah is far more than just a book, or words, even words of God. Torah is the embodied wisdom of God, present from the very beginning, active with God in the creation of the world. Torah is alive, a burning flame, consuming, but at the same time gentle and comforting, because Torah is female. In the Talmud, we find stories about sages engulfed in fire while studying Torah, or with fire above their heads.

An important part of Shavuot is the "completion" (Leviticus 23:15) of the preceding Sabbath, which is achieved by spending the time studying Torah together until the dawning of the day. The appointed reading for the first day is the first chapter of Ezekiel, and if you read Ezekiel 1:4, it should ring a bell. It tells about God coming down to earth, with a stormy wind, and fire.

The term translated as "stormy wind" (NRSV) is Ruach S'arah, which can be translated as "Wind of the Storm", but ruach is also the term for the spirit of God. In that light, read the nice description of a Shavuot celebration, right in the New Testament. Acts 2:1–3 literally reads: "And in the fulfilling of the day of Shavuot, they were all with one mind in the same place. And suddenly a sound came out of the heaven, as being borne along by a violent wind! And it filled all the house where they were sitting. And tongues as of fire appeared to them, being distributed, and it sat on each one of them." On Shavuot, the spirit of God, wise and gentle, caring and creative, came down to his chosen people, as a trustworthy guide and comforter. This is why Shavuot is so important, both for Jews and for us.

Footnote: Rabbi Avdimai, an early Jewish Commentator, took literally the term "under the mountain" (commonly translated as "at the foot of the mountain") in Exodus 19:17, saying: "God put the mountain on them, like an upturned kettle, and said to them: If you want to accept the Torah, fine; if not, this will be your grave!" [Return]

By: Martin Liebig
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