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Shavuot at OU.ORG!

"Shavuot;" Its Three Major Aspects

"And you shall declare on that very day, that it is a Holy Day unto you; You shall do no manner of work; It is an Eternal Statute, in all your habitations, for all your generations" (Vayikra 23:21)

"Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count, fifty days; And you shall bring a 'New' Grain Offering to Hashem" (Vayikra 23:16)

"And it was on the third day, as it became morning, and there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the Shofar was very strong, and all the people in the camp were seized with trembling" (Shemot 19:16)

(Much of the material in this section is adapted with permission, from Sefer HaTodaah of Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov)

What is Shavuot?

Shavuot has three major aspects:


One of the Three "Regalim" - The Holiday of First Fruits


Climax of Sefirat HaOmer


"Zeman Matan Torateinu" - The Time of the Giving of the Torah

One of the Three "Regalim"

Along with Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot, Shavuot is one of the Three "Pilgrim Festivals" on which Jewish families, especially the males, who are freer to leave at specific times, such as the times of these holidays, and are not charged as much with the responsibilities of the home and the raising of children, are commanded to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The root of the word "Regalim" is "regel," which means "foot." "Pilgrim" means one who travels; on each of these festivals, the family is expected to make the effort to travel to Yerushalayim.

Concerning these holidays it is written (Shemot 23, 14-19),

"Three Regalim celebrate before Me each year. Observe the Holiday of the Matzot, Passover; Seven days shall you eat Matzot as I have commanded you, in the month of the Spring, for it was at that time that you left Egypt, and My Presence shall not be seen by you empty-handed."

"And the Holiday of Bringing in your First Fruits (Shavuot) which you had planted in the field,"

"and the Harvest Festival Sukkot, at the turn of the year, when you gather your produce from the field."

"Three times each year shall each of your males be seen by the Master, Hashem…The first fruits of the land you shall bring to the House of the Lord your God…"

Climax of the Sefirat HaOmer

In Vayikra (23,15) the People of Israel is commanded to count seven complete weeks, beginning with the the day after Shabbat (Sunday the first day of the week)of Pesach, or Passover, for a total of forty-nine days. This counting is called Sefirat HaOmer. The last day of the count, the forty-ninth day, is Erev Shavuot. The day after the full count of forty-nine is complete, the "fiftieth day," is Shavuot. That day is a holiday unto itself, with its own unique character, and ritual.

We read in Vayikra (23,16) "Until the day after the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem." The meal-offering of Shavuot is called "new" because it was the first Temple offering from the new wheat crop (the Omer-offering of Pesach was of barley).

In the realm of years, there is a similar count. Each seven years is called a Shemitah cycle, with each seventh year called a Shemitah, or Sabbatical, Year. Seven such cycles make up a count of forty-nine years. The year following the count, Year number fifty, is called the Yovel, or Jubilee, Year.

The English name of the Shemittah Year, Sabbatical Year, suggests or, rather, confirms that a major unit of time in Judaism is the number seven, as we see in Shabbat, the Seventh Day, of each week.

"Zeman Matan Torateinu," Time of the Giving of the Torah

The Torah is the life of the Jew and it should also be to the Gentile. Without the Torah, life would be meaningless, not only for the Jewish People, but for the whole world as well. For it can be said, from the religious perspective, and that is our perspective, that the rest of Nature exists only for the human race, God's most beloved creatures. And the human race has no purpose other than to learn from the Jewish People, who will ultimately fulfill their destiny of being "a light unto the Nations." And the light spoken of is none other than the light of Torah, Hashem's Book, which is the "Proper Study of Man."

Therefore, it is obvious that the event of God's giving His holy treasure to the Jewish People was a somewhat important date (!) And yet, the Torah itself does not specify the exact date on which the Master of the Universe revealed Himself, so to speak, at Mt. Sinai, and transmitted His Law to the Jewish People and, through them, to the world at large.


The Story of Shavuot

What is the Story of Shavuot?

The "stories" of many things, their background and purpose, can be told by explaining what they are called. To a great extent, this is true in general of the Jewish holidays and, in particular, it is true of the holiday of Shavuot. The names of this holiday are:

  1. "Chag Shavuot" - The Feast (or Holiday) of Weeks
  2. "Z'man Matan Torateinu" - The Time of the Giving of Our Torah
  3. "Chag HaBikkurim" - The Holiday of the First Fruits
  4. "Atzeret" - The Holiday of "Being Held Back, or Restrained, Close to Hashem, in the Temple"
  5. "Chag HaKatzir" - The Holiday of the Cutting of the Crop

"Chag Shavuot" - The Feast of Weeks

The holiday is given this name because it is the climax of the Counting of Days and Weeks which make up the Sefirat HaOmer. Sefirat HaOmer connects Passover and Shavuot. Passover is the holiday on which we commemorate our Redemption from Slavery in Egypt. That was our "Physical Redemption."

But physical redemption is not enough. It would have left us "free" people, but with no purpose to our lives. The purpose of the Jewish People is to serve Adonai. The way we serve Adonai is by studying and practicing his Torah. On Shavuot, Adonai Himself appeared to us on Mt. Sinai to give us the Torah. By accepting it, we earned the title of "A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation."

Thus, Shavuot is the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt. Seven weeks had to pass before we were able to shake off the feeling of being subject to our Egyptian taskmasters. The Jewish Religion believes that there is no legitimate master for a human being other than Adonai. This is probably the most important lesson of Shavuot.

"Z'man Matan Torateinu" - The Time of the Giving of Our Torah

The Jewish People arrived in the vicinity of Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) on Rosh Chodesh Sivan. The purpose of their assembling there was to receive the Torah from Hashem. Three days passed before the Jewish People recovered from their six week sojourn in the desert. Moshe was instructed by Hashem that the Jewish People would have to prepare themselves for another three days before they would be ready to receive the Torah.


"Chag HaBikkurim" - The Holiday of the First Fruits

This name commemorates the New Grain Offering, which was brought at this time; its offering made it permissible to bring Grain Offerings from the "Chadash," the New Grain.

This was also the time that the first fruits of all the Seven Types of Produce with which the Land of Israel is Blessed (wheat, barley, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) were brought to the Temple.


"Atzeret" - The Holiday of "Being Held Back, Close to Hashem"

One way of understanding the idea of "Atzeret" is that Hashem wants the Jewish People to feel close to Him at all times. But to have them come back to the Temple in Jerusalem several weeks after Sukkot would have required difficult travel in the winter. So Hashem just held them back for one day after Sukkot, to show his special love for them.

Whereas, Shavuot and Pesach have a special relationship which makes them really, in a sense, almost like one holiday, namely, the Holiday of Redemption, Physical and Spiritual, of the Jewish People.

"Chag HaKatzir" - The Holiday of the Cutting of the Crop

This refers to the wheat crop, which is the latest of the crops to be harvested, which took place at this time. There is also a reference here to Megillat Ruth, which places the time of the events described in the Megillah as "at the beginning of the cutting of the barley crop."

Preparing to Receive the Torah

"You shall set boundaries for the People roundabout, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die" (Shemot 19:12)

Initial Preparations

On the second and third days of Sivan, Hashem told Moshe to tell the Jewish People, "You have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I protected you by carrying you as if on the wings of eagles, to me. If you listen to me, and observe my covenant, you will be for me a treasure among the nations, for the whole world is Mine. And you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation! These are the things you should say to the Children of Israel." (Shemot 19:4-6)

When Moshe did that, the People of Israel responded "Everything that Hashem wants, we will do! (Shemot 19:8)


Final Preparations

On the fourth day of the month, Hashem commanded that a boundary be established at the foot of the mountain, which should not be crossed all the time that Hashem's Presence would be there. To rise to the level of holiness required to hear the "Voice of Adonai," they would need to immerse themselves and their clothes in a mikveh (a fountain used to remove ritual uncleanness).

On the fifth day of Sivan, Moshe rose early in the morning and built an altar of twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. He offered sacrifices and sprinkled their blood on the altar. He read everything that was already in the Torah to the People, to ascertain their agreement, and they responded, "Everything that Hashem wants, "Naaseh V'Nishma," "We will do, and afterwards we will understand!" (Shemot 24:7)

On the sixth day of Sivan, Moshe took the People out from the camp, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

"And the mountain of Sinai was altogether in smoke because Hashem descended upon it in fire, and its smoke rose as the smoke of a furnace, and the people trembled greatly. And there was the sound of the Shofar increasing and increasing in intensity; Moshe would speak, and the Lord would echo him in thunder!" (Shemot 19:18-19)

Adonai then told Moshe to warn the People again against breaking the barrier and approaching the mountain. Then Adonai came down to the People, and He spoke to them.

"And the Lord made all these Utterances, as follows:" (Shemot 20:1)

The Torah was Offered to the Nations

"Hashem miSinai ba VeZarach miSeir lamo, hofia meHar Paran…"
"Hashem Came from Mt. Sinai - Having Shone Forth from Mt. Seir, and Appeared at Mt. Paran" (Devarim 33:2)

Lest the nations of the World complain that Adonai was unfair in not offering the Torah to the rest of the world, Adonai did in fact offer it to all the other nations of the world, because in the crowd of slaves that were set free was not only the descendents of the 12 tribes but all other nations as well.


When he offered it to the descendants of Yishmael, they could not then, and they cannot now, deal with the prohibition against stealing (Vayikra 19:11), as the Angel of the Adonai said to our mother Hagar about our ancestor, Yishmael, "He will be a person without self-control, with his hand in everyone else's property, and everyone else's hand in his property, and he will camp on the borders of everyone else's land." (Bereshit 15:12)

It was only when He offered the Torah to the Jewish People and those with circumsized hearts for Adonai that He found a Nation with the potential to live according to all the laws of the Torah. And they realized this potential by saying to Hashem, "Naaseh V'nishma, "We will first obey, and then understand," (Shemot 23:7), when He offered them His holy Torah.


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