The Story of Shavuot
Shavuot, the Feast of the Weeks, the second of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). Shavuot’s agricultural origin is part of the Jewish celebration of the harvest season in Israel. Shavuot, which means “weeks”, refers to the timing of the festival which is held exactly 7 weeks after Passover. Shavuot is known also as Yom Habikkurim, or “the Day of the First Fruits”, because it is the time the farmers of Israel would bring their first harvest to Jerusalem as a token of thanksgiving.

Shavu’ot is not tied to a particular calendar date, but to a counting from Passover. Because the length of the months used to be variable, determined by observation (see Jewish Calendar), and there are two new moons between Passover and Shavu’ot, Shavu’ot could occur on the 5th or 6th of Sivan. However, now that we have a mathematically determined calendar, and the months between Passover and Shavu’ot do not change length on the mathematical calendar, Shavu’ot is always on the 6th of Sivan. Outside of Israel, for those who accept that traditional counting, both the 6th and 7th are celebrated. The Jewish calendar is lunar, with each month beginning on the new moon. The new months used to be determined by observation, no small trick considering that the new moon is not visible. When the new moon was observed, the Sanhedrin declared the beginning of a new month. Notice was sent out by messengers and signal fires to tell people when the month began. People in distant communities could not always be notified of the new moon and therefore, of the first day of the month, so they did not know the correct day to celebrate. They knew that the old month would be either 29 or 30 days, so if they didn’t get notice of the new moon, they celebrated holidays on both possible days. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the Samaritans would purposely light signal fires on the wrong day, just to mess with us.)

Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah). Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. In Traditional circles, the Ten commandments are the “Table of Contents” for all the Mitzvot in the Torah and so we say that on Shavuot we were given Torah..

It is noteworthy that the holiday is called the time of the giving of the Torah, rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah. The sages point out that we are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah, that we receive it every day, but it was first given at this time. Thus it is the giving, not the receiving, that makes this holiday significant. Dvar Aher {which means: a different point of view}: The Torah was given only at one time. But it is up to us to open our hearts minds and souls, to reach that higher level of soul searching understanding and awareness, in order to receive the spirit questing power of Torah.

The period from Passover to Shavu’ot is a time of great anticipation. According to the Torah (Lev. 23:15), we are offered a sacred connection by counting the days from the second night of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, seven full weeks. This period is known as the Counting of the Omer. An omer is a unit of measure. On the second day of Passover, in the days of the Temple, an omer of barley was cut down and brought to the Temple as an offering.

Every night, from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavu’ot, we recite a blessing and state the count of the omer in both weeks and days. So on the 16th day, we would say “Today is sixteen days, which is two weeks and two days of the Omer.”

The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It reminds us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah.

This period is a time of partial mourning, during which weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing are not conducted, in memory of a plague during the lifetime of Rabbi Akiba. Haircuts during this time are also traditionally forgone. The 33rd day of the Omer (the eighteenth of Iyar) is a minor holiday commemorating, according to tradition, a break in the plague. The holiday is known as Lag b’Omer. The mourning practices of the omer period are lifted on that date. The word “Lag” is not really a word; it is the number 33 in Hebrew, as if you were to call the Fourth of July “IV July” (IV being 4 in Roman numerals).

The counting reminds us of the important connection between Passover and Shavu’ot: Passover freed us physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to the life of the “narrow place (this is a pun on Mitzrayim/Egypt) a life of idolatry and immorality.