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Shavuot — The Festival of Weeks

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Shavuot, The Festival of Weeks

Shavuot, The Festival of Weeks, is also known as Pentecost, a Greek term meaning “Fiftieth” [i.e. 50th day of counting the Omer [Sefirat HaOmer] as described in Leviticus 23:15-16.] — Read more about The Counting of the Omer]

Shavuot, falling on 6th Sivan, is one of the three Jewish “pilgrimage feasts.” Also called Hag HaShavuot [חג שבועות, the literal translation is “Festival of Weeks”] Shavuot has agricultural roots in the “first fruits” of the late harvest, and, in post Temple spirituality, spiritual links to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is often called Hag Matan Torateinu (The Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).

While Shavuot has harvest links it is, at the same time, a festival which has always incorporated an “encounter” spirituality. As with all three Pilgrim festivals this encounter was one in which all people who were able were required to participate. This divine encounter of the person [nefesh|soul] and community of Israel with the LORD took place at the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem and in later rabbinic spirituality in the study and exegesis of Scripture.

While the physical act of returning to the Temple just seven weeks after Passover, and following a marathon “counting of the days” which concluded in the offering of wheat harvest first-fruits, the importance of the spiritual encounter with the LORD is only fully realized in the later transformation of Shavuot by the rabbis (after the loss of the Temple) into a festival which links the Exodus from Egypt (The Passover) with the “Gift of the Torah” at Sinai.

Sinai and Shavuot
In Jewish interpretation, the purpose and completion of the Exodus from Mitzrayim [biblical Egypt] was the Covenant of Sinai—the Giving of the Torah. Redemption culminates in the Torah. Shavuot, experienced as z'man matan torateinu [The Time of the Giving of the Torah] (BT. Pesachim 68b), is not celebrated as an historical event but one which is continually alive. Deuteronomy (11:13) teaches, “if you obey the commandments hayom (this day)....” “This day,” teaches the Sifre, means that we receive the commandments [The Torah] as though we were receiving it for the first time. Thus, while Shavuot is a celebration of encounter at Sinai, it remains a permanent reminder of an encounter which occurs daily in our interaction with, and our living of, the Torah in our lives. Encounter with the word of God, through scripture, is also associated in Jewish tradition with the Avodah Halev (Service of the Heart).

Scripture and the Divine Presence
An ancient midrash relates that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua sat and studied Torah, going from the Pentateuch, to the Prophets, to the Writings, and as they did so the words became alive as on the day they were given on Sinai, and fire played about them, as they [the words of Torah] were originally given on Sinai in fire (Ruth Rabbah 6:4). Service of the Heart, here realized in exegesis of the scriptures, is visually (others told the tale) and spiritually experienced by the fire of the divine presence.

Shavuot is also Called ATZERET
Atzeret is a term which has a Hebrew root in to store or remain. Atzeret is used in the bible in reference to Shemini Atzeret (Num. 29:35) where the understanding in context is “remain with Me another day.” The call to “remain with Me” is remembered at Shavuot and celebrated as an invitation to Torah study.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot —the practice of staying up all night at Shavuot to study Torah is an expression of “remain with Me”. This is a practice developed by the mystics in the kabbalistic tradition of the 16th Century.

Pentecost and Christianity

Christianity, arising as it does from its Jewish spiritual foundations, draws upon its roots in Judaism in order to articulate its understandings. It is in the early Pentecost experience of the Church that a Christian understanding of Jesus’ divinity and presence with the Church can begin to emerge. That understanding is communicated in and through the Holy Spirit who is experienced at Pentecost as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3) and at other times as “a burning within” (Lk. 24:27, 32); an understanding that is rooted in the disciples’ understanding of tradition and scripture and the teaching of Jesus.

Word and Spirit Candle and Torah

Passover and Redemption
In Jewish tradition the period between Passover and Shavuot has come to represent the time between the Redemption from Egypt and the Covenant at Sinai [In the Giving of the Torah] through which Israel draws near to God. A similar relationship exists in Christian spirituality—at Pentecost, the Church is born into a new relationship with God which is centered on the risen Christ and the presence of his Spirit with the community.

The New Testament reading for Pentecost from Acts (2:1-11) relates that the Holy Spirit was experienced by the gathered community as “fire.” Luke's gospel also relates the physical experience of the divine presence when Jesus' exegesis of the scriptures “from the Pentateuch to the Prophets” was the means by which “their hearts burned within” (Lk. 24:27, 32).

At Pentecost they were gathered together "and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit...." (Acts 2:22-4).

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